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Ed Gray at the Euros

As Scotland and England both hope for success in the UEFA Euro 24 competition so the art exhibition Shut Up and Stick to Football opens in Covent Garden, writes Michael Holland.

This group show is not to glamourise the ‘Beautiful Game’ but to look beyond the goal celebrations and bling of overpaid footballers and scrape the mud from the studs and reveal the connection between politics and our national game.

The show’s title comes from when the England team took the knee as a show of solidarity against racism but were booed by those purporting to be England fans. Then, instead of getting behind the players, right-wing politicians said they should ‘shut up and stick to football’.

Eleven artists have been picked to portray their take on football; a diverse team who can all bring something different to the arena: Darren Cullen, Emmely Elgersma, Jamie Holman, Dion Kitson, Dominic from Luton, Conor Rogers, Janette Parris, Mark Wallinger, Foka Wolf, and Wankers of the World. A squad that includes a Turner Prize winner and subversive street artists, as well as those who will always portray the current political landscape in their art if there is a need. And there usually is.

But I was there to see Southwark artist Ed Gray, whose ‘Still Dreaming:  Olympic Way Wembley Euro 2021’ is in the exhibition.

In the warm up I asked the artist how he got involved: ‘I was asked by the curator, Wankers of the World, to submit a painting about football for an exhibition exploring the relationship between politics and football, to coincide with Euro 2024.’

His painting is a scene from the Euro 2020 final between England & Italy (played post-lockdown in 2021). Gray sketched and chatted with an exuberant crowd making their way to Wembley and hoping the trophy was ‘coming home’. He realised that he was more interested in the moment of anticipation than the result and this is what the finished painting depicts.

The day didn’t end well. Italy won the match and fans stormed the stadium, but Ed Gray had his theme and tells me, ‘the painting is about nostalgia, nationalism, identity, passion, hope and post-Brexit paralysis.’ 

Gray is no stranger to paintings of this genre: ‘This is my fourth large football-related painting, including a FIFA commission I made for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa after a residency there. 

‘I like to play football but I don’t follow a team,’ he says, ‘I’m an outsider, as an artist you are by nature an outsider. I’m also an obsessive when it comes to my work. You have to be. I live with a cycle of hope and despair in the studio much like the fans I paint. So I love that sense of theatre that sport provides. I feel a sense of camaraderie with the fans I sketch. I also feel a sense of common purpose with my late father who was a sports journalist. I’m drawn to the drama and the madness of the crowds much like he was. He never took me to a match, as I was too young when he died, but I read his words and in some ways, perhaps, I like to think I see all this through his eyes sometimes.’

Also in the exhibition were some very good thought-provokers. ‘Who Do You Support? Half-and-Half Scarves Are for Wankers!’ by the show’s curator, is a mock-up of the pop-up scarf stalls outside grounds on match day that sell half-and-half scarves for the neutral fan. Except these scarves symbolise the polar opposites where nobody wants to linger in the no man’s land of the middle ground: Palestine v Israel, Cyclists v Motorists; Vaccine v Anti-Vax…

‘Occupation’ reimagines Subbuteo but there is an unfair advantage of the Palestinian players on crutches and in wheelchairs trying to negotiate a pitch full of bomb craters against Israeli Defence Force soldiers with guns. There is also a construction of Israeli settlements on the playing field itself.

Shut Up and Stick to Football kicks Saudi Sports-washing into touch along with human rights violations and public executions in football grounds. You don’t have to be at the exhibition for long before you begin to feel unclean at how football is being used and abused by people who have no love for it.

Large bookmakers feel the crunch of a tough tackle in midfield, as do the kit manufacturers who see every one of their products sold as a victory and those who do the winning while wearing their brand as a commodity to sell more.

And that is what makes Shut Up and Stick to Football such a relevant and necessary exhibition. It is educational; parents should be taking their kids to see the reality behind the 90 minutes, as well as to give their own eyes and mind a chance.

The Bomb Factory , 99-103 Long Acre, Covent Garden, WC2E 9NR until 14th July

Thursday – Sunday | 12-6pm


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