Saturday 20 June ~
With the backing of the Football League chairman Lord Mawhinney, a National Football Museum is being planned for Wembley, to replace the existing facility at Preston. I have been involved with the NFM since it was nothing more than a feasibility study carried out by the original curator Rob Pratten, at the invitation of the visionary Preston North End chairman Bryan Gray. I am not speaking on behalf of the NFM – I do not work for the museum nor do they pay me, but I do work with them. So when I read that Brian Mawhinney thinks Wembley is the rightful place for the NFM, I am forced to ask myself why he feels justified in making such declarations?
If museums are not about history, heritage and legacy, then what is their purpose? Other sites may feel they have equally valid claims to host the NFM (Aston Villa for example) but when the idea was first mooted by Bryan Gray in the mid-1990s, no one (not least the footballing authorities in England) was particularly interested. Bryan saw the NFM as just one piece in the jigsaw of using Deepdale as a centre for urban regeneration, while also reflecting its importance in football history. Deepdale is the oldest continually used football ground in the world, home to the original champions of the first league in the world. The first registered offices of the Football League were only half a mile away at 248 St Paul’s Road and the Football League still finds Preston a perfectly suitable place to have its main offices. So Preston’s historical credentials are clear.
Wembley also has a claim to history, heritage and legacy but would it (could it?) host a real museum – one that conducts meaningful research, educational programmes and community outreach work – or would it just host an exhibition of football memorabilia? The NFM does all these things and more and has gained a formidable reputation as a result. Entry to the NFM is currently free but it seems from Lord Mawhinney’s reported remarks that the main reason for moving the NFM to Wembley would be to increase revenue streams at the stadium. No mention of history, heritage or legacy or all the activities that go with a real museum and so perhaps income generation is the real nub of his argument for a move south.
"Moving the National Football Museum to Wembley will make it much more accessible to a greater number of people," Mawhinney says. Just glance through the huge collection of visitors’ books at the NFM and see just how inaccessible Preston really is. Entries from visitors from all across the UK, virtually every country in Europe and many hundreds from much further afield testify that ordinary fans (rather than cosseted politicians, administrators and metropolitan journalists who think football was invented in 1992) are happy to travel to Preston on one of the 324 days a year the museum is open. Over 106,000 people managed to find their way to the NFM last year – and that doesn’t include those who visited the exhibitions the NFM put on in numerous other places inside and outside the UK (which include a forthcoming one at Wembley).
Finally, what right does Mawhinney feel he has to use his official position as chairman of the Football League to pronounce on the venue for the NFM? Despite being situated almost on the doorstep, the Football League has consistently rejected every invitation to join the management board of the NFM and they have not contributed one penny to the running costs (although they are happy for the NFM to meet the expenses of keeping the League’s own collection there). It is less than two miles from the Football League offices in Preston to the NFM, and yet there is no record of the chairman ever having made a personal or official visit to the national archive and repository of the game’s history. I will be more than happy to escort Lord Mawhinney around the museum and show him the wonders on display there when he is next in Preston visiting his headquarters.
The National Football Museum in Preston is recognised as the finest collection of footballing memorabilia in the world – check out their website and read the comments of NFM president Sir Bobby Charlton, vice-president Sir Alex Ferguson, Sepp Blatter and many others. FIFA, the Football Association and even the Football League themselves have been happy to deposit their collections in Preston. So too have hundreds of clubs at all levels and thousands of ordinary fans, and no one has ever complained that these are held in Preston. The National Football Museum would be better at Wembley than in Preston? Think again, Lord Mawhinney. Martin Atherton
Martin Atherton is the author of The theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy: the hidden history of the 1966 World Cup and Deaf United: the history of football in Britain’s deaf community. He is also a member of the International Football Institute