The Changing Face Of Pre-Season Friendlies

Pre-season is on us once more, at last, and we can all look forward once more to the excitement of a new, fresh-smelling football season, full of hope, anticipation, and ultimately tears, disappointment and death threats against the overweight, lazy left-back. But for those with a nostalgic view of life, where things used to be so much better in the world of football, before money and specifically Manchester City came along and ruined everything, even pre-season has no longer escaped the unstoppable surge of commercialism and the need to “spread the word”.

Games often used to be local and/or against lower-league teams. Perhaps they were seen as a way of supporting the smaller teams, pairing as they often did a top-level team away to a lower-level team. Or more likely teams had so little imagination they just arranged a kick-about with teams nearby, for reasons of convenience. Thus the likes of Manchester City regularly played the likes of Rochdale, Bury or Oldham. Bury almost went to the wall a few years back, so games like this could make all the difference.

In 2006, Manchester City played Wrexham, Port Vale, Rochdale and Bradford amongst others. In 2007, Doncaster and Shrewsbury, as foreign teams began to creep in more and more. In 2008, just Stockport and an array of continental teams. This pre-season will consist of a trip to America, Dublin and Wembley, an Irish Select X1 being the least glamorous of this year’s opponents.

Reserve sides are still doing the rounds locally, for City and others Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge and co. tipping up at Altrincham and Stalybridge, but the first team are many time zones away most of the time.

And it seems mini-tournaments are all the rage nowadays. The Audi Cup, with snazzy new (and utterly appalling) camera angles on display, or the Dublin Super Cup, the Asia cup, the Emirates Cup and let’s not forget the Herbalife World Football Challenge that Manchester City have just returned from.

Foreign jaunts like these are one of the reasons I think a winter break would be a bad idea. If the football authorities introduced any period in a season without football, clubs would simply arrange money-spinning friendlies to fill the gap and bring in some extra revenue/extend their global “profile”. And that’s the crux of why most Premier League teams spend pre-season jetting around the world. Money. Not just the money made from the tour itself, but by attempting to gain more fans globally, which will lead to greater revenue in the future. Financial Fair play will only exacerbate the desire to bring in extra revenue, and as always it is the fans that will suffer.

Pre-season friendlies are pretty pointless affairs of course. Money aside, they are there to get players fit for the regular season. They give no hint as to how the regular season will go, and the raft of substitutions that inevitably occur in each game makes for an unappetising spectacle much of the time. A 3-0 defeat to Hull for Liverpool should not signify a relegation battle in the season ahead, in the same way that West Ham’s excellent pre-season last year didn’t lead to a productive season.

The main hope is that players don’t pick up injuries. The manager might want to tinker with a few tactics/formations, before ultimately falling back to what he knows best. The games can be a good chance for new players to become acquainted with team-mates, and for us fans to meet up with friends absent over the summer. Or they can provide a shop window for players on their way out. It is also a chance for foreign-based fans to see their team, a rare occurrence for many.

For those of us not at the games, it is no longer a situation of checking scores and speculating on what happened during the match. One advantage of modern times is the chance to watch your team in pre-season without having to go to the ground. Set your alarm clock for 4am – Chelsea are playing a Singapore Presidential Select X1, live on ESPN. Televising pre-season friendlies seems to be the norm nowadays, which at least gives fans starved of football over the summer a chance to see their “heroes” again, and helps bridge the gap between seasons just a little. The games mean nothing, but a penalty shoot-out against LA Galaxy still had the old heart beating that little bit faster.

But what the friendlies signify more than anything is that it’s almost time again – time for another 9-month roller-coaster ride. Friendlies are a little taster, easing us all back into what experts are already saying will be undoubtedly the greatest season in the history of football. Whatever your team, you still have anticipation and hope, for now. In the meantime, you can watch your team without the added stress that usually goes with the territory. Make the most of it.