A place for all players

Jim White joins the goal rush as Manchester unites at the city's new National Football Museum.

Steve Hodge may not be the most memorable figure in the history of English football but he owns the most renowned piece of football memorabilia. At the end of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, the one in which Diego Maradona called upon the "hand of God" to hasten England's demise, Hodge swapped shirts with the diminutive cheat.

He thus had in his possession what came to be considered one of the most valuable items of sporting paraphernalia - an item so costly, he was obliged to keep it in the bank because it made his house insurance prohibitively expensive.

But there's no need to make an appointment with Hodge's bank manager to see this shirt of shame: it's among 3000 items on display at the new National Football Museum in Manchester.

"It's one of the first things they [visitors] head for," the marketing and communications officer of the museum, Adam Comstive, says. "I think it's an object everyone loves to revile." As it happens, the focus of our derision doesn't look like much, just a royal-blue, short-sleeve shirt that's slightly scuffed around the collar. As with so many of the exhibits in this wonderful collection, it's the story behind it that makes it such a compelling draw.

Every display cabinet, interactive screen and audiovisual unit in the place similarly resonates. From the first football programs and seats from old Wembley; from L.S. Lowry's painting Going to the Match (on loan from the Professional Footballers' Association) to a World War I recruitment poster ("Play the greater game, join the Football Battalion"), it's not just sporting history being mapped out here, it's a collective cultural memory.

I always wondered what the image on the Ray Wilson coin - the one gap in my collection at the time - looked like. Now I know: nothing like Ray Wilson. "This is not just the history of the game," Comstive says. "It's really telling the history of modern Britain through the vehicle of football."

And there is no better place to tell it than in Manchester, the home of Man United and Manchester City FC. The city thrums at weekends during the season. Such is its association with the game that local universities print pictures of Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium on the front of their brochures, the implied invitation to potential students being that they should come to study in the home of football.

"Last season, there were 6000 fans from Bilbao wandering around town ahead of their team's game with United," Comstive says. "They would all have loved to come here had we been open. What we can help do is turn Manchester into a place you visit not just for the 90 minutes of the match but for a whole football weekend. I think this will be a central experience for anyone visiting the city."


The collection used to be housed in Deepdale, Preston North End's stadium on the M6. But its move to the Urbis Centre, the blade-like glass building just off Market Street in Manchester's city centre, has enabled it to grow.

Across four floors, the place reverberates with sound and movement. Everywhere there is something to touch or watch or, in the case of a display charting the development of change rooms, smell. From hooliganism through the grassroots to football toys, everything is explored.

Uniquely for a museum, though appropriately enough for this place, visitors can kick a ball around. In the penalty shoot-out room, you can try to beat a virtual goalkeeper and put the ball between the very posts that used to be at Wembley.

Following his recent ignominy in Ukraine, perhaps Ashley Young should pop down the road from Old Trafford to give it a go. Though having tried it myself, I have new sympathy for anyone, like Young, who misses on England duty: from 11 metres, that goal shrinks horribly.

"We're hoping that even those who think they are not particularly interested in the game can come here, find something to enjoy and realise quite how central football is to all our experience," Comstive says.

Nothing makes that quite as plain as the exhibition that fills the museum's top floor for the next four months. Stuart Clarke's Homes of Football is a collection of photographs charting our absorption in the game. They are quirky, evocative, lovingly framed: immersion in his work must be the best way to bring a smile to even the most forlorn face.


Getting There

Etihad has a fare to Manchester from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2010 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr), then to Manchester (8hr 5min); see etihad.com. The National Football Museum is at the Urbis Centre, a two-minute walk from Manchester Victoria station. Open Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission is free, though there is a charge, from £2.50 ($3.80) a time, to use some of the interactive exhibits. See nationalfootballmuseum.com.

- Telegraph, London