Tom Jenkins’s best sports photos of 2021

Normally the summer Olympics are the pinnacle event for me to cover, but this year was not at all normal and I decided to give Tokyo a miss. Not only did my family not want me going, there were other factors to discourage me, not least the new rules that meant I might have very limited access. So instead my year was dominated by football, the peak being the final of the Euros at Wembley, a game that brought the country to a standstill and became one of the most-watched moments in British television history.

West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal, The Hawthorns – 2 January

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As heavy snow falls, all ten outfield West Brom players trudge back to the centre circle after conceding the second goal in their 4-0 defeat to Arsenal.

My year started off in a very cold fashion with a trip to the Hawthorns, the highest professional league ground in the country. Despite the freezing conditions I loved it. It is pretty rare to shoot a football match in snow, thanks to either modern heated pitches melting it, or the games getting called off due to safety concerns for spectators. Back in January that obviously wasn’t the case as all games were being played behind closed doors.

It was quickly apparent that the home side probably wished it had been postponed. They lost 4-0 to Arsenal, a dismal performance indicative of their season as a whole. The reason I like this picture is the bleakness of it all. Heavy snow falling in an empty stadium as all 10 outfield West Brom players, each one separate from the other, trudge back to the centre circle after conceding a goal. A very black and white image – perhaps a Christmas card for a Wolves fan?

Ealing Trailfinders v Saracens, Trailfinders Challenge Cup – 16 January

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Steam rises from a rolling maul during the Ealing Trailfinders v Saracens Trailfinders Challenge Cup match at the Trailfinders Sports Club on 16 January 16 2021.

In mid-January this special challenge match was the only senior men’s rugby game in Britain as all the others had been cancelled for Covid reasons. Ealing are a Championship team, in the second tier of English rugby, and Saracens were just about to start their season at this new level following their demotion from the Premiership. Most rugby matches I usually cover are in large stadia with tall stands circling the pitch. This wasn’t the case at Ealing and most of the pitch was bathed in low winter sun. Shooting backlit was beautiful, all I needed was the play to come near me into the right patch of light. For ages it seemed stuck at the other end, time ticking by and the sun rapidly descending. Eventually a maul formed where I needed it and I managed to get a few frames before clouds rolled in and everything went dark.

Arsenal v Manchester United, Emirates Stadium – 30 January

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Alexandre Lacazette flies over the back of Harry Maguire during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium on 30 January 2021.

It was injury time at the end of this very dull 0-0 draw back in January. I was cold and had very few decent pictures. Suddenly the Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette launched himself at the ball across the back of Harry Maguire and flipped over in mid-air. It just goes to show you never know when something might happen to brighten up your day.

Spurs v Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – 4 February

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Jorginho of Chelsea takes and scores a penalty to give Chelsea the only goal of the game during the Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on February 4th 2021.

One of the advantages of working in an empty stadium with a game played behind closed doors is that it gave me opportunities to put remote cameras in places I normally wouldn’t be allowed to, such as here in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, on stairs right at the top of the massive South Stand. While I was down at pitch-level, I was setting off this camera up there. I love the view looking down on the goal, all neat symmetry and perfect lines. Even the groundsman with rubber gloves on, ready to pick up a loose ball from behind the goal, is standing right in the middle. As Jorginho stepped up to score a penalty for Chelsea, the only goal of this game, all the elements lined up perfectly. This frame is also a reminder of the pandemic age of football, a time when the game carried on without fans.

England v Italy, Twickenham – 13 February

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England captain Owen Farrell gets a hand in the face during the England v Italy Six Nations international rugby union match at Twickenham Stadium on February 12th 2021.

The England captain Owen Farrell gets a fist in the face during his side’s 41-18 victory over Italy in the Six Nations. International rugby is such a hard, physical sport with a lot of close confrontations such as this. It is at moments like these that I often like to go in tight on the action with a very long lens. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it does not.

Wales v England, Principality Stadium – 27 February

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Toby Faletau catches a line-out for Wales during the Wales v England Six Nations international rugby union match at the Principality Stadium on February 27th 2021.

Normally for this game, which has always been one of my favourite fixtures, the Principality Stadium would be full of baying red-shirted fans. It is a perfect ground for rugby which, when full, crackles with intensity and passion. The Six Nations game there in February felt very surreal, the empty seats covered with giant waterproof sheets, one of which bore a fire-breathing dragon. I could not help but imagine what the noise would have been like as Wales won 40-24.

Lawrence Okolie, World cruiserweight boxing champion – 6 April

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Lawrence Okolie, the British professional boxer who recently won the WBO cruiserweight title, poses for a portrait in the tiny gym at the bottom of his garden in Woodford Green on April 6th 2021.

In 2012 Lawrence Okolie weighed 19 stone and was working in a McDonald’s at London Victoria station. It was the final day of the London Olympics and in a break from flipping burgers he watched Anthony Joshua winning the heavyweight boxing gold medal on TV. The following day Okolie quit his job and vowed to be a boxer. In early April I went to photograph the 28-year-old from Hackney just a few days after he became the WBO world cruiserweight champion. I decided to photograph Okolie in the tiny gym at the bottom of his garden in Essex, cradling his newly-won world champion belt.

Rachael Blackmore wins the Grand National, Aintree – 10 April

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Rachael Blackmore pours water over Minella Times after winning the Grand National on day three of the Grand National racing festival 2021 at Aintree on April 10th 2021.

In the hour before every Grand National there is always a buzz among the photographers at the course. Everyone asks “where are you going?” or “what’s your plan?” This year was no different and I remember talking to Steve Cargill, a racing specialist, as we headed out on to the track. In unison we both said: “What if Rachael wins?” and realised our goals were very similar, we had to be at the finish in case Blackmore created history and became the first female jockey to win the world’s most famous steeplechase race. I had photographed her success at Cheltenham the previous month, where she was crowned leading jockey, so knew she was in terrific form. Sure enough her horse, Minella Times, carried her to victory at Aintree. It was a real pity that spectators were not there to witness it, just a few owners watching on. It was quite eerie afterwards as she enjoyed the moment while at the same time caring for her horse, dousing it with water while the TV screen replayed her historic win in the background.

Arsenal fans protest, Emirates Stadium – 23 April

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Arsenal fans stage a protest against the current owner Stan Kroenke outside the ground before the Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at the Emirates Stadium on April 23rd 2021.

For a couple of weeks of the Premier League season in April and May it seemed the news agenda was not being set by matters on the pitch but rather what was occurring outside grounds. It was the time of fans’ protests, justifiably angered by six clubs announcing their intention to join a new European Super League. This radical proposal, which would have caused havoc to the game, came along when fans had been locked out for months. At Arsenal the fans’ grievances were directed squarely at the club’s owner, Stan Kroenke. Before a home match against Everton hundreds gathered. I went back inside the ground after photographing the demo. The game, in front of no fans, was desperate. Arsenal lost 1-0 but no one seemed that bothered with the result – the bigger news had been made outside.

Manchester City win the Premier League – 11 May

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Manchester City fans celebrate at the Etihad Stadium after their team were crowned Premier League champions following Manchester United’s home defeat to Leicester on May 11th 2021.

Once I saw Caglar Soyuncu scoring the winner for Leicester at Old Trafford, I knew the most important pictures on that May evening would be taken on the other side of Manchester. United’s defeat meant City had won the Premier League. So I quickly got in the car after the final whistle and headed over to the Etihad. Sure enough hundreds of City fans descended on their ground to celebrate the title victory. One of them, pictured here, played up beautifully for the cameras, holding a can of lager and a flare in one hand, while smoking a rollup in the other.

England v New Zealand, first Test, Lord’s – 5 June

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Pigeons take flight as Kane Williamson bats behind during day four of the England v New Zealand 1st Test match at Lord’s Cricket Ground on June 5th 2021.

There are times in Test cricket that are, let us just say, not quite as interesting as others. The third day of the first Test had been wiped out by rain, and the match was meandering towards a draw on the fourth afternoon. My mind started to wander. I had noticed, unusually for Lords, that quite a few pigeons had been pecking away at the square. This sort of bird activity I have always associated with the Oval. Anyway, I thought I would try to create a picture with them. Slowly a number started to congregate on a patch not far from the wicket being used. Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, played a shot then shouted for a run. The pigeons took off in unison, all apart from one, who stubbornly stayed put.

England v New Zealand, second Test, Edgbaston – 10 June

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The England players wearing black t-shirts bearing slogans in a moment of unity just before the start of play during day one of the England v New Zealand 2nd test match at Edgbaston Cricket Ground on June 10th 2021.

When the England players came out at Lord’s for the national anthems before the first Test in early June, they all wore black t-shirts with slogans on the back. It was a moment, designed by the ECB, as a show of unity with people of all backgrounds. These slogans mentioned ageism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia and religious intolerance. I decided for the second Test in Edgbaston to try to show the players wearing these t-shirts together so I went up to the TV gantry to shoot down on to the backs of the England team. It was only after taking the picture that I realised something was missing – why no mention of racism on any of the shirts? Then, just a few months later, the story of Azeem Rafiq and his treatment at Yorkshire made the headlines and I could not help but think back to this picture.

England v Germany, Euro 2020 last 16, Wembley – 29 June

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Raheem Sterling scores the 1st England goal during the England v Germany Euro 2020 round of 16 match at Wembley Stadium on June 29th 2021.

Raheem Sterling scores the first goal for England against Germany in their knockout match at the Euros. It may have been less than half-full but I cannot recall Wembley ever sounding louder than at that moment.

For all the matches at Wembley during the Euros, only 16 photographers were allowed pitchside due to Covid regulations and I felt very privileged to be there. However, rules that had prevented us from putting remote cameras right next to the net had been relaxed. It was great to be back shooting pictures such as this, after a Premier League season where these sort of cameras had been banished to behind the advertising boards.

Emma Raducanu, women’s singles fourth round, Wimbledon – 5 July

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Emma Raducanu of Great Britain is checked by a doctor before going off court and retiring from her match with Alja Tomljanovic on Court One during day seven of Wimbledon 2021 at the All England Lawn Tennis Club on July 5th 2021.

I wish I had been there in New York when Emma shocked the sporting world by winning the US Open. This image, taken at Wimbledon in July, is not a nice picture and I did not like taking it but sometimes you have to photograph what is the story of the day. The reason I am including it in this selection is to show what an amazing transformation Raducanu had in just a few months. From breathing problems and having to withdraw from her last-16 match at Wimbledon to winning the US Open as a qualifier without losing a set – remarkable.

Euro 2020 final, Wembley – 11 July

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England manager Gareth Southgate consoles his player Bukayo Saka after his decisive miss in the penalty shootout gave Italy victory during the Italy v England Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium on July 11th 2021.

The England manager, Gareth Southgate, consoles Bukayo Saka after missing the final penalty in the shootout, handing Italy the Euros title. When I look back at this picture now it stirs up so many feelings, mainly of sadness, but also of pride and hope for the future. When I am actually at a game like this, I deliberately try to divorce myself from too much emotion. This is easier said than done but somehow putting a camera in front of my face helps keep my equilibrium and gets me to focus on what needs to be done. In this case it was to show the heartbreak for England as they missed out on winning a first title in 55 years.

Once I saw Saka miss and then wander back towards the centre circle I stayed focused on him, ignoring the Italian celebrations. The 19-year-old buckled into the arms of his manager, burying his head deep into Southgate’s shoulder. For one split moment their legs matched each other, united in their despair. The symbolism struck me immediately. Southgate, having missed a decisive penalty for England at Wembley in the 1996 Euros, knew exactly the anguish Saka was going through. He seemed to wrap his arms round the player in a protective manner knowing exactly the sort of abuse that was heading the young player’s way.

Collin Morikawa, Royal St George’s, Sandwich – 17 July

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Collin Morikawa tees off on the 18th hole during the third round of the 149th Open Golf Championship at Royal St Georges Golf Club on July 17th 2021.

It had been 10 years since I had photographed The Open. This picture was one I definitely could not have taken in 2011. Thanks to my current cameras having a silent function, I can now take pictures during the swing whereas a decade ago, without a silent shutter, that was forbidden. Now I can be up close to the player, just a few feet away in this case, and fire the shutter at any time.

Royal St George’s was quite hard work for pictures this year, but one thing was in the photographer’s favour – the beautifully sunny weather. As Sandwich is the southernmost venue on the Open roster it also meant the sun set earlier than those courses in Scotland or northern England. This enabled me to get pictures such as this, as Morikawa, on his way to winning the title, teed off at the 18th on Saturday evening with the low sun sat perfectly behind him. With my shutter firing throughout his swing I manage to capture the beautiful bend of the club just before he hit the ball.

England v India, The Oval – 5 September

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A young Indian fan watches the morning play from the top of the new M.A.R. Galadari stand during day four of the England v India 4th test match at the Kia Oval on September 5th 2021.

The classic view of this ground for photographers has always been across the pitch to the gas holders behind but, due to building work both inside and outside The Oval, that is no longer possible. However a very different view has now opened up, one from high on top the new M.A.R. Galadari stand. It is spectacular up there, a bird’s eye view of the pitch with the cluster of skyscrapers in the Vauxhall development shooting upwards. This image shows a small boy in Indian team kit as he peers over a wall, intent on watching every little moment of play, seemingly oblivious to the backdrop.

Cristiano Ronaldo scores, Old Trafford – 11 September

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Cristiano Ronaldo scores the first goal for Manchester United, his first goal since returning to the club and twelve years since his last goal for the club, during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11th 2021.

Manchester United’s home game against Newcastle in September was about one man. T-shirts for sale outside the ground proclaimed this match as “The Second Coming of CR7”. It seemed a foregone conclusion that once Freddie Woodman, the Newcastle keeper, had spilled a shot just before half-time, you-know-who would be there to pounce on the rebound. One swing of the golden-studded boot and, 12 years after scoring his previous goal for Manchester United at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo had scored again.

Anthony Joshua’s ring walk at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – 25 September

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Anthony Joshua taps his heart with his glove as he enters the arena before taking on Oleksandr Usyk in their World Heavyweight title boxing fight at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 25th 2021.

As he walked out of the tunnel to defend his world heavyweight titles against Oleksandr Usyk, Joshua turned around to adoring fans and tapped his glove on his heart. Looking uncannily like Muhammad Ali in his pristine white gown, the British boxer seemed confident and relaxed, soaking up adulation from the phone-wafting spectators. They were all in for a very uncomfortable night as Usyk defeated a lacklustre Joshua. Even though there is hardly any light where this photo is taken, what is there is very soft, a perfect balance from tunnel, television and phone.

London Marathon – 3 October

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The lead elite men’s group on the Embankment during the London Marathon 2021 on October 3rd 2021.

This marathon has always been one of my favourite events to cover. After last year’s elite-only race, it was great to see 40,000 runners on the capital’s streets again. Instead of going to the finish or one of the famous landmarks, I decided to do something a little different, going to a location that is very unglamorous but notorious for being incredibly hard. Just about at the 24-mile marker, where the dreaded “wall” often kicks in, are a series of tunnels under railway stations. These can produce dramatic variations in light and in this picture, of the leaders in the elite men’s race, I exposed for the dark conditions just as the runners entered the tunnel. Normally photographers like a dark background to show off the action but in this case it’s the opposite. Outside the tunnel went white, producing this very graphic and unusual athletics image.

New York Jets v Atlanta Falcons, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – 10 October

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The Falcons offense run onto the pitch for kick off during the NFL London 2021 match between New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 10th, 2021.

For the first time in two years, the NFL was back in London as the Falcons hosted the Jets. One aspect of the sport I like, and which often makes good pictures, is the way the home team are announced and they run out to a big fanfare, often through fireworks. I positioned myself in the corner from where the Falcons players would emerge. The obligatory dry ice started to pump all around me (quite a weird feeling) and then just before the big moment, the sun popped out from behind a cloud. Rather than shooting with the players running towards me, I spun round and shot them backlit, dashing away from me through the swirling smoke.

Frankie Dettori, Newmarket – 11 October

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Frankie Dettori, the flat race jockey, stumbles as he tries to dismount from one of his miniature donkeys called Plum whilst wearing the colours of his favourite horse Enable at his home in Six Mile Bottom, Newmarket on October 11th 2021.

In early October the writer Simon Hattenstone and I went to Frankie Dettori’s house near Newmarket to do an interview that was timed for the release of his new book, Leap of Faith. I have photographed Dettori winning countless big races over the years and to see his trademark flying dismount off the most powerful of horses has always been a tremendous thrill. Before the shoot I asked Dettori to change into riding gear, so fair play to him for putting on the colours he wore to such great success on his favourite horse, Enable. After doing a few formal portraits just to warm him up, I steered him round to a paddock where I knew he had a couple of miniature donkeys called Pip and Plum. Well it had to be done. I asked him to pop on to Plum’s back and he obliged. Plum wasn’t having any of it and off Frankie came, stumbling as he exited. We all cracked up with laughter. From now on I don’t think I will ever watch his flying dismount the same way again.

Newcastle fans v Spurs, St James’ Park – 17 October

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Newcastle fans in the Gallowgate End as the team scores during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James Park on October 17th 2021.

This was a pretty momentous day for Newcastle as they played their first game under their new Saudi owners. St James’ Park was buzzing with fans’ hope and anticipation. I was positioned in front of the Gallowgate End, Newcastle’s traditional home end, where almost everyone wears black and white. For the first few minutes of the game, and as the ball was at the other end of the pitch, I turned round and focused on a fan in the front row, decked out in a headscarf. Then Newcastle scored. The place erupted, a sense that all those years of despair had been left behind and here was a different Newcastle. What I like about this picture is not only the expressions of joy but also the one fan in the bottom right corner of the frame, a wry smile just about appearing on his face. Maybe he knew not to get too excited. Spurs went on to win the game 3-2.

Marcus Smith, England v South Africa, Twickenham – 20 November

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Marcus Smith celebrates on the final whistle after his last minute penalty gave England victory during the England v South Africa Autumn Nations Series international rugby union match at Twickenham Stadium on November 20th 2021.

As the final whistle blew just moments after he had kicked a last ditch penalty, England’s new rugby union superstar celebrated beating the world champion Springboks. Marcus Smith was the figurehead for a much-changed England team this autumn. They emerged from a desperately poor Six Nations campaign earlier in the year to beat Tonga, Australia and South Africa in consecutive weeks. I am looking forward to seeing a lot more of Smith in the coming years. Not just for his inspired play but also because his hair flying everywhere makes for great pictures. Twickenham is a great place for shooting rugby, especially under lights. The backgrounds go nicely dark and because the crowd is so far back, the players stand out even more.

Sir Geoff Hurst, Cheltenham – 2 December

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Sir Geoff Hurst, ex West Ham and England footballer who scored a hat-trick in England’s 1966 World Cup final victory, poses for a portrait near his home in Pittville Park, Cheltenham on December 2nd 2021.

In early December I went to Cheltenham to shoot a portrait of the England football legend and the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. It was Hurst’s 80th birthday just a few days later and Donald McRae had conducted a poignant interview with him that had revealed some of the tragedies and hard times he had suffered alongside his many achievements.

It turned out to be a rather bizarre photo session in a local park near Hurst’s home. The first thing he said to me, after seeing my various bags of kit, was “You going on holiday? This is just a quick snap isn’t it.” He quickly warmed up after chatting about how he did Joe Wicks’ workouts in this very park. I took him past the swings and on to a spot near a duck pond, an area I thought would be a bit quieter. It was not. A constant stream of dog walkers passed by quizzically looking at us. Eventually one stopped and asked Hurst: “You seen George and the kids today?” He turned to her and replied: “No. He may have flown over with them to the other pond.” Our national hero then proceeded to have a chat with this woman about the whereabouts of the park’s resident swan and its cygnets. I am sure she had absolutely no idea who he was. Hurst also told me that a few days earlier another woman came up to him and said: “I know who you are. You’re Glenn Hoddle,” to which Geoff said “Yes I am” and walked off.

World Masters Cyclo-Cross Championships, Ipswich – 3 December

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Riders enters the wooded section during the mens 55-59 category during the UCI World Masters Cyclo-Cross Championships 2021 at Trinity Park Showground near Ipswich on December 3rd 2021.

What makes someone in their seventies travel right across the world in the middle of a pandemic to race their bike through mud and freezing rain? When I saw the 2021 UCI World Masters Cyclo-Cross Championships were being held in East Anglia, I could not resist having a look. The conditions were pretty grim, very dark and overcast, but it could have been a lot worse. It has been many years since I photographed cyclo-cross and I had forgotten what a brilliant but tough sport it is. I came away with the utmost respect for all the competitors even if I thought they were slightly mad.

West Ham’s winner against Chelsea, London Stadium – 4 December

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Edouard Mendy dives but cannot stop a cross from Athur Masuaku giving West Ham a 3-2 victory during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at the London Stadium on December 4th 2021.

It was late in this hotly contested London derby, the two teams level at 2-2, when the West Ham left-back Arthur Masuaku swung an intended cross into the Chelsea penalty box. Somehow the mishit swerved in the air, deceiving the goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, who dived in despair. The ball flew into the top corner of the net. West Ham had won and their push to the top four of the Premier League had continued.

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