It was time for a new kind of reference work on the game. One that celebrated the culture of British football and did not just record the facts and figures. And, to celebrate the launch of our Half Decent Football Book, what better to serve as a taster than a look at food? And meet John Gregory, art critic

Pre-match meal 
Food has always been a controversial subject in football. The pre-match meal was once the only occasion during the season that a footballer’s dietary habits would come under any great scrutiny. Steak and chips, egg and chips and roast beef have all been favoured at various stages in the game’s development. Bill Shankly is reported to have abandoned his players’ strict pre-match steak diet in the early 1960s, after which meat was absolutely prohibited at lunchtime on a match day; this even extended into Shankly sending “spies” along on train journeys to away games to monitor whether players were loading up on ham rolls from the buffet trolley.

Dietary fads have come and gone at regular intervals in the game’s recent history. Even the traditional half-time cup of tea has now fallen out of favour with nutritionists, who prefer (even above water) specialist “sports” drinks containing phosphates and other salts that encourage rehydration. Fish has been generally mistrusted as a pre-match meal, particularly seafood and the footballer’s favourite, scampi. One Division One manager became so determined that his players should eat no more than a single bread roll at pre-game lunches that he developed a habit of counting the rolls before and after a meal and demanding to know who had eaten any missing extras.

As notions of sensible nutrition have infiltrated the professional game, so the importance of the pre-match meal has declined. Just as the custom of midweek team drinking has given way to the idea that, actually, it’s never a good thing for the constitution to drink 12 pints of lager very quickly and dance in a circle in a nightclub, so the importance of continually monitoring a footballer’s diet has taken hold. Footballers now aim to eat a carbohydrate-rich diet most of the time, with extra protein after a game or a heavy training session. Fat should be minimised, particularly the night or morning before a game, as it is notoriously hard to digest. The ideal footballing breakfast involves wholewheat cereals, skimmed milk, fruit, yoghurt and lots of fluids.

QPR manager Ian Holloway employed ex-army fitness instructor Scott Rushton for the 2003-04 season. Rangers players would eat a pre-match meal of cereals, pasta, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit at 11.30 in the morning, with the pre-match meals just a question of topping up what players have lost from the liver overnight. Rushton also revealed that during breaks in Holloway’s team talks he filled the silence by “firing out instructions such as ‘stand up, keep your legs moving and keep your brains lively… some sharp runs, turns and power jumping when you get outside, come on lads!’”. Which is enough to put anyone off their penne rigate.

Like so many other things in football, food is tied up with superstition. Alan Shearer famously revealed during his Blackburn days that he always ate “chicken and beans” before a game and most players have a favoured lucky meal. Nigel Winterburn’s poached eggs on toast survived even the Arsene Wenger dietary revolution at Highbury and pre-match meal favourites were a regular feature of Football League programmes during the 1970s and 1980s. In his autobiography Jimmy Greaves describes “heading off to Moody’s cafe in Canning Town where we would order our pre-match meal of roast beef and Yorkshire with all the trimmings or pie and mash followed by blackcurrant crumble and custard”. Greaves then recalls how player always ate steak before a game because they had been told it gave you energy. He describes Gordon Banks’ pre-match meal of “a large steak with peas and both boiled and roast potatoes, followed by a large bowl of rice pudding”. All of which makes Banks’ sudden food poisoning at the 1970 World Cup finals less of an enduring mystery.


“What the fuck is art? A picture of a bottle of sour milk lying next to a smelly old jumper? To me it’s a load of shit. I’d say football is art” – the thoughts of then Aston Villa manager John Gregory, as recorded in Loaded magazine in 1999. In fact Gregory is wrong. Football is not art; it’s an 11-a-side team sport. However, the game has been depicted in pictorial form by various British artists over the last 200 years. Thomas Webster’s The Football, painted in 1839, shows a group of boys engaged in a boisterous game of rural village football, a full 25 years before the Football Association would codify the game with its first set of official laws and regulations. Previously sketchy cartoons of village football had been fairly common, a style that found an echo in the anecdotal pen-and-ink drawings which sometimes accompanied match reports around the turn of the century.

Football was largely ignored by the art establishment during the first half of the 20th century. Bloomsbury aesthete Duncan Grant produced Football in 1911, a panel painting currently hanging in the Tate Gallery in London, which shows a group of lithe young men in athletic suits engaged in a kind of bucolic gamble, seeming to pay more attention to one another’s muscular physiques than the ball one of them holds casually beneath an arm. John Singer Sargent’s World War One painting Gassed features a train of walking wounded approaching a trench field hospital, while in the background a football match is taking place with players in full kit and boots. Some critics have claimed that the artist is making an analogy between the horrors of modern warfare and organised sport, in which case Gassed could be the first ever anti-football painting.

Later the modernist Paul Nash summoned up a – perhaps perversely – Cubist vision of what remains a very spherical game in Footballers Prefer Shell (1933), part of a popular poster campaign for Shell Oil. In 1954 football was the subject of perhaps its first dedicated exhibition when the Arts Council organised a collection called “Football And The Fine Arts”. The curators may have intended the title as a pithy paradox given the tone of most of the paintings, which tended to portray football as a means of collective existential release from the kitchen-sink misery of working class life.

One of the works exhibited was LS Lowry’s Going To The Match (1953), perhaps the most famous football painting. It shows supporters walking towards Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park, while in the background factory chimneys belch smoke. The painting was bought as an investment by the PFA in 1999, and the £2 million purchase was much trumpeted in sections of the press as a means of discrediting the union when it threatened to bring its members out on strike in a dispute over television payments in 2001.

During the 1960s football was a recurrent motif in the work of influential “Pop” artist Peter Blake. Blake included a footballer – Albert Stubbins, a Liverpool player of the 1950s – in his artwork for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in 1991 his F Is For Football featured cigarette card portraits of footballers and images of Spurs players from the 1961 Double-winning team. However, the decades following the 1954 exhibition saw a general dwindling of public footballing art, which has only recently been reversed with the market-led softening of the game’s image during the 1990s and an increasingly close relationship between football and various areas of entertainment and the media. During Euro 96 exhibitions of football paintings were held at the City Gallery in Manchester and at London’s Gallery 27. Subsequently, the opening of the National Football Museum in Preston in 2001 has created a site for footballing art to be gathered under one roof.

Despite this, “good” footballing art remains a tiny adjunct of the cultural landscape. Bad footballing art, on the other hand, is a huge and thriving industry. The market for hastily knocked up (“lovingly hand-crafted”) mass-produced memorabilia (“highly collectible artworks”) is as vibrant as any other footballing spin-off. For example, for just £150 fans of Manchester United can buy The Dream. The Hope. The Reality, a tribute to the club’s 1999 treble-winning season, a series of hastily executed mug shots, which bills itself as “a sports illustration without equal... breathtakingly detailed”.

There is a huge amount of this kind of footballing art for sale, infinitely more than there is of the “serious” or “good” or simply non-money-making variety. And while relatively few artists from the canon may have deemed the game worthy of their attentions, there is clearly a hunger for footballing art among those who follow the game.

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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