Thursday, 28 February 2013

The National Football Museum

England is the home of football. We've only won one meaningful trophy in the FA's 150-year history, and that came some 47 years ago. There are even those who cheapen this record still further by reminding us that that particular triumph was on home soil, where we got to play every game at Wembley and benefited more than a little from the questionable eyesight of a linesman (referees assistant to you younger readers) from Azerbaijan. No, he wasn't Russian. Not strictly speaking. Yet despite this inglorious bastard of a record, England is the home of football. It's birthplace.

Fitting then that it should be home to the National Football Museum. Fitting yes, but somewhat perplexing that I hadn't been through the doors of the museum until just over a week ago. Though I consider myself more of a rugby league man these days, I am and always have been a football follower too. The shift to rugby league probably owes a lot to the decline of Liverpool FC over the last 20 years and almost certainly has its roots in a certain Michael Thomas goal at Anfield in 1989. The funny thing about Thomas' goal is that aswell as providing the lowest on-field moment in my football-watching life, it is also the backdrop to the finale of Fever Pitch. Nick Hornby's seminal account of a life watching Arsenal between the late 1960's and the early 1990's is by far the best sports book I have ever read and one of the main reasons I took to writing and why you find yourself about to sit through yet more of my meanderings. I know, shocking as it is, you can stick your Ashley Cole autobiography up your arse. Fifty Shades Of Shite.

I drive to the museum with my nephew Joe, my cousin's son Jamie and my mum. A lot of my footballing memories as a boy seem to include my mum complaining about having to watch it on television. Now she's a committed fan. Liverpool of course. I am still nominally a Liverpool fan as is my dad, while Joe remains as much a fanatic as I was when I was almost 14 years old. Before Michael Thomas and Brian Moore and 'up for grabs now'. I keep wondering what his Michael Thomas moment might be. I was spoiled as a kid watching Liverpool. It seemed like we won the league and/or the European Cup every year. We. See, Hornby is right, it's in there, all the time, waiting to get out. By contrast Joe has seen one Champions League win as a six-year-old in 2005, but by and large he has spent his time watching his heroes trail in the wake of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and now Manchester City. He has been with me to Langtree Park a couple of times but he remains a devoted red. What is it going to take to get him to commit further to the Saints cause? Relegation? It seems a stretch to imagine that, even as you see Jonjo Shelvey fall over the ball or Stewart Downing limply turn down another blind alley. They're just not bad enough to test Joe's resolve.

It takes a while to park. I had looked on the museum's website but in a manner that is consistent with the half-arsed, lazy way that I do most things, decided not to print anything out or write anything down for reference. I'd just turn up and the parking would look after itself. It doesn't quite. We end up in a large multi-story behind the Printworks, which is not a Printworks at all but a thriving shopping and dining complex. There's a banner draped over the wall as we wind up the ramp to the parking spaces that advertises parking for the day for £3.90. All of which seems very reasonable and besides, we have been driving around Manchester for 20 minutes. Despite passing the museum when looking for a parking space, we still have to ask a lady on the street how to get there on foot. Navigational skills are in short supply here.

The museum has four floors but from the outside it doesn't seem like a particularly huge building. It's an L-shaped affair, and we pass the café on the way towards the entrance. There we are greeted by a young lady who informs us that today we will be treated to a number of performances from John Farnworth, the World Freestyle Football Champion. At this point I am not entirely sure what Freestyle Football is, but I have a pretty good idea that it is a glorified form of keepy-uppy. Speaking of which, when I was around Joe's age there was a slightly older boy who lived in our street called Spike Vaughton who could keep the ball up almost at will. Terms like Freestyle Football were just a marketing man's dream back then, but if such a thing had existed Spike Vaughton would have excelled. I now live in his grandparents' old house. There's lots of our family within a stones throw of each other. It's a bit like that in Thatto Heath. We can't all be Johnny Vegas.

The entrance to the museum is, in fine but clunkingly obvious footballing tradition, a turnstile. Unfortunately, just like in real stadia, wheelchair users are unable to pass through turnstiles so instead at the push of a button a gate opens. Very slowly. It moves slower than Bully's dartboard as the least hapless of each episode's three couples decide whether they are going to gamble or that in fact that they have 'had a great day' and will take home their £30. We spend some time at the Hall Of Fame video wall where, bizarrely, Joe shows both his age and mine. The wall flashes up a whole host of football legends past and present, their career highlights, some stats, that sort of thing. Up pops Bryan Robson, possibly the most over-rated footballer ever to stalk the Earth;

"I thought that was Kevin Keegan!" says Joe as the caption appears. Evidently, Robson is not that highly rated by the under 14's, whereas if you are as old as me it is absolute heresy to suggest he is anything short of a genius. I sit and watch some more and to be honest I could spend hours here. Everyone is chronicled from George Best to Peter Shilton, to Franz Beckenbauer to David Beckham. Further information passes through on a brightly lit ticker which I think is meant to look like a stadium scoreboard. Even the one at Langtree is grander than that, however. Soon the others are harassing me to go upstairs and though I could easily spend more time with the game's legends, I find myself in the lift heading for the first floor. The lift is not your bog-standard, straight up, straight down lift. This lift travels on an incline, and is made completely of glass so that you can see perfectly well that you are climbing at an angle as you travel between floors. I like it, but I'm not quite sure I see the need for it, or it's relevance to football. It's an imponderable I don't have time for as we move out onto the first floor. The doors open and as we vacate the lift a familiar face steps in. I look up to see the haggard, serious-looking features of PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor. I manage to avoid the complete and utter twattery that would be saying hello to him, but can't resist trying to explain to my unimpressed mum who he is.

Soon I am separated from my mum and the boys. I am one of those awkward bastards who feels the need to actually read the information at museums. I'm a bugger for it, really. As they excitedly hop around glancing at exhibits I am reading up thoroughly on the fate of wartime footballers. They have disappeared around a corner when a young lady approaches me and tells me that the film is about to start at the cinema, and would I like to go in? Why not? I take a break from the wartime stuff then and find myself in a small, dark auditorium with an infeasibly large screen. It's made to look even larger by how close it is to the audience. For the next 10 or 12 minutes I sit, if I'm honest, trying to figure out the point of the film. There's no narrative as such, no narrator certainly. What there is, is a series of fly-on-the-wall style clips of people playing and watching football. From Hackney Marshes to the Premier League and all levels in between, the film demonstrates the sights and sounds of football without saying very much about the game. People like football. Well, shit. I knew that.

I go back to the exhibits. There's Gordon Smith's shirt from the 1983 FA Cup Final between Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester United. We're back to Brian Moore again. Only instead of telling us it's 'up for grabs now' just before Michael Thomas makes me a die-hard Saint, he's declaring that 'Smith must score!' just before Gordon smashes his shot straight at Gary Bailey in the United goal. It's the final minutes of a 2-2 draw at Wembley and Smith has just blown the chance to win the game at the last gasp. United win the replay 4-0 and 'Smith Must Score' becomes the title of a Brighton & Hove Albion fanzine. On such moments history changes forever. There's also Mark Lawrenson's track-suit top from the 1984 European Cup Final in Rome, which Liverpool won on penalties and for which I was still a serious fan with nothing bad to say about the club. Not even about these tracksuits which are now more famous for being the outfit of choice of Harry Enfield characters. Tash not included. Dullard, overly superior Match Of The Day punditry optional.

Eventually my mum catches up with me but she does not have Joe or Jamie with her. She has left them on the second floor, the interactive zone. They're taking penalties or some such. And queuing for the privilege. We've been here a couple of hours and it is lunch time. My mum suggests a quick break. As we have already agreed to go out for an evening meal when we finish I reluctantly agree. The honest truth is that I would rather read up on more memorabilia. There's Spitting Image puppets of Eric Cantona and Gary Lineker to browse. But she insists and goes off to find the boys. She can't. What is more she can't phone Joe because his phone is in her handbag. He had asked her to mind it because the battery went some time during the journey. She doesn't have Jamie's number. We resolve to go for lunch and then ring either Helen (Joe's mum, my sister) or Joanne (Jamie's mum, my cousin) to get Jamie's number to let them know where we are. This plan would have worked perfectly had Helen had the right number for Jamie and had Joanne been available. Instead we have to wait it out in the café until they get hungry and come and find us. Fortunately it doesn't take that long.

After lunch (the least impressive ham sandwich I have ever tasted, which is some achievement when you consider that I often have lunch in the Liverpool John Moores University canteen) I go for a pit stop. Or whatever the equivalent footballing term might be. Whatever, I mention this only because there are actually small goalnets in the mens urinals, with something green laid across in front of it to possibly resemble the patch of grass in a goalmouth. They designers probably think it's cute but I think it is fairly tasteless. It puts me in mind of some Scottish football club or other who have urinals emblazoned with the images of rival players. I saw it on tv but I can't rightly remember when or why? But as we both know, tv is never wrong.

After lunch I am waiting around for the others to finish their bathroom stops when I roll on over towards where John Farnworth is performing. My journalistic curiosity has got the better of me and I am soon watching him with interest from just a few feet away. A minute or so later I think I've seen enough and turn to leave, but as I turn around I see that the security people have placed a barrier all the way around the audience who are gathered to watch. We are trapped in for the duration. Patiently, I sit through his full 15-minute repertoire. While some of the skills are mind-boggling and consist of things that even Spike Vaughton couldn't manage, there's one smug look to the audience too many for me, one inappropriate, fuck-all-to-do-with-football dance move more than I can reasonably stand. I'm relieved when it's over and I rejoin my mum and the boys. As I turn to leave the area, now free from the barrier, I bump into Gordon Taylor again. He looks serious still, and impossibly self-important. I'm concerned that he might be stalking me.

Joe and I go back up to the first floor briefly as my determination to read everything and anything shows no sign of wavering. Yet soon we are up on the second, and interacting. It's not all about taking penalties you will be relieved to know if, like me, kicking footballs is something you have just never got the hang of. I listen on telephones to Larry Lloyd and Steve Coppell among others talk tactics and motivational speeches, play 'you are the ref' so brilliantly illustrated by Paul Trevellion, and get beat 2-1 by Joe in an impromptu game of Football Top Trumps. We're outraged that our decision to give a penalty during one 'you are the ref' clip turns out to be the wrong one (I remain adamant that the handball in the clip was deliberate) and not everything works but it is all good fun. There's something ironic about a touch screen video wall showcasing televisual milestones in football being faulty. Try as I might I cannot get the clip from 1983 to work and so I guess will never know what happened that year to change the way football was broadcast in this country.

Finally we advance to the third floor which is a temporary themed exhibition. For the moment it focuses on football fashion. If you are interested in what the wags are wearing, what Bestie had on in the 1960's, or even Liverpool's infamous cream suits of 1996 or Jose Mourinho's long coat, it's all here for you. My mum remarks that George Best might not have been a very big fellow but he would never have squeezed into the shirt which is claimed to be his property. She's probably right. Indeed, a lot of the shirts on display which are said to belong to famous players from famous games seem a little on the small side. Either they bred footballers a little smaller in those days, or there is some serious shrinkage going on as the years pass by in these display cabinets. I'm dissuaded from going up to the fourth floor because it's 'only kids stuff, all about learning, it's crap honest' and we resolve to end our visit. But not before we pay a full £12.00 at the car parking meter. What happened to £3.90? Does car parking at the National Football Museum go up in line with the rate of inflation normally reserved for football players' wages and transfer fees?

I get us lost on the way home because I know about as much about Manchester geography as I do about Polish literature. Nevertheless we somehow make it back in time to meet up with Joanne and Helen (aswell as my other nephew, Patrick, who had declined the opportunity to join us in favour of a day out ten-pin bowling with Joanne) for a bit of early evening pub food. It's all very agreeable.

As is the National Football Museum, for the most part.