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Peter O’Toole Interview: “It’s my home, Huddersfield. It’s the underdog town.”

Source for image: Peter O’Toole

Huddersfield Town fan and famous illustrator Peter O’Toole, talks all things Huddersfield, working for the club he loves and playing five-a-side with a former Town legend.

Peter O’Toole has plenty of stories to tell. Cameron Jerome. Gardening. Making his own Adidas trainers. Twitter. Stacking shelves at Morrison’s. Working for FIFA. Ben Shaw’s. Gig posters. ACF Fiorentina.

Sitting down in his Huddersfield-based studio, the conversation twists like a turn from Johan Cruyff. He’s Terrier mad and has worked with the club, and is in full flow straight away. He talks like we’re two mates at the pub and his habit of tangential stories, each more interesting than the last, stretch the conversation so long, that the 34-year-old illustrator is late to pick up his kids.

Outside it’s a cold grey day, but inside Grammar Studio, the company he set up with friend Adam Gill, there is a brightly coloured treasure trove of memorabilia. Matchday programmes going back to the ’70s, wrestling action figures and shelves full of the studio’s work.

Some of you may have seen Pete’s work over the years, his unique illustration style is influenced by advertising and printing techniques from the 1950s, and has led to work with some big clients such as Clark’s, Disney and Microsoft. His friends keep him down to earth though, with one describing his process as ‘he gets paid to colour in.’

Peter O’Toole and Adam Gill set up creative agency Grammar Studio together and have worked for big clients such as The New Yorker and Calvin Klein. Photo source: Grammar Studio

Pete is a Huddersfield lad born and bred, and while his friends graduated and headed to London, he remained true to his roots and set up as a freelance illustrator in his hometown.

“I’m very, very lucky to be able to work for people in London every single day and not have to live there. People end up moving down and the rent’s so crazy that they have to take a job full-time and try and do what they went down to London to do, on the side. They never have time to do it, they end up getting demoralised, moving back and then the dream’s over. It’s a crying shame.”

He moved in with his partner and started gardening to support his early career. On the side, he ran events for other Huddersfield creatives to meet and get to know one another, which is actually how he got his studio space.

“I got a studio randomly from the landlord who I met at an event I ran, and on a night I’d come down in my Whiteworks van and work all night trying to build up clients on the side, a lot of local work. A lot of the people I knew owned pubs, so I did gig posters and my brother used to be in a band so I did all their artwork.”

For Pete, his illustration career started there. Just figuring his way out, fumbling into it, taking on jobs and building up work on the side. Eventually, he quit his landscaping job at Syngenta and never looked back. Even if his design studio is just an eight-minute drive away from his old job

“It’s my home, Huddersfield. I know everywhere but there’s always something to discover. It’s the underdog town, same as when the club was in the Premier League, always the underdog.”

Pete plays five-a-side (more on that later) and describes his own playing style to Christopher Schindler, and drew this iconic image for Huddersfield Town. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

His passion for football shines through in his work and has resulted in some of his most famous commissions. However, football and illustration didn’t always work so well together for O’Toole. He had to quit playing football for his school team, aged 16, to concentrate on his grades to make it to art college. That year, the team reached the cup final. He was a central defender, describes himself as a bit like Christopher Schindler, someone who would get stuck in but had a trick up his sleeve: “I’d throw a little Cruyff turn here and there because they didn’t expect me to do it so I’d catch them out.”

The cup final took place at the John Smith’s Stadium. A certain Cameron Jerome was playing for the opposition before he signed for Huddersfield Town as a junior.

“I remember sitting in the stands feeling gutted because I wasn’t playing. Jerome got a hattrick and absolutely battered us, not that I’d have made any difference if I was playing.” O’Toole laughs. Since then, Pete’s watched many matches at the home of Huddersfield Town.

Commissioned by FIFA for a Football documentary on the iconic Dutch player, Peter painted three images of Johan Cruyff This image is Cruyff as Barcelona manager. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

Despite being based in Huddersfield, The Terriers were not the first football club he collaborated with. It was actually Swedish club AIK Fotboll. The call came in as the Stockholm side were undergoing a ground move to the Friends Arena, the stadium where Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored that overhead kick against England. He’s also worked with Ferencvaros of Hungary, Lech Poznan of Poland, Maccabi Haifa of Egypt, Fiorentina and Leicester. Even he would admit he wouldn’t believe where his career’s taken him.

One of his favourite projects involved drawing the man whose turns he used to copy all those years ago. Commissioned by FIFA for a football documentary on the iconic Dutch player, Peter painted three images of Johan Cruyff. One during his time as a player for Ajax, another playing for Holland, and then his managerial career at Barcelona. The challenge? He was going to be filmed doing it, and he had to paint all three in a day.

“It was weird, a bit different because all my work now is digital. Purely for time and how you deliver stuff in this industry, I don’t do handpainted stuff anymore, let alone the size of a wall.

“I got really out of my comfort zone doing it, I did a lot of preparation and I managed to get all three paintings done in a day… It’s good because I’m painting and then the next frame is Dennis Bergkamp talking about how good Cruyff is, and then it’s Pep Guardiola.”

Pete has his own pair of Adidas trainers, the Adidas Consortium x Quote x Peter O’Toole ZX 420 Quotoole. Photo Source: Peter O’Toole

His career highlight comes from outside football though. In 2014, O’Toole designed his own trainer for sportswear legend Adidas. The Quotoole, or to use its full name the Adidas Consortium x Quote x Peter O’Toole ZX 420 Quotoole, was created in collaboration with renowned Adidas aficionado Quote.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to top that and I knew it at the time. I might be doing this job for 40 years and it’ll never get better than having my face on an Adidas trainer.”

Peter and Quote initially collaborated on a book for Adidas. Illustrated by O’Toole, the book was focused on Quote’s extensive trainer collection from the three stripes brand. This success led to the pair making their own trainers together.

“People will send me the book or the empty trainer box to sign and send back to them. Even to this day, I’m getting tagged on social media on a daily basis like ‘I’m wearing your trainers, finally got a pair!’ and they came out in 2014, so times going fast.”

This is one of the designs that Peter O’Toole created for Huddersfield Town, they were printed onto 16,000 clap banners. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

When he’s not illustrating for clients, he’s working on personal projects. You can’t get more personal than The Terriers for Peter, and he started designing artwork based on the manager he loved, David Wagner.

When the German manager first joined, fans talked about the club going through a ‘Wagner Revolution’, inspired by old Russian revolutionary posters, Pete’s artwork perfectly captured that feeling. In that now-famous image, David Wagner stares into the distance while Michael Hefele, Christopher Schindler, Elias Kachunga and Chris Lowe, all stand with their arms crossed like a retro football team photograph, the stadium in the background.

O’Toole posted it online and in a few days, it was picked up by the club and used for 16,000 clap banners at the John Smith’s Stadium. He knew that Town would get involved, it’s just ‘one of those things you have a feeling about’.

“Four days later I was in the Examiner stood next to Sean Jarvis and I’ve worked with them ever since! I just felt with my skill set I could do something a bit different and a bit out there if they’d take that chance! See what I did there.”

Since then, he’s produced mugs, t-shirts and even tea towels for the club shop. Pete continues to work with them, but is remaining tight-lipped about what that is, even off the record.

The 3D concept kits Peter designed for Huddersfield Town. Left, the Magic Rock Brewing shirt, middle Centro’s takeaway sponsor, right Ben Shaw’s. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

Football fans will be familiar with concept kits, and Pete’s made some retro Huddersfield Town shirts which pay homage to local businesses on a 3D football shirt. You might have seen the Magic Rock Brewing shirt or the Italian-esque design with the Centro’s takeaway sponsor.

His concept designs initially started with the Ben Shaw’s shirt, the famous soft drink with Huddersfield roots. While driving to five-a-side with his brother — who runs the Huddersfield Town Fanzine Smile Awhile — they discussed how it’d be cool if Ben Shaw’s sponsored Huddersfield in the ’80s. Even after the game, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

That evening, he worked rapidly, sketching, refining and perfecting. When he posted them to Instagram for fellow fans to enjoy, they went down a storm.

“Everyone wanted me to manufacture them but it’s a blessing and a curse. If it hadn’t blown up the way it did, no one would want to buy it but if I did make them, it’d be obvious it’s me that’s making counterfeit Huddersfield Town shirts.

“That’s not a good look for someone who works at the club ripping off the club! Not only would the club sue me, but Britvic who own Ben Shaws would be after me, Town would be after me, if I put Umbro on the shirts then they’d be after me!

“They’d know it’s me because it’s on Twitter and it’s not hard to find, you don’t have to be a detective to find out who did it. The Ben Shaw’s shirt is the only one ever made.” The shirt is pride of place in his studio, hung next to a few others from football clubs he’s worked with.

Sticker artwork from Pete that was designed for Huddersfield Town fanzine Smile Awhile. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

Five-a-side is often eventful for Pete, having recently played against a former Huddersfield player.

“At five-a-side, this bald guy was playing against us and I thought he was pretty decent for his age, he was always passing it on before I could tackle him and he was quick. So after the game, my friend Rocky texts me: ‘What do you think of my mate? He’s an ex-pro pal!’ And then it clicked, how did I not know? I used to watch him every week!”

It was Simon Baldry. The former Huddersfield Town winger, former Player of the Year award winner, and the player who scored in the last game at the old Leeds Road stadium. Yes, that Simon Baldry.

“He was good, but he wasn’t taking it around everyone, he’s no spring chicken. Especially at five-a-side, I’m wrecked every week, never mind someone 15 years older than me.”

Some retro Huddersfield Town shirts that Pete designed as a poster, which you can buy on his print shop. Photo source: Peter O’Toole

Like most fans, Pete was disappointed with how Jan Siewert’s time at the club turned out. He doesn’t blame Jan, merely just didn’t think he had a chance, joining a sinking ship with poor recruitment from the summer.

As for the Cowleys, he thinks they’ve got their heads screwed on. “Let the Cowleys do their thing, I like their attitude. They seem to really back the fans and I think it’s an important thing especially for Huddersfield. We’ve got a passionate fan base, and that’s important for getting our players motivated. They seem to really appreciate that.”

He’s also a big fan of Lewis O’Brien. “Probably the most exciting player we’ve got. If every player was like O’Brien, we wouldn’t have any problems.”

What about Huddersfield’s January signings? “Andy King’s got good potential as a signing. I don’t think he’s going to set the world on fire, but if it suits the Cowley’s system then it’s good enough for me.

“Stearman really impressed me [against Brentford], they couldn’t get through him and he was doing all these random Cruyff turns in the middle of the park for no reason, but it worked!”

Another mention of Cruyff’s signature dummy. So it seems fitting as we wrap up to ask what would he do if his career took an unexpected turn.

“I’ve got nothing else. Unless I go back to stacking shelves in Morrison’s when I was a student and there was nothing wrong with that. I mean, I got sacked from there but I could work at Sainsbury’s.”

If you like Pete’s work, check his website and social media channels for his latest projects. Some of the images featured are available to buy on his print shop.

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Writer and podcaster, based in Leeds.

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