The Game: Exhibition Review

‘The Game: Football through the lens of Stuart Roy Clarke’ at National Football Museum

Written by Josh Molyneux

With the hullabaloo of present day media attention, it may hardly excite some to be shown even more photos of football. Yet by featuring the biggest teams alongside local leagues and bus rides home, Stuart Roy Clarke’s work celebrates the personal touch many claim is lost in big-money-entertainment-package football. With photographs spanning over 30 years, ‘The Game’ is photojournalism and art, both documenting the history of the sport and using football as a means to capture cultural mythologies evolving over time.

Themes of tradition and ceremony reoccur throughout, with habits like scrutinising the match program over a pre-game pint portrayed as part and parcel of the whole event, part of an ongoing process of developing customs that plays out through repetition of attending the football. Photos of rickety ticket booths, half time tea stalls and hot dog stands allude to these personal details of fan match day routines, linking the people with the material touchstones that make up the whole club/fan symbiosis. The notion of this steadfast loyalty to the ritual of supporting a team perhaps peaks with a photo at Southend United, featuring as its main subject the single Huddersfield Town supporter who has doggedly travelled to sit in the away end alone. A photo of Tranmere Rovers fans travelling down the country to Wembley shows how local traditions scale up and intertwine with those of other clubs through the commonality of fandom, in this case the excitement of a pilgrimage to watch their team play at the national stadium.

The nationwide scale makes this project a sort of proxy-study of Britishness in general. The composition of many of these photographs places the football in the context of their local setting. ‘Leeds Road at Twilight’ shows the town of Huddersfield with all the hallmarks of it’s English-ness – the mills, the Pennine valley setting, and the football stadium. Whether down to the film Clarke uses or just the weather, the washed out colour palette across many of these photos feels British; like if you try to take a picture when out on a walk but the capability of your camera can’t really do the scene justice. Even the specific design of electricity pylons are so subconsciously familiar they evoke an embedded sense of place. As someone from Derbyshire, it is ‘A Woman in her Youth Walks By’ for which I feel this emotional knowledge most keenly, where the dry stone wall, the bright white sky and the smudge of greys, greens and browns fleshes out hazy memories of being rained on. I moaned about Derbyshire’s distance from anything I perceived as exciting or glamorous whilst growing up, but seeing it in this way is endearing. The overarching feeling is of settings represented with authenticity.

Making any comment on Britishness feels contemporary given the current political landscape, and this exhibition does not entirely escape the debate, despite most of these photographs being taken years ago, and the exhibition’s framing of the subject appearing to move it away from the embittered extremes. The exhibition seems to gloss over the obvious associations British football culture has to an insidious tendency for ‘banter’, and to more explicitly ugly issues of violence, racism, and xenophobic nationalism. Rose tinted glasses filter out all of these latter issues in this exhibition, with a portrait of Gary Speed the only whisper suggesting all is not gold, although implying no fault of football’s. Clarke specifically states that it was the sense of change in the air following the Hillsborough disaster that kickstarted his interest in football as a subject of photography, and so there may be an argument to say the worst of these tendencies were already on the way out, and yet the reality of lad culture lingers in some of Clarke’s pieces. Personal preconceptions will colour ‘The H’Away Lads’, which shows some diehard Newcastle fans at an Ipswich away game – all male, pushily presenting beer bellies, one sporting a black eye. This is the kind of thing some will appreciate as silly posturing, but that some would class as intimidating. Less divisively, Clarke’s pride in documenting a scribbled message on a wall that a male fan “had” a female fan “up against the goalposts” is entirely baffling unless you are 12. The selection of this image by Clarke for a collection of the best 55 photos from a series of over 500 is bizarre.

To be pedantically critical, there are other photos for which the magic of the moment described in the captions is plainly not conveyed through the pieces. The main feature of ‘High Noon in North London’ seems to be that the sky is a funny purple colour. ‘Midlands Semi Final Venue’ would be a solid enough photograph of Villa Park, but the piece is made saccharine by its focus on a solitary balloon escaping from the ground, which gives it the feel of an internet stock image. These photos reflect the one-dimensional tone of the setting in the National Football Museum, glossy but a bit empty, and risk undermining an exhibition presumably trying to convince that something interesting can be derived from studying football.

However, accusations of prejudice cut both ways, and to dismiss all of Clarke’s work as merely sentimental excuses for laddishness or a waste of time is to miss something about the subject. There is an obvious sense in which investing in a football team is pointless, particularly since for most of us it means a team that doesn’t win much, but it carries real cultural meaning precisely because of the romantic investment of all the people over the years, and Clarke’s work is at its best when it is capturing some of the self-inflicted rapture that fans experience. In ‘That Carlisle Jump’, the happiness exuded as the fans leap in the air oozes out of the picture, and is made all the sweeter because it feels innocent that somebody would be so pleased by something relatively insignificant, in a place as infrequently mentioned as Carlisle. Football clubs offer opportunities to link with a legacy routed within a locality which people feel a connection to. This project dutifully covers the length and breadth of the country, indulging in the mystical element of football because it is such a good way to celebrate the ordinariness of towns and people, without patronising, and I would say that if any, this is the political point the work makes.

There are also two large screens at the exhibition which cycle through some further photographs from the series, ordered by club and then by alphabetical order, covering an extensive list of different teams. I waited until I saw the old Chesterfield FC ground at Saltergate, then after getting the nod of recognition for my hometown, left happy. In spite of its few missteps and potentially missed opportunity to address issues in football, I think this is what why I can recommend the exhibition: it’s acknowledging all the normal people that make football good.

‘The Game’ is on at the National Football Museum till 17th March 2019 – Entry fee starting 14th January.

Our guest blogger Josh Molyneux is a designer/artist based in Manchester, working primarily on jewellery that draws on his background in philosophy. View his work or get in touch via Instagram @josh_mol_design.

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