Stop getting Pre-Season Wrong
Pre-season is a great time to be a football fan. On a mild summer night in July, you can drive to the nearest non-league ground, and watch your team get back to fitness against the local upstarts. Standing on the terraces wearing just a t-shirt, you’re close enough to heckle the players, but remarkably no-one seems to. Instead, your idols share jokes, with each other, with the coaches, with the ref, even with you. As you settle into your burger, you realise that nobody is supporting either team too vociferously. After all, for the rest of the season, most of you look out for the results of this particular non-league club. So instead of watching the action too closely, you have time to analyse the new centre-back you bought this summer, or the latest academy prodigy who played in the U-17 European Championships. Walking the short step from the ground to your car, you smile at the chap next to you who’s wearing the shirt of the non-league team, and think, this is how football should be.
Unless you’re a Man United fan. Because if you are, Alex Ferguson took your club on a three-week tour of the United States on Monday. Or a Man City fan, your club are going across the pond too. Or you support Liverpool, Chelsea, or Arsenal, who all chose the Far East as the perfect place to gear up for the oncoming season. Other Premier League clubs are also off on their travels, but most still play a couple of away fixtures at lower-division teams. What we call the traditional pre-season friendly.
I’m sure these tours haven’t escaped your notice. Both the papers and the clubs in question are keen to highlight them as much as possible. The press, destined to nurture the public’s apparent insatiable desire for football coverage, latch onto concrete match analysis, albeit of pointless matches, because it is still more relevant to a club’s future than titillating transfer rumours. The clubs themselves advertise the tours to the high-heavens simply because the main purpose of pre-season these days is overtly commercial.
Something Petr Cech, due to go to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong with Chelsea this month, is acutely aware of. He admitted to being worried about running around in the humid 40 degree heat in South Asia. But despite his reservations, the great skull-capped one acknowledged it as a necessity. Almost timidly he recognises the importance of raising the overseas fan base of the club; ‘It’s part of the business’, he said.
Biologically though, it’s an odd decision to fly players all over the world into such conditions to prepare them for a long and arduous season. A season that has the European Championships, (and/or Olympics), at the end of it, and includes the polar opposite of a winter break. This time next year, how many journalists and pundits do you suppose will be putting an England knockout down to the tired excuse of being too tired?
It’s unfair on the fans too. That scene I described earlier was from a real pre-season match between Havant and Waterlooville and Portsmouth. In a business where the players are surrounded by agents and PR reps, and everything they say goes through the media anyway, it provided one of few opportunities for Pompey fans to see their players on a close-up basis, as an actual human being.
Portsmouth had their own American tour last year, a disastrous affair where the club lost nearly all their games, most of their kitbags, and a lot of players to injury and fatigue in the hot American sun.
I’m not suggesting Man Utd’s or Man City’s stateside tours will prove as costly as that, but I find the decision to play no traditional pre-season games an alarming disregard of the local fan.
Pre-season is now seen as an opportunity to raise the global profile of some of the already highest-profiled clubs in the world. At the same time they are tapping into the fertile markets of Asia and America these clubs broadcast the games to the fans back home on their own TV stations. Yet another money spinner. And unlike the Portsmouth fans, supporters of the top five clubs couldn’t be further away from their icons despite having them in their living room.
Realistically it might not bother United fans that they won’t get to see Ashley Young, David De Gea or Phil Jones before the Community Shield. Young and Jones are well-known to all but the most blinkered football fans in England, and I’m sure a lot of United supporters have YouTubed De Gea – so that’s alright then.
But it should bother them, because the plebeian nature of the traditional pre-season friendly is important. The idea that, these fake idols, who get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week to perform in beautiful new amphitheatres, are for once, actually just human beings like you or I. It’s described all year round as the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup, but there’s something serenely humanising about the traditional pre-season friendly, because nothing is riding on it. The fans are relaxed, the coach is relaxed, and the players are relaxed. And somehow, when you’re closer to them, they actually look a lot smaller.