In describing how the "Urban Goals" project came about, photographer Michael Kirkham hones in on a street corner in his resident Liverpool. "I used to see this one goal in particular in Granby, in Toxteth, on the corner of Jermyn Street, and just by the side of it someone had sprayed 'RIP Chedz'. He was some Toxteth cat. I don’t know who he was, but he must have died. It got me thinking about the surroundings in which kids in the area play football, the urban goals of the kids who live there."
"Urban goals" has a double meaning here, both in the sense of the literal white-paint goalposts which Michael photographs and the aspirations of kids whose kickabouts happen up against bricks walls in Britain’s inner cities. In the two years since "RIP Chedz" caught his eye, Michael has travelled through some of the most deprived areas of the country in search of makeshift goals. A roofer by trade, he has no formal training in photography and no art school diploma, but his photos are ethereal, beautiful and a compelling testament to working-class life.
Originally intended to be a project entirely focused on Liverpool, "Urban Goals" now comprises photos taken in Glasgow, Leeds, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, Birmingham and beyond. Michael doesn’t drive and, having initially walked miles in search of places to shoot, the entire project has been done either on foot or with the help of public transport.
Talking about his method for locating improvised (or sometimes dilapidated) goalposts, Michael says: "Once I started looking further afield [than Liverpool] I went with the obvious cities – Manchester, London, Glasgow, Belfast and so on – and I just started writing locations down. I’ve got a notebook with 700-ish spots, and I’d write down the number of the nearest bus stop or train station… the whole thing was done just walking about."
If "Urban Goals" is an inner-city odyssey and a personal labour of love, then, it is also a tribute to communities and neighbourhoods which have been neglected by government. Implicit to each photograph is the need for improvisation and ingenuity in want of decent football pitches and facilities, whether that means kids using rusty old goalposts with no nets or creating their own goals with white paint and a wall.
Many of the goalposts Michael has photographed are splashed onto the sides of pubs, warehouses, rail lines and houses, or are simple metal frames on the borders of factories and council estates. Some you can imagine being used for snatched games during 15-minute work breaks, others by bored teenagers and kids in places where there isn’t much work to speak of.
"Back when I first started taking pictures I realised that the common thread to most of my work is working-class life and its place in modern Britain, I guess," Michael says. "I wanted to show these neighbourhoods across the UK and how they have been systematically underfunded, some of them for generations. You look at a neighbourhood like Toxteth, or Brixton, or any other area that’s neglected, and you do often feel like your ambitions and your goals in life are limited if you’re from those areas. That’s been my experience, anyway."
Particularly when it comes to the photos of goals roughly daubed on walls, there’s a ghostly element to Michael’s photography. The white lines are often badly weather-beaten or faded with age, which in contrast to their orange-red brick canvas makes them seem like echoes of another time.
If this conveys the sense of societal neglect which is at the heart of the "Urban Goals" project, it also makes for poignant and moving images. There is perhaps a sense of anger in the photographs, as well as a sense of sadness, which is intensified by the spontaneity and simplicity of the premise: shots of impromptu urban football pitches condensed down into a trio of metal bars or paint lines.
If there is a melancholy aspect to the "Urban Goals" project, however, there is also a feeling of hope which runs through many of the photographs. Though, in Michael’s words, "you hardly ever find urban goals in the richer areas of a city, it’s always in the places which don’t get much love", there is some love to be found in their painted walls and cracked brown bricks.
While Michael’s photos say something about inequality, scarcity and economic disadvantage, they also speak to something childlike which predates those grown-up concerns for most of us. A goalmouth painted on the side of a railway bridge might symbolise neglect to an adult, but for a child who plays football there it could well be the most treasured spot in the world.
So, as the title of the project suggests, some faded goalposts on the wall of a housing estate might still be a place to daydream, to have visions of future heroics on a football pitch. Painted on in place of something more permanent, those goalposts are also testament to something irrepressible: the simple pleasures of being a kid.