Can David Whitley went to find out.’s new National Football Museum please die-hard fans and casual observers alike?
There is a special breed of football fan out there, almost exclusively male and highly unlikely to be in a relationship, which finds football memorabilia fascinating. To this drooling imitation of a rounded human being, old match programmes from the 1930s, fading ticket stubs and boots once worn by Ian Ormondroyd are gripping artefacts to be savoured. They are the kids who never stopped collecting Panini stickers.
What, the fear struck as I was about to cross the threshold, if the National Football Museum in Manchester has been aimed at them?
The newly opened museum takes the place of Urbis, a categorical flop of an exhibition that was vaguely devoted to how cities work. The National Football Museum inherits the Urbis building – a striking glass triangle near the Arndale shopping centre. But now it has been filled with old match programmes, fading ticket stubs and boots belonging to former footballers.
Mercifully, that’s not all that’s inside. The first few displays of the museum are memorabilia-heavy, but at least some items are significant. These include the first handwritten rules of Association Football from 1863 – the work of a long-forgotten Ebeneezer Cobb Morley.
As is often the case with the museum, however, it’s the things that aren’t behind the glass that are most interesting. On the wall is a quote from someone considerably better known than Ebeneezer Cobb Morley. It reads: “Am I so round with you as you with me/ That like a football you do spurn me thus?”
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Those words are from A Comedy Of Errors, which was penned by William Shakespeare in the late 16th century. The beautiful game is rather older than many of us think.
Whilst the exhibits refer to the sport down the centuries, the attitude very much belongs to this one – the use of touch screen technology and video is superb. The museum is broken down into digestible chunks, broadly themed on subjects such as players, stadiums, managers and the media. Sure, there may be the old shirts and World Cup mascots sprinkled in, but you never have to wait too long to get interactive.
In the managers section, you can scroll through a series of interviews and team talks captured on dressing room cameras. Neil Warnock’s address to his Huddersfield players when they’re 2-0 at half-time to Shrewsbury is a masterclass in bleeping.
The stadiums section has 3D models of every league ground in the country, along with capacity and record attendances, while the footage brought up in the FA Cup area is spine-tingling. The shots of the 1923 final at Wembley, where a single policeman on a white horse managed to coerce a 200,000 crowd back to the touchlines so the match could be played, are phenomenal. And just you try not to wince, cry and applaud whilst watching Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann play with a broken neck in the 1956 final.
On the acceptable side of geeky, there is a near continual stream of games and quizzes to play with. Top Trumps with stats from great strikers, a weird air hockey-like contraption where you move a ball around with your shadow and scores of pub quiz-style teasers are all in the mix. I found myself absorbed for 20 minutes by a board which randomly generates a season then has you guess which division eight different teams were playing in that year. It’s ferociously hard, but oddly addictive. Well, do you know which division Millwall, Oldham, Luton, Wolves, Grimsby, Huddersfield, Blackpool and Bradford were in back in 1992-93?
Where the National Football Museum really excels, however, is when it stops being a museum and starts being a playground. Dotted throughout the building are a series of “Football Plus” exhibits. These cost £2.50 a pop, and should turn the free museum entry into a fairly expensive day out for any parent subjected to pester power. The exhibits include the chance to play at Match of the Day commentator – either copying the original commentary of famous football moments via autocue or freestyling your own version of events. I tried the latter; watching it back when overdubbed with my unintentionally Alan Partridge-esque take on Ryan Giggs dancing through the Arsenal defence was excruciating. It was also a lesson that sports commentary isn’t quite as easy as it seems.
Other ‘Football Plus’ games include passing a ball against circles on a wall, getting points for hitting the right ones, and a penalty shoot out against a computer generated goalkeeper. The penalties are rated for positioning and power. Which, in my case, were completely irrelevant when I sent the ball wide of the left post.
The National Football Museum has made unabashed attempts to be great fun. And in that it succeeds handsomely – but there’s also plenty of depth there for anyone wanting to dig further into the sport and its place in our culture. The sections may seem small and bitty at first, but start pushing buttons or scrolling through screens and there’s an awful lot packed in. I regularly found myself thinking: “I didn’t know that.”
Quite how it’ll cope in the school holidays when hundreds of children are in at once wanting to take penalty kicks or play commentator, I’m not sure. But on first impressions, Manchester’s newest tourist attraction is a champion.