Going to the Match on display

icon lowry27 June ~ Perhaps the best known British football painting is LS Lowry's Going to the Match. The picture achieved a level of fame when, in 1999, it was bought by the Professional Footballers Association for £1.9 million. More modestly, it had earned Lowry a share of a £1,000 prize when it was one of four winners in the painting section of the 1953 Football and the Fine Arts competition, part of the celebrations of the FA's 90th anniversary. Tate Britain is now holding a major exhibition of the painter's work, which runs until October.

Although his pictures of mills and terraced houses are familiar he also produced a number of football related pictures. Lowry favoured Manchester City as a team but the picture shows Bolton's Burnden Park. Like many of his pictures it is a composite, not painted directly from life but built up from sketches and observations over time. It shows, as PFA head Gordon Taylor put it: "The heart and soul of the game, the anticipation of fans on their way to the match."

The crowd is shown walking to the match, although photographs from the time show that even in 1953 some of the area outside the ground was used for car parking. Several queues are forming at the turnstiles, with the majority paying at the gate. In the background, people are flooding from terraced streets, mills and factories, many probably dashing from Saturday morning overtime with only a short break for a cup of tea or a pint.

Taylor puts his emphasis on the crowd and that was probably Lowry's focus, with many of his pictures showing groups of people going to or coming from work and at play – fairs and football are common themes. But Jack Charlton, commenting on what is, apparently, his favourite picture, gives more emphasis to the ground and his memories of watching matches at the time: "Open wooden stands, cinders under foot, terrible conditions in the toilets." There are plenty of stories that try to make a virtue of mediaeval plumbing but it's far too easy to romanticise the images as part of football's "golden age".

Just seven years earlier, Burnden had been the scene of a major disaster when, following the collapse of crush barriers and as a result of overcrowding, 33 fans had died and over 400 were injured. Moelwyn Hughes, who chaired the enquiry into the disaster, commented that in the crowded standing terraces of football grounds "dangerous situations will arise again and again" and only luck and circumstance would decide the consequences. At the time of Lowry's painting, the matchday experience carried more than a hint of risk at many stadiums built to accommodate numbers rather than to provide comfort or safety.  

Lowry's picture captures a match when football was close to the peak of its popularity but already doubt was creeping in. Material shortages in the post-war period left a limited range of leisure options open – sport in general and football in particular took its chance. Attendances in the 1948-49 season were at a peak of 41 million but by 1953 they had declined to around 36 million, before falling to below 30 million at the start of the 1960s.

Another thing the picture captures is a moment before football faced a challenge from growing affluence and other demands on fans' time. During the 1950's private car ownership was set to double and television ownership would rise significantly. Bold, or crass, town-planning saw terraces demolished and populations moved to out-of-town estates, raising the cost of matchday travel, and a rise in house ownership saw more interest in hobbies such as gardening or DIY.

Lowry's art is not to everyone's taste. But in that one image he captures factors, such as the flow and swirl of an excited crowd on the way to a match, not specific to Bolton or Burnden Park, but typifying football at the time. The crowded terraces symbolise the huge numbers watching the sport, and the risks presented by what one writer has called the "decrepit terraces". In 1953 football was starting to face the challenge of the "missing millions". So, perhaps, Lowry captures the excitement of matchday but, unintentionally, also reflects a tipping point in football history. Brian Simpson

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