Leyton Orient manager Justin Edinburgh died yesterday, aged 49, five days after suffering a cardiac arrest. He has dominated my thoughts over the last 24 hours – along with football, life and death. Some of those thoughts…
If you follow football for most of your life, a false closeness can develop with football people. You feel like you know individuals, even if you don’t. In the same way you watch actors grow from child starlets into full superstars through film or television, you observe teenage boys becoming mature professionals. You see them journey through a professional playing career of around ten to fifteen years, if they’re lucky, and sometimes become football managers or pundits when they finish playing.
If they become neither of those, then the chances are that they fade out of your consciousness.
If you even vaguely track their journey and remember them as younger people, you feel a false familiarity if they reappear to you twenty years down the line. For anyone who watches a reasonable amount of football in Britain, the omnipresent Gary Lineker virtually feels like one of the family, whether you like him or not.
(But he never calls, never writes. He does tweet a lot though, to give him his dues).
Justin Edinburgh was part of a Tottenham side that first won my support, aged 10. They had England’s Italia 90 stars of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne in their ranks. And they had Justin Edinburgh. I remember Edinburgh’s ill-tempered youthful duel with a skinny 19-year old Roy Keane in the 1991 FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest.
Amongst my early memories of attending matches at White Hart Lane is Edinburgh going sprawling to the turf under a challenge during a pulsating 3-3 draw against Liverpool in 1993. This happened right in front of our stand behind the goal, a certain penalty. But it was not given, possibly because we had already been awarded a penalty in the game – one that was less clear. We were furious. It was the most unjust thing to ever happen.
A spectacular last ditch goal-line clearance at Aston Villa also stands out, but in truth I mostly remember blaming him for goals Tottenham conceded. Whether my youthful judgement was entirely sound, it’s hard to know.
Edinburgh spent the best part of his career as a Tottenham left back, ten years. That alone is no small feat, albeit in a team locked into mid-table Premier League obscurity. He eventually left for Portsmouth before finishing his playing days as a player manager back in his native Essex with Billericay Town.
The next time Edinburgh appeared on my radar was in his role as manager of Newport County. He earned them promotion to the Football League just before I started photographing professional matches. He was the subject of my first ever publication in a profile piece about him having to work his way up through the leagues in management. In the picture he appeals to the referee during a lively League Two match against Chesterfield in December 2013. He is emblazoned with an exasperated expression I photographed many more times over the next year or so.
Edinburgh was a distinctive, barrel-chested man with large features: mouth, smile, teeth, nose, ears. Narrow eyes though. A likeable geezer but you wouldn’t want to cross him. One of those people you often hear referred to as having ‘big personalities’ or being ‘larger than life’, that confident Essex yell never far away.
As photographers you rarely have access to these people like reporters do. You never really converse or interact, unless perhaps you are a club photographer. As a photographer generally, working human relationships tend to be cosmetic and mechanical. In and out. Move on. Next job.
Edinburgh’s spell with Newport was a success but he probably thought he’d taken them as far as he could when he decided to leave the club for Gillingham in 2015. It’s unusual for managers to choose to leave, rather than be sacked or part ways ‘by mutual consent’, especially at this level.
I photographed Edinburgh take his new Gillingham side to Bristol City in March that year before he faded in my awareness.
In recent weeks, football news informed me that he had achieved another promotion from non-league with east London side, Leyton Orient. Pictures showed him celebrating in typically robust fashion. There’s a video of him in the dressing room congratulating and celebrating with his players.
Last week I saw a headline mentioning his health. A quick Google revealed he had been admitted to hospital but the details were vague. Last night I saw a headline reporting his death and was instantly stung, stunned, shocked, saddened: all those tired but true reaction words. Edinburgh suffered a cardiac arrest on Monday and died on Saturday. He leaves a wife and two children, as well as a big presence that will be missed throughout football.
Sudden death is always shocking. But when you have that sense of familiarity, of knowing someone and observing them from a young age, and of having photographed someone regularly, it feels all the more shocking. Here was a man who worked closely with health and fitness professionals day-to-day over many years. And apparently he can have a heart attack and die. Just like that. It is a sobering reminder about life being fragile and precious and all those over-sentimental cliched quotes, and how they are true.
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