The fan - Hunter Davies finds something brilliant (really!)

I've found something brilliant. Honest, I really have

Until last week, I'd been to Preston only three times in my fun-filled life. In the late 1950s, I spent a long weekend there in order to graduate as a Ribble bus conductor. I was nervous about the exams but I got through, phew, and attended a passing-out parade, holding my ticket machine and leather money bag. Oh, if only I had a photograph. My children, when I moaned at them as students for not having proper holiday jobs, never believed me.

In the 1990s I went twice, working on books. I interviewed the staff of a chemist's shop who had won half a million each on the Lottery. Then, for a book about people born in 1900, I went to see a local GP, then aged 96. What took me there this time? The National Football Museum, of course. It opened last year, but I've been saving it up till now, a treat for myself. Only an hour and a half down the motorway from where we are in Lakeland, so I was there before it opened, hammering to be let in. I spent five hours, dazed by all the wonders, and can't wait to go again. It's brilliant. I do overuse that word, like the kid in The Fast Show, but I honestly, sincerely think it's amazing.

You have to be interested in football history to appreciate the 1,000 items on show, such as an England shirt worn in 1872 against Scotland in the world's first international. Or the 20,000 objects behind the scenes and available to researchers, such as the museum's 1585 copy of a book, in Italian, about the Calcio - probably the world's oldest book on football. Such excitement as I put on white gloves to inspect it. (Second time in a week. At the Armitt Museum in Ambleside, I was white-gloved to look at a first edition of Peter Rabbit, the self-published one, worth about £55,000.)

The organisers have nicely combined the educational side, putting football in a social context, showing the Dick, Kerr women's team of the 1920s against suffragette images, and with lots of fun stuff, such as interactive displays and games on TV. There's even an indoor football pitch where you can take shots at goal and have a computer score your speed and accuracy.

It cost £15m in all (thanks to Lottery money), and is in spanking new premises, under the stand at Deepdale. It's the only national football museum in the world. So far, Preston has had visits from football officials in Brazil, Germany and Norway, each of which is now planning its own version. The museum had hoped for 80,000 visitors in this first year - but, alas, has managed only 40,000. If it's so brilliant, as I maintain, and if football is so successful, rich and popular with millions, why have people not been queueing all the way along the M6? I wish I could answer that.

I asked Hugh Hornby, one of the curators. He thought one problem was lack of money for publicity and marketing. It did cost a fortune to create, but is now running on a very small budget, so not enough people know it exists.

Inside, it is huge and spectacular, but from the outside it looks nondescript, more like a shop, and the "FM" logo is too cute and gets lost. That may deter people. So might being in Preston. Football-wise, as all football historians know, being in Preston is justified, but perhaps not otherwise. Who wants to go there? I've had specific reasons for four visits in 40-odd years, but I wouldn't have gone otherwise.

Perhaps the real problem is the football psyche. Becks has not been there, nor any present-day national football star, but Bobby Charlton and all the 1966 team have. Today's players think only of today, not where they and football have come from.

Most football fans, especially new ones, are the same. It takes time for them to realise that there is a past. It's great that our National Football Museum exists but, like Martin Peters, it could well be ten years ahead of itself.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, No Go Britain