Whenever football is addressed in popular culture, it is usually done badly. It’s an almost impossible task to capture a part of public life that so stubbornly defies logic, or any succinct descriptions. Attempts usually sound hackneyed, clichéd or just fundamentally uncool, like your parents talking about your favourite band.
That’s why it is so positive to see this exhibition at the Walker Gallery, taking as a starting point the birth of football casual culture in the late 1970s and 80s. Refreshingly, the football itself takes a back seat to the way in which it was lived: through the experience, the fashion and the music.
Liverpool is an obvious venue for this subject of course. Football is part of the air here in a way unlike anywhere else.
The first sight of the exhibition is a group of mannequins showing off the instantly recognisable terrace wear of the era: Pringle, Fila, lots of Adidas. This was the uniform in Liverpool in the late 1970s and serves as a blueprint for how the look entered wider football culture in later years. Many fans brought sports bags full of trainers back from Europe while travelling to watch Liverpool’s dominant team of the time. Even the bags look cool, displayed here alongside train tickets to Hamburg, Paris and Rome.
The exhibition galleries at the Walker are wonderful and spacious, giving plenty of freedom to devote real space to the subject. The intention is clearly to give serious consideration to football and popular culture.
When this works well it feels revelatory in such a space, such as in a photograph of Everton fans on the London underground, on their way to the 1984 FA Cup final. Other passengers are shown in suits, routinely reading the paper. They look a hundred years apart. This is one of the images closest to real life – the same journey is a massive occasion for the fans, and totally mundane for everyone else.
The best artworks capture the feeling of individual moments in a match. Rabindra Singh’s painting of a crowd at Anfield is a snapshot of how a game can feel in the best moments; a flock connecting through a shared experience and common identity, in spite of all our differences. Peter Howson captures the flipside: when it can turn ugly, when the experience feels unreal, almost cartoonish, with all the senses and frustration amplified.
There are areas of the exhibition that fall into classic traps, the most persistent being the use of needlessly academic language to describe the mundane acts of going for a pint after a game, or shopping for jackets.
Some elements fall just the wrong side of cliché too; it is after all an incredibly delicate tightrope to walk. This is illustrated best by the work of Ross Muir, who reimagines classic pop culture images including terrace staples like Adidas trackie tops. His reworking of the cover to Davie Bowie’s Low fails to land, but his image of Vincent van Gogh in the three stripes works brilliantly.
However, the most immediate works of art in the show are undoubtedly the trainers. Artworks such as those by Jens Wagner, Craig Kenny and Marcus Reed reference their importance to the movement. But the various Adidas Sambas and Trimm Trabs on display are as beautiful as anything else in the room, and a real connection to the culture.
They remind us that museums have much to learn from big retailers about how to properly display something as if it’s the most precious thing on Earth; the windows in JD Sports can look as gorgeous as any gallery.
A tension at the heart of any discussion of football culture is hooliganism, and the almost schizophrenic practice of condemning violence, while perpetuating the glorification of it. Violence is described only lightly in much of the interpretation here, with references to “conflict” or ”trouble between rival fans”.
There is a film in the final space that includes one man talking openly about the violence that was part of the culture, and his own time in prison as a result (“anyone in Stone Island was fair game”). I would have been interested to see him challenged on the value of this.
The tension between needless violence and the safety of the crowd is illustrated best by Marcin Dudek’s use of an MA1 bomber jacket in his painting Passage VII. Dudek was part of a hooligan gang in Krakow, Poland, and witnessed the death of his best friend through football violence in 1997. It was through art that he processed this tragedy, and found his way out of the crowd into a more positive place. The bomber jacket was part of his gang’s uniform, its bright orange lining originally intended for military use, so it could be turned inside out to alert rescuers.
There are echoes of this tension in a painting of an infamous England game away to Spain in 2004, when Shaun Wright-Phillips was subjected to a barrage of racial abuse by Spanish fans. He wanted to walk off the pitch but was unsure if FIFA would support him if he did. This painting is displayed close to one of Wagner’s pop art prints, with tiresome hoolie porn images from Peaky Blinders and A Clockwork Orange – the inference is that cliched glorification of violence without challenge leads to episodes like this.
This exhibition could have focused solely on football, it could have been about style, it could have been about the social history of the 70s and 80s. It is to the curator’s credit that it is able to cover all of this, painting a picture of how the cultural codes we see around football today have come together in its orbit.
This ambition does leave you wanting more depth about the issues raised – was it any better or worse back then compared to today’s glossy, commercialised industry? But maybe that’s for another exhibition. This one is well worth an afternoon’s stroll, whether you were there at the time, or like me, you grew up in a culture nostalgic for it.
Simon Brown is a curator at Newstead Abbey and co-manager of Erewash Museum. He is the vice-president of the Museums Association