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Taking refuge in our footballing past

Paul Armstrong | 16:47 UK time, Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Until Theo Walcott helped inspire Arsenal to that awesome Champions League performance, and then Manchester United, Chelsea and Rangers did well too, it had been an unequivocally depressing week for British sport.

There were plenty of external factors we could blame: a plastic pitch and an errant Spanish referee in Moscow, a myopic German called Knut who missed the blatant upending of McFadden in Tblisi, the intervention of that all-important Australian armchair viewer in Paris, and an unholy alliance of a malfunctioning gearbox and overcooled petrol in Brazil.

It was all much simpler in the days when this country was busy inventing most of the world's favourite sports and making up the rules, as I was reminded during a recent visit to the excellent National Football Museum at Deepdale, Preston. Among the many exhibits which accompany a fascinating journey through social and sporting history was a white England shirt worn during the first official international football fixture.

That came against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1872 and ended 0-0. Once you've seen the colossally weighty woollen material employed in making the shirt, it's little wonder the game ended goalless. It would be 36 years before England deigned to play overseas opposition, and another 78 before they were prepared to participate in a World Cup.

Stanley Matthews (l), Blackpool v Bolton Wanderers FA Cup Final, 1953

The museum has two extraordinary mementos of the first World Cup Final - both matchballs. Back in 1930, hosts Uruguay and fellow finalists Argentina wanted to use two different balls, so compromised on playing a half with each. Argentina went first, and led 2-1 at half-time with their ball, Uruguay then ran riot with theirs and won 4-2. Both balls have somehow ended up in Preston, as has the orange matchball (recaptured in the media frenzy before Euro 96 from German player Helmut Haller) with which Geoff Hurst scored that hat-trick in 1966.

Other notable shirts include that worn by Stanley Matthews in 1953 in arguably the most famous FA Cup Final of all time, and the one worn by Brazil's Rivelino in 1970 in arguably the greatest World Cup Final of all time. The biggest surprise for me, though, came in the small and squat shape of the Argentinean number 10 shirt worn by the great Diego Maradona in scoring the most infamous, then possibly the finest ever, goal against England. One of his opponents that day, Steve Hodge, hung around after the game to swap shirts and has loaned it to the museum. (Which begs the question: Is Steve Hodge's shirt exhibited to gasps of astonishment in a museum somewhere in Buenos Aires?)

There is also a collection of ancient artefacts from China, Mexico, Egypt and elsewhere which show that the urge to kick a ball existed all over the world long before a group of English public schoolboys decided to draw up some rules. In addition, there are superb video histories showing how football has developed as society has changed each decade since Victorian times. And you can take penalties against a computer, and try to out-commentate Motty on some great archive moments as part of an interactive Match of the Day exhibit.

Best and most remarkable of all, entrance to the museum is free of charge. Football may be considered lowbrow in some quarters (though if Arsenal's display the other night wasn't art, I don't know what is) but it's a huge part of our modern cultural history and it's absolutely right that it should be celebrated in a National Football Museum.

It's also appropriate that the museum is housed in football's original professional heartland at the ground of one of the Football League's twelve founder members, and indeed its first champions. So if you, or your team, are in the North West, it's a detour well worth taking.

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