by Garry Cook (published in Lancashire Today magazine)
It’s the trip to football heaven you’ve always wanted to make. The National Football Museum has assembled a staggering assortment of wonderful artefacts, items and memorabilia which create a stunning history of the sport. And last month England’s temple to football stepped into line with the country’s other eighteen National Museums by allowing visitors in for free.
If you thought the museum, based in Preston and attached to North End’s Deepdale Stadium, paid homage to only the Lilywhites you’d be very wrong. The people of Lancashire, thanks in part to the history of PNE, have found themselves with not just a National Museum, but also a football collection of world-wide significance which together simply takes the breath away.
The museum snakes its way under the Sir Tom Finney Stand and up into the Bill Shankly Kop, telling the story of football and displaying some of the most memorable objects the sport has produced. World governing body FIFA houses its Museum Collection here, with perhaps its centre-piece the hat-trick ball struck by Sir Geoff Hurst in the World Cup Final at Wembley in 1966.
It’s acquisition, along with the replica Jules Rimet trophy which England won by beating Germany in that final, have made the museum the envy of cities across the world.
But it could have all been so different. The battle to bring the Museum to Preston was hard fought. Several cities, including Sheffield and even, god forbid, Carlisle, were in the running to secure the ‘National’ title. But it was a meeting with an ex-journalist called Harry Langton which won the museum, run entirely independently from North End, its status.
Langton, who died in 2000, had collected football merchandise and items of interest for 46 years. FIFA bought his collection and when the idea of a National Football Museum in England was first mooted, and after talks with Langton, a deal was struck to buy the display and bring it to Preston. Subsequently the collections of the FA, the Football League and Wembley Stadium have moved to Lancashire.
The museum, which cost £19 million, opened in June 2001 houses a staggering 25,000 objects in the collection – though only 1,000 are on show at any one time. Its three curators take in new items on a weekly basis, but as marketing manager Mark Bushell admits it can be difficult choosing what’s in and what’s out.
“Some of our best items have been given to us by members of the public,” says Bushell. “But we can only take items in which have a genuine national significance and it can be heartbreaking sometimes having to turn things away.
He added: “Preston was chosen because of its history; it was the first ever club to win the Football League and do the double and, in Deepdale, has the longest continuously used ground in the world.”
The replica Jules Rimet trophy is probably the most famous item. Since the original was stolen from Brazil in 1983, the replica is now so valuable it was bought by FIFA for £250,000 five years ago. Not bad for a gilded bronze statue.
But it is the story behind the trophy – uncovered by the museum and to be told in a forthcoming book – which is truly amazing. The statue was produced prior to the 1966 Final by goldsmith George Bird after the original was stolen from a stamp fair. The FA approached FIFA and requested permission to make a gold replica because they didn’t think the original would be recovered. Famously, Pickles the dog found the original in a hedge but the FA, in secret, went ahead anyway and made a bronze replica without FIFA’s knowledge.
Bushell takes up the story as the celebrations took place on the Wembley pitch. He revealed: “It was real Keystone Cops stuff. Three policeman, one with the replica under his jacket, scrapped the original from Nobby Stiles’s hands and passed on the fake to another player.
“From then, the fake was passed around the dressing room with Howard Wilson and in all the following celebrations. Every photograph at that time was of the fake. The original was kept in a vault for four years until the Mexico World Cup.
“The fake then lay under George Bird’s bed for 27 years until, after his death, his widow decided to auction it. No-one ever knew this story until we uncovered it as part of our research in 2001.”
One of Bushell’s favourite pieces is Jimmy Hill’s antique chair which he sat on for three years in Fleet Street while PFA chairman as he battled to abolish the maximum wage. It was picked up during a meeting with Hill at his home and was handed over by the ex-player, manager and TV pundit to the museum. Bushell says this is how the museum gets many of its exhibits.
“We can’t compete with private collectors so we appeal to them to loan us items.
The most important development to the National Football Museum recently was its successful bid to win ‘free entry’ status last month. This followed tireless campaigning for the museum to match the direct revenue funding status enjoyed by England’s other 18 national museums. £2 million worth of funding has been secured by the North West Development Agency to pay rent for the next 60 years while staff and running costs have been covered until 2006.
Visitor numbers have already risen as a result and the 42,000 visitors in 2002 could now swell by as much as 150% judging by similar ventures elsewhere.
Much of the influx should come from the North West but Bushell stresses: “It’s not just a Preston museum. It’s as much about Arsenal as Everton, as England and the international game.. The museum offers a social history, not just for football supporters.”
The FIFA collection is now owned by the museum for what Bushell describes as a ‘considerable amount.’ The Museum cost £19 million to launch, of which £7 million went into actually building it. And as it is no secret that FIFA paid £250,000 for the replica Jules Rimet trophy now on display, it is safe to assume that the cost of entire FIFA collection, and other exhibits, ran into millions of pounds.
But Bushell says that even after amassing a huge array of items there were still vital areas left un-addressed. “We still had gaps, like Gazza,” he recalls. “So we stared asking people for help. We got in touch with Mel Stein who was Gazza’s agent, and found his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in a brown paper bag in an office drawer.” The award now sits proudly on display in the museum – not far from Gazza’s glorious Spitting Image puppet.
The tale of the ’66 World Cup ball is proof that such items are best kept in a museum. Bought by the Mirror Group, Virgin and Eurostar UK in 1996 from German ‘66 international Helmut Haller, the ball – which had acquired over 30 signatures from the likes of Eusebio and Pele – was put on display at Waterloo Station.
“It was left in direct sunlight and all the signatures faded,” says Bushell.
“It’s unbelievable, but it happens a lot. I see so many framed jerseys slowly deteriorating in Directors Room’s at stadiums. At least here at the museum they will be preserved. That’s why FIFA agreed to let us have their collection.”
To see the greatest trophies of all time – World Cup’s, the FA cup, medals, shirts – under one roof is too good an opportunity to miss. If you’ve never been to Deepdale… you should now.”