70 years on, Mark Perryman and Guardian football cartoonist David Squires (see image above) revisit LS Lowry's greatest painting
Reputedly a Man City fan LS Lowry's 1953 masterpiece Going to the Match depicted not Maine Road but Bolton Wanderers' then ground, Burnden Park. A ground that no longer exists, long replaced by an out-of-town stadium named after a building products company who paid a decent sum for the right to have Bolton's home named The Toughsheet Community Stadium, having previously been known since 1997 as The Reebok, Macron and University of Bolton Stadium. What price the durability of history versus naming rights deals and their expiry dates? Guardian football cartoonist David Squires' 70th anniversary recreation of Lowry's original artistically catalogues seven decades' worth of this and many other changes.
Lowry's 1953 version of Going to the Match is of course most famous for his matchstick men Bolton fans, identically dressed, as far as we can tell all male, all white, the 1950s industrial working class writ large. The manufacturing economy represented by factories hemming in Burnden Park, from where these men exited the belching smoke for ninety minutes of unadulterated bliss. The factories have long since closed down, and working practices, class uniformity and what theorists term 'Fordism' – an entire way of life and social organisation – has gone with them.
Writing a couple of decades earlier JB Priestley put into words what LS Lowry had portrayed in his painting:
"It turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, downcast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shaped Iliads and Odysseys for you; and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half."
Football remained relatively unchanged until the 1970s. The Manchester United players who lost their lives in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster weren't 'the subject of 'tragedy chants'; instead Liverpool FC lent players to their bitterest rivals so United could complete their season. When England won the World Cup in 1966 it didn't elevate the players into multi-millionaire celebrities. Ten years after Munich, Man Utd won the European Cup at Wembley, lining up for their opponents Benfica Eusebio and Coluna immigrants from the Portuguese imperial outpost Mozambique, that rarity in those days, black players in a football shirt.
Globalisation of line-ups
For United their European Cup-winning foreign contingent consisted of a Scot, a Northern Irishman, two Irishmen and a Scottish manager. The United 1999 team that won it for them the next time? A starting line-up consisting of one Dane, one Norwegian, one Dutchman, one Swede, one Trinidadian and Tobagonian, one Irishman, one Welshman, alongside their four English players and a Scottish manager – bloody hell!
But it wasn't simply the globalisation of the line-ups that had changed in those intervening year, it was the monetisation of their playing skills too. In Rome 1977, Liverpool won the first of six consecutive European Cups by English clubs. John Williams, author of a social history of Liverpool FC, The Red Men, describes the scenes in Rome after their victory and what has changed since:
“The extraordinary party in Rome after the 1977 final involved Reds supporters and the players together. These groups were still broadly drawn from the same stock, drank (and got drunk) in the same pubs, had pretty much similar lifestyles and diets, and footballers had not yet moved into the sort of wage brackets that later had them sealed off behind tinted-windowed cars the size of small, armoured trucks.”
Globalisation of team line-ups, player wage rises that outstrip inflation a millionfold and more, funded by no longer free-to-air broadcasting deals of a scale unimaginable prior to the 1992 creation of the Premier League and the Champions’ League, both serving to attract foreign investors to take over clubs and fund such largesse on a previously unimaginable scale.
In 1980 sociologist Stuart Weir described the state of the relationship in English football between clubs and their supporters as:
"The clubs are under the control of local business elites who restrict the participation of their followers to separate supporters' clubs."
There's only one word that needs to be changed in that sentence four and a bit decades on – local becomes global. In the era of Lowry through to the early twenty-first century, clubs were owned by the local butcher, baker, candlestick-maker. In Man Utd's case quite literally, the Edwards family were butchers.
Now such owners are almost entirely replaced by Russian oligarchs (until the Ukraine war forced their sanctioning), European, Chinese and US investor conglomerates, and Middle Eastern petrodollar states. Many favouring the multi-club model which is the money men's antithesis of what it means to be a fan. 'A multi-club fan' oxymoronic, and then some.
None of this however should allow an over-romanticisation of football's past. Lowry's Burnden Park in 1946 had been the scene of a stadium disaster, 33 fans died and hundreds more injured because of a human crush caused by poor crowd management. It happened again with the Ibrox Stadium disaster of 1971. By the 1980s such horrors should have been confined to the history books, but they weren't.
Last game of the 1984-85 season, Bradford City at home, they've already won the Third Division championship, a party atmosphere. In the 85th minute a fire starts in the wooden main stand. Season after season a pile of litter had built up in the space below the tier where fans were sat. A cigarette started a fire which within minutes engulfed the entire stand. 56 fans lost their lives, simply because they'd gone to a football match.
The next day this is how the Sunday Times reported on football's part in the tragedy at Bradford City:
“A slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up."
It is scarcely credible such words were used back then, the day after 56 deaths, but it is also scarcely credible such words would be used today to describe football, the stadiums games are played in and the fans in the stands.
But before that would happen yet another stadium disaster, in 1989 at Hillsborough. Here’s John Williams, again:
" The disaster was attributable to a planned general deterioration of public facilities in Britain, a development that had also brought a range of recent disasters on public transport, as Tory policies had prioritised the private sector and devastated areas such as Merseyside. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deaths were also connected to deep-seated problems in terrace culture and poor relations between some football fans and the police. The English game had gone down a fatal route and was routinely treating all its customers (sic) as potential threats.”
The 1980s saw Hillsborough; over 800 England fans arrested and deported from Euro 88; the team knocked out at the Group Stage; and all English club sides banned from European competition following crowd trouble at the 1985 European Cup Final. Different causes, different consequences, but overall, the game looked irrecoverable.
An evening with Gary Lineker
And then Italia 90, with England the least welcome guest at the World Cup party, and the draw fixed so all their group games were to be played on the island of Sicily, 60 miles off the Italian mainland. In England's group were Holland, Egypt, one of Africa's strongest teams, and the Republic of Ireland, who'd beaten England at Euro '88. Home before the postcards reach England? That was the widely held expectation, and for our Italian hosts, hope.
The morning of the semi-final every English newspaper led their front pages with dire expectations of win or lose, England fans would be rioting. But then instead an entire nation spent 'an evening with Gary Lineker' – and everything changed.
Pete Davies wrote a runaway Italia 90 best seller All Played Out and coined the brilliant term 'planet football'. Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch about what it means to be an Arsenal fan, and in his wake just about every club has had a book published about what it means to be their fan too. Pre-digital media, club fanzines are written, published, flogged outside the ground, creating another alternative narrative of our fandom.
A fanzine style football magazine When Saturday Comes is on the shelves of WH Smith. The Football Supporters Association emerged as an effective and respected fans' campaign, with the group's founder Rogan Taylor a hugely impressive TV and radio studio guest.
Product placement alert!
Fantasy Football League starts, is adopted by every national newspaper, goes from being a cult radio show to peak time TV. And – obligatory product placement alert – Hugh Tisdale and Mark Perryman, a pair of self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' co-founded Philosophy Football.
All to the good, especially the T-shirts! But before the tournament had even begun one critic, Stan Hey, was already predicting what a successful Italia '90 on the pitch might produce beyond the touchline:
" The global success of football has almost certainly sown the seeds for the game’s corruption. There is now a momentum which seems to be beyond control. Those of us who have retained an optimism for football’s capacity for survival and ability to re-invent itself are already checking our watches. It’s starting to feel like we’re in injury time."
Injury time? Within two years of Italia 90 we were already well past that. In 1992 the English first division is reinvented as 'The Premier League' with the sinister Orwellian consequence that the old second division becomes the Championship, and to take the Orwellian parallel to a ludicrous extremity the third and fourth divisions became League One and League Two. A pedant writes? No, as Orwell taught us, language matters because it is indicative of powerful forces at work behind the bastardisation of language.
And the European Cup, the finest cup competition in world football, bar none, in 1992 was reinvented as a Champions’ and Rich Runners’-up League. Purely to serve the interests of the mega clubs, and the element of risk that they might not make the competition's latter stages and win it was almost entirely removed.
Is there any hope that the commodification, the foreign investors, the corporate sponsors, and the media moguls won't have it all their own way?
Yes! Because in the 2021 summer of lockdown, fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, City and Spurs protested and defeated a proposal that entirely served their own self-interest. It was for a so-called 'European Super League' with their clubs not having to compete for qualification but guaranteed entry not via points on the board but the marketing men's co-efficients.
No, those fans didn't look very much like Lowry's 1953 stick men going to the match, but they did stand up to be counted, and saved at least for now and however much already compromised, a part of football's heritage – competition. Even if it meant sacrificing a guaranteed place in Europe, where they all wanted their clubs to be. Win, lose, draw, the final score, league position, European qualification never a dead cert. Whatever the cost, something every bit as valuable to those fans at Lowry's painting, which was sold at auction in 2022 for a cool £7.8 million.
And David Squires' version of Lowry's original? The commodification and regulation of our fandom, sponsors' logos ruining a classic kit, the scourge of ever-present betting, football on the phone, never mind the match in front of us, VAR, kick off times dictated by broadcasters at maximum inconvenience for away fans, our stadiums named after airlines and the like.
Going to the match has changed a lot in seven decades, yet still we go. Thank you LS Lowry and David Squires for reminding us then, and now, why.
David Squires redrawing Going to the Match 2023 is exclusively available as a Philosophy Football framed print and tea towel here