Adrian Dennis has traveled the world in pursuit of sports photography, his career and his life for 30 years. From the World Cups to the Ashes tours, the Olympics and Wimbledon, one of the golden rules of the job is to avoid making assumptions about what history will be like.
Last Sunday at Brentford was an exception to that rule, as seen by the full body of matchday photographers migrating away before a ball was kicked.
Brentford were safe from relegation on the final day of the Premier League season and, in the best possible sense, nobody cared about them. Leeds United weren’t and as a result the cameras peeked their way all afternoon, looking for tears, jubilation or whatever the 90 minutes brought on.
Dennis, a member of staff at Agence France-Presse (AFP), had given up football himself when stoppage time arrived. By this point, results at Brentford and elsewhere were going for Leeds and the away team were starting to rebound, fanned by the scent of survival.
“I made the decision to forget what was happening on the pitch,” Dennis said. “I had a few pictures from the game – Raphinha’s penalty, a few other moments – but I hedged my bets by focusing on the fans and completely ignoring the final minutes (of play).
“For a photographer, the story of the day is usually not clear. Sunday we were all on the sidelines because we knew what we were looking for. But even then, the unexpected still happens sometimes.
Dennis was in first place at the final whistle as a celebrating Leeds raced towards a corner of Brentford Stadium. He was ready to react when the visitors’ Brazilian striker Raphinha surprised everyone by climbing into the opposing area. Plenty of other snappers had a full view of it too, many of them capturing the same shot, but it was Dennis’ version that caught fire online: a shirtless Raphinha halfway up the stand, elevated to the above cheery fans around him (he stood on a wall dividing his upper and lower sections), abdominal muscles rippling and a Brazilian flag swinging around his head.
That was the crowning moment; the meaning of the whole day frozen in time.
“I was rushing to get the photos back to my desk, so when I first looked at it, I was scrolling the back of my camera, staring at a one-inch screen,” says Dennis. “This been the one that jumped out at me but, because of time pressure and everything else, you send it and keep going.
“When he walked into the crowd I was aware that something good was going on. There was a sudden movement as soon as I spotted him. I knew it was the image. Players don’t often do this, there are so many encroachment rules these days. These moments can be few and far between.
Filters were quickly added to a version on Twitter, making it look like a Renaissance painting.
Someone has compared it to the Madonna of the Rosary, a painting by Italian artist Caravaggio in the early 17th century, depicting the Virgin Mary on a throne with Jesus in her arms and people kneeling before her. In Dennis’ photo, Raphinha’s partner Taia smiled brightly to his right and it was Taia he had been looking for after the final whistle, scaling a fence between the sections and being helped over that wall by the fans around him. The orchestra is out of control and Raphinha is the conductor.
Ross O’Connor, a 30-year-old Leeds fan from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, is in the foreground of the image, shirtless with a raised fist. He was tasked with supporting Raphinha’s right foot as the Brazilian scaled the fence at the back of the lower tier.
“He appeared out of nowhere,” O’Connor said. “It was crazy full time and for starters I kept my eyes on Kalvin Phillips, to see his reaction. Then there was this commotion and, before you know it, Raphinha is there, just next to us.
“He had to get over that wall, that fence, so I helped lift him by pushing off his right foot. It wasn’t until today that I thought, ‘I’m glad I paid attention, that piece of him is worth a lot of money!”. We realized early in the game that his girlfriend was sitting behind us, so it was pretty obvious where he was going, but it didn’t seem real. I thought he would be mobbed – absolutely mobbed. But to be fair, and because it was such a surprise to see him, people actually gave him some space.
O’Connor’s phone had run out of battery by then, so it wasn’t until Sunday night that he spoke about an image that was racking up thousands of likes on Twitter.
“When I turned on the phone, it was message after message,” he says. “The photos were everywhere and everyone was like, ‘This looks like you…’. The only downside was me and my bare chest.
“It’s a shame I don’t have a stomach like Raphinha’s.”
Further up the stand, Jay Wright, a 33-year-old greenkeeper from Maidenhead in Berkshire, found himself with Raphinha standing beside him, close enough to see every minute detail of his tattoos. Wright is also present in the photo of Dennis, his face practically hidden but the vintage 1992 Leeds shirt clearly visible and the telephone in his hand. He captured a video of Raphinha, stripped of his white GPS vest and twirling that Brazil flag, which has spread as widely on social media as Dennis’ photograph.
Raphas Leeds pic.twitter.com/q8gpsptenz
— Jay Wright (@Jaywright1988) May 22, 2022
“As soon as I saw him, I grabbed him and shouted something like, ‘Gracias, Raphinha! ‘” Wright said. “I didn’t really know what to do other than hug him – then finally let him go.
“I had no idea he was heading towards us until he was right next to me. I hadn’t seen him climbing up the other end. I had seen someone with a white vest going through the stand and my first thought, stupidly, was, ‘He’s got hair like Raphinha.’ Then it was a case of, ‘Oh my God, he is Raphinha!’.
“It’s pretty much the most surreal moment of my life.
“Since then, these have been non-stop notifications. I was on Raphinha’s Instagram story, on Sky Sports, everywhere. It took me waiting for the train home to understand, the thought that someone who could become a massive superstar was there with us. What made it more special for me was my obsession with Brazil as a kid. I was obsessed with Brazil and my favorite player a million miles growing up was Ronaldo – R9. I’m one of their closest supporters, which also makes the player more special – Leeds and the Brazilian.
A later image of Raphinha kissing Taia, taken by Craig Mercer for MB Media and Getty Images, shows Wright more clearly, just behind the couple in white Leeds shirts with sunglasses tucked into their collars – and there’s O’Connor, bottom left, still hitting the air.
The season just ended has been horrendous for Leeds, a year of decline that cost beloved head coach Marcelo Bielsa his job and nearly cost the club their place in the Premier League after just two years back. after 16 agonizing second and even third tier campaigns. . Still, Sunday created memories for life, making a dreadful campaign almost adorable unlikely.
Raphinha’s appearance against Brentford may be his last for the Yorkshire club, with many summer transfer whispers swirling around, but the image Dennis has of him is romantic, giving off the feel football is meant to inspire.
O’Connor and Wright both agree that they came out of that tense final day with affection for a year that, until last weekend, everyone from a Leeds persuasion, to a man and a woman, had hated. Their 2021-22 season has become a sports version of Stockholm Syndrome.
“I will 100% remember it for the right reasons now,” O’Connor says. “I didn’t like the match at Brentford. There was a lot of misinformation about what was going on at Burnley (whose result against Newcastle at home Leeds had to be better), what the score was. But in the end, it looks like one of your best days after the club. You can see in the photo what this means to all of us. And Raphinha too.
Wright came home thinking the same thing. “For me, it completely transforms my outlook on the subject,” he says. “It hasn’t been a good season but in the end we had the day at Brentford.”
What followed was Raphinha’s spectacle: the winger on the outside then dragging the length of the pitch on his knees – an apparent thank God for delivering Leeds from relegation. He finished with 11 league goals, and the club’s Player of the Year award can only be his.
“The picture of him, everything appealed to me,” Dennis says. “You have his huge beaming smile, the juxtaposition of the flag spinning around his head, the faces and the reaction around him.
“I had a wide angle lens outside during the game and all you saw were tortured faces. This image is the opposite and on a day like this you are looking for something like that.
Dennis’ only hope is that if Raphinha is destined to sign elsewhere this summer, he signs her a copy of the picture before leaving.
(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)