Hands off, Wembley

The National Football Museum is just fine where it is, up north

I was appalled to read recently that a national football museum is being planned for Wembley, which would replace the one at Preston. One argument is that Preston is nowhere, really, somewhere up there beyond Watford. No one goes there, boring provincial place, anything national should be at the heart of the nation, ie, London.

I’ve been to the Preston museum a few times, took my passport, Lancashire phrase book and emergency rations – all they eat up there is their young – and it’s brilliant. I use that word too easily, I know, but I honestly think that any football fan, from anywhere in the world, would find the National Football Museum brilliant.

It has 2,000 items on show at any one time, ranging from the world’s oldest football shirt – worn by Arnold Kirke-Smith when playing for England against Scotland in 1872 – to Stanley Matthews’s kit from the 1953 FA Cup final. Objects are put in a social context, such as women’s football and the suffragette movement, and it has the world’s first known moving image of football – a game between Blackburn Rovers and West Brom from 1898.

Among the foreign stuff, they have the two balls from the first ever World Cup final in 1930. Argentina and Uruguay each insisted on playing with their own ball, so Fifa decided that the Argentinian ball would be used in the first half and the Uruguayan in the second. At half-time, the Argies were 2-1 up, using their ball, but the Uruguayans came back to win 4-2, thanks to their ball.

The museum is situated under the stand at Deepdale, home of Preston North End, one of the founders of the Football League in 1888. Behind the scenes, it also has another 30,000 items that can be seen and studied for research purposes. About 100,000 people a year visit it, and it’s all free. So what’s the problem?

“There is no problem,’’ says Kevin Moore, the museum’s director. “This story all started when Lord Mawhinney, chairman of the Football League, was quoted as saying that the museum should be at Wembley. That appears to be his opinion. I was very disappointed to hear it. I know of no plans to move us and I have received support from thousands of people who want us to stay here.”

It seems to me that the perfect solution would be to have two museums – the National Football Museum at Preston and another museum at Wembley, one on its own glorious history, which covers a lot more activities than just football. The British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25, celebrating the country’s recovery from the horrors of the First World War, was one of the greatest exhibitions ever seen. Wembley Stadium, purpose-built for the occasion, was only one of about 20 huge buildings and exhibition areas, all of them now gone.

Apparently, the new Wembley did plan to incorporate some sort of exhibition, and space was allocated for it, though nowhere near as big as Preston’s, but no one has got the money. Not now.

Meanwhile, the National Football Museum at Preston continues to do a great job on a small budget, mounting special exhibitions, doing educational work all over the north – and has even managed to move itself nearer to London. Oh yes.

When it opened in 2001, it took between two hours 30 minutes and two hours 40 to reach Preston from London. At long last, that dreaded West Coast Main Line has been upgraded. You can now get to Preston in two hours. Practically suburbia.

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 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd