When you walk around the National Football Museum in Manchester, you see many of the things you would expect to see in any museum.
There are artefacts and memorabilia and panels of text that seek to recall the past — all funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in England.
There are stories of the great players and great games and great clubs, a section which seeks to document the match-day experience, a history of grounds, the story of the way soccer has developed since its invention in 1863, among much else.
Among the most striking exhibits are an English international jersey from 1872, the ball from the 1966 World Cup final, and some of George Best’s clothes.
And, of course, there is the now obligatory area where you can demonstrate your own genius at kicking a football in the right direction.
But this year there has been an exhibition on in the National Football Museum that is entirely different to anything that has gone before.
Up on an upper floor, the ‘Football is Art Exhibition’ is an extraordinary collection into the relationship between soccer and art.
On superficial observation, soccer and art would not seem to make for easy bedfellows.
This sense is acknowledged in the exhibition with a huge blown up quote, high on its walls, carrying the words of John Gregory, the ex-Aston Villa and Derby manager. Gregory once said:
“What the f*** is art? A picture of a bottle of sour milk lying next to a smelly old jumper? To me it’s a load of s***. I’d say football is art.”
Taking its name from the last three words of that quote, this exhibition reveals the sheer scale of the art that has sought over the last 100 years to explore the emotions that are provoked by soccer.
And this exploration is focused on a basic question:
“Can art in all its forms truly capture the emotions of a match?”
The attempt to answer that question ranges across more than 70 artworks and sculptures which show how generations of artists have depicted soccer.
The works of art are grouped into different emotions: anticipation, devotion, relief, admiration, pride, belonging, nostalgia, joy and — of course— despair.
What would sport be without despair?
Many of the pieces in the collection were on display for the first time and together they constituted the biggest exhibition on the relationship between soccer and art that had ever been put together.
Household names and hidden gems hung side-by-side.
And among the names of the painters on display were David Hockney, Banksy, and L S Lowry.
Going to the Match Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976)— Trent Art (@TrentArtGallery) April 19, 2019
The Lowry (On loan from the Professional Footballers' Association) pic.twitter.com/02dn9bBUVC
Hockney’s “A Bounce for Bradford” is fantastic, depicting a football bouncing around, leaving lines and shadows in its wake. This was a print made in 1987.
There were then some 30,000 people unemployed in Bradford and a local marketing campaign sought to fight back against the devastation wrought by Thatcherite policies in England’s industrial towns.
David Hockney was then living in Los Angeles and moved immediately to lend his support, once he heard of the campaign.
His print was published in the local Telegraph and Argus newspaper as part of a supplement.
A further 10,000 copies were then sold at a Royal Academy summer exhibition, all at the price of 18p, the original cost of the newspaper.
A more traditional painting is Going to the Match, by L S Lowry. It shows the outside of a football stadium before kick-off. Hundreds of supporters are hurrying toward the turnstiles, pouring out from terraced houses and factories, whose chimneys form the background of the picture.
This painting — a classic evocation of the traditions of English soccer — was bought by the Professional Footballers Association for some £2m (€2.3m). It is usually displayed in The Lowry Centre and has been valued as being worth up to £10m (€11.6m).
Also intriguing is Banksy’s “Football Terrorist” — this is now privately owned and was put on public display in England in this exhibition for the first time. It had previously been displayed as part of the War, Capitalism, and Freedom exhibition in Rome in 2016. It is one of the graffiti-artists most iconic works.
There is also Paul Nash’s Pony the Footballer (1921). Nash was a British artist who was actually the official War Artist for both World War I and World War II.
But this exhibition is much more than just the work of the famous few. It also includes work by many lesser known artists.
For example, David Clarke’s contribution is a portrait entitled Not a Penny More can be found in the Despair section of the exhibition.
It shows a Blackpool FC supporter in anguish at the manner in which the fate of his club continued to spiral downwards.
More than any photograph or piece of writing of what has happened to Blackpool in recent years, this portrait captures just what a club can mean to its supporters.
Even the making of exhibition created its own stories.
The painter Karel Lek submitted Football Spectators in Rain for a 1953 competition.
Afterwards he rolled the painting up and put it in a drawer. It remained there for almost seven decades until a copy of it was seen in a catalogue by a researcher at the National Football Museum — the researcher traced Lek and offered to acquire the painting.
Aunique aspect of the exhibition is a section put together by students of fashion design and technology from the Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University. The students were asked to base a sportswear design on a piece of artwork from the collection — and what they produced was worth the visit in itself.
For anyone who wants to take the “Football Is Art” exhibition tour, you can listen to a guided description of the exhibition, played via the SoundCloud player below on any smartphone or internet-enabled device. The tour takes the listener through the exhibition space, describing the artworks and the themes of the exhibition. (See https://soundcloud.com/nationalfootballmuseum).
But the last word on the matter should go to Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager:
“Football is an art, like dancing is an art — but only when it’s well done does it become an art.”
And this exhibition demonstrated just how enthralling the art of football can be when it is done well. The thing is — nothing like this appears ever to have been undertaken in Ireland. What an opportunity that offers to Ireland’s sports organisation and Ireland’s art galleries to unite in common purpose and create an exhibition that carries the potential for mass appeal.