Now that the Euros have passed and we await both the Olympics and the start of the Premier League season next month, we’re deep into pre-season preparations for every side across the country, let alone the continent. But while just 30 years ago that meant a tour of Norway as well as trips to face Bermuda, Weymouth and the Somerset Trojans for Manchester United, it is now defined by globetrotting field trips to the rapidly growing markets of China, America and Japan, packing out stadiums full of half-and-half scarf wearing ‘number 1’ fans. This isn’t just the case for Man United anymore; every other Premier League and Championship now feels obliged to have a tour onto foreign soil just to satisfy the money-spinners in the boardrooms who really dictate the success of their clubs. Sponsors love it; they can get their brand out to millions across the globe, an untapped market of new fans who will lap anything up as long as it is connected to their clubs’ image. In our immediately-connected modern world though, these pre-season excursions are vital for club finances, as teams now rely on paying customers to keep bankrolling their potential success, and the best way to encourage them to spend is parade the new kits, players and merchandise. It may be immoral, but if you ask any fans in the stands, they would agree with the basic principle of worldwide pre-season tours. But does it have to be this way? Has pre-season lost its heart; small, local clubs facing up against richer, more powerful neighbours and so on? And might this trend of expansion keep going for decades?
You may call me a stubborn purist, but my perfect impression of pre-season would be some low-key, slightly iffy in quality, local friendlies between the teams near the top and those not quite so fortunate. My local team, Lewes FC, for example, were lucky enough to have consecutive two pre-seasons (2014 and 2015) kicked off with home matches against the best team in the whole of the south east, Brighton & Hove Albion, although it was admittedly their second-string side both times. We didn’t care that some of the big names were missing, or that the first time around we lost 5-0 (the second was 0-0 somehow), we were just glad to have such a great spectacle between two neighbouring towns (or city if you include Brighton with Hove), and fans of both sides had great days.
The Brighton fans were glad for the change of scenery from one of the best new stadiums in the world, the horribly named Amex (in honour of American Express) stadium, to possibly the most picturesque, antique grounds in the whole of the UK, the Dripping Pan. With cold local beers on the terrace, a pristine, sun-kissed pitch, traditional flint stone walls enclosing the ground and quirky beach huts in the far corner of the ground, they probably couldn’t have found a more different home of football to the architecturally stunning, modern, cutting-edge Amex, less than 5 miles away. I’m sure all Lewes and Brighton fans who were there for those friendlies were looking forward to a repeat this summer, but after patiently awaiting the announcement all of June, I was disheartened to find that Brighton had rejected the invite in order to go and train in Tenerife (your heart bleeds for them, the torture they were put through) for the first week of pre-season.
How could Brighton have abandoned us like that after just two summers? Well, it’s simple really, once you get to their level (the top six of the Championship), you will look for big sources of income wherever they manifest themselves, and this friendly wasn’t worth anything financially to them. You’d like to think they had some heart, and would at least think about the invitation, but they had their eyes set on bigger fish, and we were simply a tiddler in their search for a blue whale to face up against in the months of June and July. Well, I’m sure the Brighton players enjoyed their holiday in Tenerife, but I think their fans may have preferred a chance to see them in action against a fellow East Sussex side. For me, Brighton’s actions demonstrate that Football League, or EFL now as those in the top insist on rebranding and Americanising it, clubs no longer prioritise fitness over cash. They want to present the image of absolute professionalism, an unrealistic dream, to supporters and future players, and we are all falling for it. They want to remove the heart of football, and in my view that is the ultimate, selfish, evil of the modern day English game.
There’s no doubt that, in correlation to the rest of today’s society, the gap between the rich and the poor, in this case the ‘EFL’ and non-league, is getting wider and wider every day. While the well-off can go off on jollies across the world to far-flung, cash-throwing nations with millions of prospective fans all queueing up just to get a glimpse of their ‘heroes’, and sponsors can make their bonus profits in the process, those not in the money are left at home to contemplate their uncertain financial futures. It’s not really fair, but it is the result of the not-quite-so-perfect capitalist world we live in and openly accept unless the misfortune comes to our doors and we are the ones who are culled.
For example, in the last week, I went to two pre-season matches at my two hometown clubs, Ringmer FC and Lewes FC. Instead of taking place over 1000 miles away from home, without up to 80,000 screaming fans and bereft of the hundreds of thousands of pounds up for grabs as prize money, these were proper pre-season matches. I kid you not, at the first match, Ringmer vs Littlehampton FC (which Littlehampton won 3-1), there were no assistant referees free for the match, so first a substitute from either side, and then on one wing a rather portly middle-aged man from the crowd, complete with the typical British summer look of shorts and flip-flops, had to step in. Now that is what you call bringing football back to the fans. The game also included a shocking Paul Robinson-esque air kick clearance by Ringmer’s goalkeeper just when they were looking likely to level the game up at 2-2, allowing the gleeful Littlehampton striker to tap in, rounding off his side’s 3-1 win. There was some similarly rusty defending down at Lewes FC (wouldn’t you agree, Joe?) when they faced up against Crawley Town, an actual, real life League 2 side, on Tuesday night, also going down 3-1 to their higher-level West Sussex opponents in some worrying unison to Ringmer. Just two minutes into the game, and a questionable back pass by the Lewes number 2 (a trialist) was seized upon by the incredibly named Bobson Bawling of Crawley, who had apparently never scored a goal in competitive matches for his side before, but bagged a brace in this match thanks to the dodgy positioning and marking of the Lewes players. Even Crawley got in on the trend of terribly misjudged back passes in the second half, their left back handing Dan Perry, the lone striker for Lewes, an easy opportunity to tap in past a pro goalkeeper in Mitchell Beeney (on loan from Chelsea no less). After this, it really seemed Lewes would grab a very respectable 2-2 against a Crawley side including eight first-teamers, as they were all over the League 2 opposition in midfield, but once again they were made victims of chasing the game, a third punt towards his own goalkeeper, this time from Jordan Badger, resulting in Crawley easing in a third goal.
I suppose the point I am making here is that this is what I want to see in pre-season, this was proper, unorganised, ridiculous football that just had the interest of fitness and spectator enjoyment at heart. Those spectators, by the way, amounted to about 60 I’d say at Ringmer, and 353 (the official number) at Lewes. This was pre-season complete with whispers of “who’s that new number nine, he looks decent” and “cor, that midfielder is carrying a bit of weight this year, isn’t he?” from the stands. For me, that is what football is all about, the sheer joy of going to your village club’s ground, having a chat for two hours and watching your side no matter if they are losing, winning or drawing. That is the spirit of football; after all, it’s only a game!
While I’m not saying this kind of atmosphere doesn’t ever appear at the pre-season venues of EFL sides, you have to admit they want to do everything on a strictly professional status all the time, just to attract the power people in football, as in any sport, these days; the sponsors. While the players and management might enjoy their trips overseas to play a few 90 minute matches, for the Chief Executives, Commercial Directors, Chief Financial Officers and Directors of Marketing these tours are just a set of dates, names and locations from which they can make a lot of money. And for me, that is not what football, nor any other sport (which at their very foundation were only ways to exercise), is about. But, unfortunately, we cannot change the directions of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and co., they have set football off on an irreversible path in which you only win, not just trophies, but also fans, prosperity and promotions, if you have money. That is why we have to protect non-league, semi-professional and amateur football from the evils at the top of the game, who have already sunk their claws and sewn their seeds into the Championship, and soon enough will invade Leagues 1 and 2. If you actually want to see football exempt of the jargon, spin and politics of the Premier League and EFL, you could do much worse than stick to the English non-league game, and clubs like FC United of Manchester, Enfield Town and yes, even Lewes.
The idea of pre-season is not one that I disagree with; in fact it’s vital for avoiding injuries, maintaining squad harmony and embedding new players and managers. It’s just the evolution of it, from players in the middle of summer sitting on the beach, cocktail in hand in Tenerife, Mallorca and Alicante 30 years ago to having to train their arses off all day with their teammates and coaching staff in the same resorts in June and July these days seems excessive. Why sides, like Brighton, ‘have’ to do this now mystifies me; as they didn’t even play a single game during the time they spent there. Training for conditions they might face during the upcoming season? With the weather we have here in Britain, I highly doubt it. They fancied a change of scenery from their year-old multi-million pound training ground? I don’t think many would’ve accepted that. The only reason I can stretch my imagination to is that they wanted to satisfy their homesick Spanish contingent with a taste of home for a week. Seriously, who do they think they are? Professional football these days in this country is unbelievable, and not always in a good way.
Well, I think one thing is for sure, had Manchester United been playing City in a pre-season match at home instead of in Beijing, the match wouldn’t have been called off on account of a summer thunderstorm. Oh wait, this is Manchester we’re talking about, the same thing definitely would’ve happened. Honestly, it is farcical that two sides should have to travel 5,023 miles (according to Google) to play a ‘derby’ match, just to make millions from shirt and ticket sales in the process. What has our world come to? People will do anything these days to make a quick buck, and football clubs admire those kinds of people, so that is why our sport is so immoral and corrupt (I think we all know it’s still happening at FIFA HQ) in 2016. Many thought our society would’ve changed for the better in the last 50, 30 or 20 years, but unfortunately in the case of football we can’t honestly say it has, it has only improved for the players, owners and sponsors (who get paid in the millions for, in comparison to police officers, doctors and military officials, pointless work), not for the fans.
But honestly it’s hard to pinpoint the thing that I truly despise about the modern pre-season system. Is it jealousy about other nations hosting the top games, is it distaste at the very concept of Marketing officials working for a sports team, is it the fact that a kaleidoscope of worldwide, probably tax-dodging brands dot themselves around the grounds hosting these sold out games, or is it a combination of all of these reasons and more? Well, I guess it has to be the latter explanation, because I can’t find a single reason that is isn’t linked to all the others. I think one that stands out is the drastic change from a footballing world that I shouldn’t have any connection to, the pre-1990’s or even 80’s, to today, as I can’t stand how those in charge have changed our sport for the temptation of money, now rolling in it when they don’t have to, they could run things in a modest, simple fashion but that isn’t how you appeal to the masses of course. You need glitz, glamour and most of all cash, to drag fans away from other distractions. One sport which has stuck to this motto most blatantly is Formula One, where Bernie Ecclestone, the tax-evading, immoral but somehow lovable dictator of the sport, with a mother-in-law 18 years his junior, has openly greeted the investment of massive global brands to keep the sport relevant. Let’s be honest, driving fast cars around a track for 2 hours or so, these days with only Mercedes ever winning, isn’t that exciting even for the biggest car fans amongst us (Toby), but football is, at least from the perspective of me and hopefully you, always enjoyable. We didn’t have to follow the path of selling out to the likes Barclays, Sky, BT Sport, Chevrolet, Fly Emirates and Arabian royalty, but we (well, the big cheeses in charge of clubs, leagues and federations) did, and now professional football has to live with the consequences.
I think I might have got a bit off the point from pre-season, but everything in football, as in life, links together within at most six degrees (if you believe the philosophers), and the style of pre-season these days only feeds the evils of our sport. And yes I will continue to call it our sport, as it really does belong to us, no matter what the Glazers, the ‘Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development Limited’s’, the Fenway Sports Groups or the Mike Ashley’s of this world say, we could get rid of them any day we wanted, we would just have to unite. But the world doesn’t seem to be very good at that sort of thing right now, and I just have to hope that as a footballing community we can stick together and say no to what those at the very top are doing. No more is what we have got to say, no more of what makes this sport so bad when it should be so, so positive for the world. This is sport, this is exercise, this is entertainment, this isn’t a marketplace or an open billboard for your company, and for too long has everyone gone along with things which when you take a good step back and look at seem so wrong. The way clubs run their pre-season cycles these days is just one of many branches of this, on a tree of interlinking and overlapping issues so large it would out scale the Amazon on its own. I am a believer in the power of us all to pull together and regain control of football, and spread it equally amongst everyone involved, and for now I will support people and sides who do actually put this ambition into place. Like John Lennon once put it; you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!