A minnow with ambitions. The story is familiar, one told and retold – albeit sporting different kits – across the National Football Museum‘s current ground floor exhibition. It’s also a pithy post-match analysis of the collection itself, a plucky effort by artist curator Steve McGarry (the Manchester-born Stubbs of football portraiture) to compress a century and a half of football-inspired illustration from around the world into a corner of the building formerly known as Urbis.

Aptly with such breadth of remit, not all the pieces on display are of Premier League quality. The illustrative work, while frequently striking, loses something in the process of translating a world in motion into something more static.

More, perhaps, than any other sport, it is football, with its 90-minute performances in multi-seater theatres of dreams, whose players can best match the climax and catharsis of their thespian counterparts. The game’s dramas, in which neither showing nor telling are the whole story, are also natural material for the comic strip.

What’s fascinating in retrospect is how – even in the early years of the previous century, prior to the popularisation of the comic format – the writers of illustrated football stories drew on life from beyond the white panel markings of the pitch, so that For League And Love , for example, promised ‘a powerful serial of football, love and mystery’.

Playing for a Draw, National Football Museum, ManchesterIt was through the adoption of the grammar of the American comic book, however, that the English (with apologies to Hot Shot Hamish) game was brought to life most vividly. The most recognisable of these newsprint galacticos, Melchester Rovers’ iconic Roy Race, inkily impervious to age, survived shootings, terrorist bombings and the wearisome presence of Spandau Ballet over a near 40-year playing career of unparalleled success (to say nothing of his achievements as a manager).

The apex of the strip’s ambiguous excess predated Billy The Fish’s triumphant and decidedly unambiguous embrace of such de trop tropes, but a certain absurdity – comedic in intent or not – was latent in the premise of earlier serials. One Minute Murphy, unsurprisingly, failed to live down to the accidental innuendo of its title, but – blessed with a name worthy of Larry Grayson’s rotating cast of disreputables – Limp Along Leslie remains an unalloyed joy.

Orphaned in the same car accident that left him with one leg shorter than the other and residing on his widowed aunt’s farm – tragedy seeming to run in the family – Leslie Tomson nevertheless has ambitions; not only to be a professional footballer, but also to raise a prize-winning sheepdog. An underdog training a literal dog, Leslie is one of the unfancied minnows whose exploits serve to make a visit to the exhibition as rewarding as an overachieving national team.

Football’s coming Urbis.

By Desmond Bullen


Playing for a Draw is on display at the National Football Museum until September 2, 2018 and will also feature as part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, running from October 12-14, 2018.