Football as art at the Lowry gallery

The beautiful game's role as inspiration for artists was recognised in the Lowry gallery yesterday. Ian Herbert took a look at meat pies on canvas and photos of goalposts
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For a sport which has provided so many iconic images - not least, Bobby Moore holding the World Cup aloft in 1966 - football has always been surprisingly bereft of captivating art. LS Lowry's Going to the Match, an image of the massed working classes trooping to a game, is comfortably the most famous.

But the sport's place as a rich inspiration for artists was finally recognised last night when winners of a competition entitled "The Football Art Prize" were revealed at the Lowry gallery in Salford, Greater Manchester. The 80 shortlisted entries, judged by, among others, David James, keen artist and England international goalkeeper, depicted everything from half-time meat pies to a night on Liverpool's legendary Spion Kop.

The competition, sponsored by Umbro, was launched in recognition of Going to the Match, currently on long-term loan to the Lowry from the Professional Footballers' Association, which Lowry entered in 1953 for a similar competition called "Football and the Fine Arts". It depicts supporters trooping into Burnden Park, the old ground of Bolton Wanderers, and was typical of many entries that year which featured big crowds and heroic representations of footballers.

James expected much more of the same this time around but his role as judge has told him how, for those who watch the game, the spirit of football is about far more than its players. With the exception of George Best, Jack Charlton (on his knees at Wembley after the 1966 World Cup final) and Roberto Baggio (bereft after missing a penalty in the 1994 final shoot-out), there is barely a professional to be found among the entries which will go on display at the Lowry from tomorrow.

The winning submission, by Ben Kelly, an arts graduate from Cheshire, is typical, capturing the exuberant celebrations of supporters and players massed on the pitch in Rio de Janiero after Botofago, a lowly South American club, had beaten top-of-the-table Pontepreta 4-2 last summer. The scene reminded Kelly of the occasional, fleeting triumphs of his own team, Manchester City.

"[It showed how] it's the little things that make the game special," said Kelly, who collected a £15,000 prize. "Who needs cups? It's individual moments of sheer pleasure that count, and this was one for everyone there that night."

The more ambiguous, second-placed image depicts a crumpled up Subbuteo table, left to gather dust while its little figures seemingly play on. One of many depictions of supporters came third, capturing a Middlesbrough fan at the 2004 League Cup final in Cardiff.

"In this year's competition the fan has become the hero," said Lindsay Brooks, head of galleries at the Lowry. "We are also seeing far richer imagery than in the 1950s. The entries are far less prosaic, with references to Dali and Goya and, in one surreal piece, angels hovering around a football stadium."

A painting entitled 1-0 to the Albion captures the supporters' passion, in a greasy spoon caff, as does the eye-catching print Munich in which flags of many football nations illuminate a drab tenement block, presumably during this summer's World Cup in Germany, while Cup Fever is a Lowryesque depiction of Southampton supporters by Gerald Cains, 74, who entered the same competition as Lowry when he was 21.

But goalposts - and usually those with no net attached - seem to have been the most common source of artistic inspiration. Twelve sets of them feature in one piece, Playing Away - from a whitewashed wall to the rickety uprights set eccentrically before a tree, and yet more in a desert. Another set stand amid industrial facilities in The Pitch in the City while a submission entitled The Goalpost proves that there does not have to be two for them to serve their purpose.