Pre-season friendlies offer up all kinds of intriguing propositions not least the chance, if you’re lucky, to see a new signing or two make their semi-competitive bow. Should your club have changed manager there is also the fascination of what tactics are employed and gauging which players feature in his immediate plans. Then there’s the kit; there is always a sleek new kit these days, one that divides opinion on its unveiling but now looks so fricking boss in motion.
Second to last but by no means least there is also the sheer, unbridled joy of seeing the boys back in action again. God you’ve missed them, to such an extent that in hindsight the World Cup was little more than a distraction. Compared to Arsenal v Boreham Wood or Newcastle v Augsburg the World Cup was just a conversation about the weather forecast that airs before Match of the Day.
All of this though pales in pure excitement and indeed symbolism to watching youth prospects stake a claim for a place in the first team squad, or more obliquely, to force their way ‘into the manager’s thinking’.
Of course we’re perfectly aware that the majority of these fresh-faced stars of tomorrow will be relegated once more to relative obscurity once the season starts proper. Barring an injury crisis they are unlikely even to appear on the sub’s bench in 2018/19. But what they represent at a time of the year when optimism is sky high due to the slate being wiped clean is hope. Hope for the future. Hope to help us through the grim reality of being battered away to Spurs in deepest, darkest November. There is always that kid; the one who dazzled in brilliant sunshine way back in July. One day soon he’ll see us right.
Crystal Palace fans will experience this encouragement more than most in the weeks ahead. This summer the south London club offered professional contracts to a number of promising talents who will all be desperate to catch the eye of Roy Hodgson against random fare such as Oxford and Toulouse. It is likely that Joe Tupper, Oliver O’Dwyer, Nikola Tavares, Tyler Brown and Giovanni McGregor will impress given their early reputations.
But it is in Aaron Wan-Bissaka where optimism most resides. The 20-year-old right-back has already made seven appearances in the Premier League and won the club’s Player of the Month award in that brief period so much is expected of the England Under 20 international as he attempts to force a way into Hodgson’s permanent reckoning. Three scheduled friendlies on the horizon will go a long way to determining how that goes.
Up at Everton, highly-rated Kieran Dowell will be keen to take the next significant step following a successful loan stint at Nottingham Forest last term. With the Toffees yet to make any move in the transfer market the feeling is that should the young midfielder suitably impress, then new boss Marco Silva might prioritise his strengthening elsewhere and perhaps even mould a dynamic central partnership between Dowell and fellow 20-year-old Tom Davies. A big couple of weeks await for last summer’s Under-20 World Cup winner.
Further north in Middlesbrough a buzz is getting notably louder concerning the prospects of centre-back Nathan Wood who accompanied the first team squad to Germany this week. Having only just turned 16, Wood is most definitely one for the future rather than anything short-term yet even so, the experience he accumulates on the trip only bodes well for the career that is to come. It seems that Boro have produced yet another top defender just like they do every few seasons.
At present Manchester United are in the US and true to type Jose Mourinho is unhappy. Of course he is. When is he not?
On this occasion the cause of his crumbled frown is the large group of star names who are unavailable to him but if that brings consternation to United’s management the opposite applies to the fans. Dutch winger Tahith Chong has already excited on his debut this week and prompted calls for a promotion to the first team squad sooner rather than later while Axel Tuanzebe, Angel Gomes, and Andreas Pereira will each be looking to establish themselves further in Mourinho’s estimation. England Under 17 captain James Garner meanwhile will benefit hugely from being around the likes of Antonio Valencia and Juan Mata.
As for their bitter rivals City, their own US tour offers left-sided defender Eric Garcia a golden opportunity to take Oleksandr Zinchenko’s locker while a couple of goals by Lukas Nmecha will go a long way in cementing his position as third choice striker.
Perhaps though there is no other Premier League club with more importance and intrigue surrounding their pre-season friendlies than West Ham this month. In Reece Oxford, Marcus Browne, Nathan Holland and Martin Samuelsen the Hammers possess a quartet primed and ready to make their mark. Yet with an incoming new coach not fully versed in their abilities, the club’s short trips to Germany and France will determine a great deal. For them their time to dazzle is now. For others it is mainly about dropping hints on the promise to come.