We're football crazy, we're football mad

Mary Novakovich is won over by the new National Football Museum

The English may be obsessed with football, but the country had to wait till last week to get a national soccer museum. The Scots have had one at Hampden Park since 1990 - the first in the world - and its revamped version opens at the end of May. And, of course, there is a very small number of football clubs with the money to put together more than a display cabinet for its fans. But what if you are not a Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal fan? Then it's a trek on the M6 for you, and on to Preston.

The English may be obsessed with football, but the country had to wait till last week to get a national soccer museum. The Scots have had one at Hampden Park since 1990 - the first in the world - and its revamped version opens at the end of May. And, of course, there is a very small number of football clubs with the money to put together more than a display cabinet for its fans. But what if you are not a Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal fan? Then it's a trek on the M6 for you, and on to Preston.

Not the most glamorous town, Preston. But the Lancashire club did win the first professional championship in 1889, so that makes it the spiritual home of the game. And that is where they have erected the Modernist colossus that is the National Football Museum. It cost £12m, has display areas of 7,000sq ft, and has the most extraordinary collection of memorabilia I have ever seen. Even those who profess to hate the sport will be captivated, so if you are dragged there by a fan you might not come out converted but your estimation of the game should go up.

Once you get through the concrete and glass entrance, you are in the official Game of Two Halves (well, they could hardly resist). Follow the arrows through the First Half and you reach the exhibition hall, which shows the game's history and development over the past 150 years. There is a lot of information to cover, and they have put a lot of thought into the layout so that you are not overwhelmed. They have also put each milestone in its social, historical and even musical context, so the Beatles serenade you while you gaze at George Best in his prime. But the soundtrack is so unobtrusive that I found myself in the 1990s before I registered it consciously. No bad thing.

You find your eyes are inexorably pulled along each exhibit, wanting to take in everything, and many of the displays will start talking to you when you step in front of them.

The 19th-century section is inevitably less cluttered, but a few oddities jump out. A Victorian blow-football set, for example, and those itchy wool jerseys players wore in the old days. And once you find yourself in the 1960s, you will see an old leather chair. So whose famous bottom sat in that? Today's players should regard that chair as a shrine because Jimmy Hill sat in it in 1961 when he negotiated the demise of the maximum wage. Hill was not to know that, 40 years later, Roy Keane would be getting a reported £20,000 a week.

A welcome exhibit is one showing the history of women's football. It started in the 19th century, but for decades the Football Association forbade teams to affiliate themselves with their local men's grounds. Brownie points to the NFM for a bit of recognition.

Before you enter the Second Half, there are a few diversions during the break. There is a special gallery that currently shows the history of Wembley, and another that focuses on the home team, Preston North End. Go through the Preston gallery and you will end up in a glassed-in pod overlooking its Deepdale ground. Great vantage point for a match, but they boot you out before kick-off, understandably.

Upstairs, the Second Half is hands-on heaven. It is all subtly educational, but children and adults will be too busy playing to notice. If you are not the shy type, you can sit with a virtual Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen and do a post-match analysis and watch the results on video afterwards. And Gabby Yorath pops up on a screen and answers questions about tactics, so there is absolutely no excuse for failing to understand the offside rule.

One of the most hilarious games is table football. Sounds mundane, but each goal is then shown on a four-angle action replay. The effect is so side-splitting you are certain to let in a goal, as I did. There is also a supporters' gallery in which various club devotees have donated their memorabilia in exchange for the chance to appear on a screen and go on about their obsession with Southend United and the like. That's real grassroots stuff.

Once you have absorbed and played with everything, there is the Ground Café to revive you and the Extra Time shop. Again, someone thought long and hard about this, and the result is an innovative selection of goodies. All teams that have ever been in the League are represented here, and the scope and depth of the exhibits go a long way to show that the game does not start and end with the big clubs.

But I was only 33 miles from Manchester, and that meant Old Trafford. I have a confession to make: I am one of those loathed Londoners who supports Manchester United. I know. You can stop jeering now. But as my late father started the tradition 50 years ago, I'm hardly going to change allegiances now. Three years ago Man U opened their £4m museum, which includes a trophy room that almost blinds you with silver. This is not a boast - just a fact. There is Man-U-Net on the ground floor, with its interactive games and computers, an enormous amount of paraphernalia and a moving gallery on the 1958 Munich disaster.

But the best thing to do is to combine all of this with a tour of the stadium. My group was led by Stuart, whose profound knowledge of the club was tempered with anti-Man City jibes and some unbelievably corny jokes. But his enthusiasm won us over as he took us to the North Stand, the press room and press lounge, VIP suite, players' lounge, home team dug-out and the dressing room - the site of near hysteria when one teenage girl discovered she was sitting in David Beckham's spot. Then we were led through the players' tunnel, with the group divided into home and visiting teams.

As we were about to walk through, Stuart pressed a button and we were accompanied by the roar of the crowd. It was a ridiculously exciting moment, leaving us wearing silly grins. After a day immersed in football, there was nothing I wanted more than to go to a match. With Man U tickets notoriously difficult to get, perhaps it's time I checked out my local Third Division side. Now that's glamour for you.

Comments