For me, the football season is starting earlier than usual this year. On Saturday afternoon, Little Dotmund and I will be off to Woodside Road, the palatial home of Worthing FC, to see their pre-season friendly match against what today’s “Argus” today breathlessly described as a “full strength Brighton & Hove Albion squad”. Now, I don’t usually do pre-season friendlies. Without the element of competitiveness, they’re meaningless from the point of view of the spectator. However, I’ve not been to a match since the end of April and the close season has felt like an eternity, so I’ve been talked into going to my first friendly match since about 1991.
Regardless of whether you actually like them or not, there is something pleasing about the lists of frankly bizarre matches that fill up the schedules in the weeks building up to the start of the season proper. Lincoln City v Sparta Prague, Everton v China, Jimmy Saville’s Charity Showbiz XI v Scotland – more or less any combination is possible. Consider the following matches, all of which are taking place over the next few days or so: Bolton Wanderers v Seongnam Ilwha, Peterborough United v Celtic, Reading v River Plate, Cammell Laird v Tranmere Rovers, Exeter City v Norwich City, Schalke 04 v Middlesbrough, Arminia Bielefeld v Blackburn Rovers and Ilkeston Town v Nottingham Forest. There isn’t one of the above matches that I wouldn’t pay good money to see in a competitive environment (any cup competition that pitted Reading against River Plate would surely be worth hundreds of millions of pounds in TV money), but I wouldn’t cross the road to watch most of them play in a friendly. Still, I’m going to one on Saturday, so I thought I’d better draw up a draft list of the rules of pre-season friendlies:
1. Steer clear of any match which has the following type of description – “Norton & Stockton Ancients v Real Madrid XI”. The “XI” is the give-away, here. The “XI” means that this is a team made up of, at best, reserves, youth team players and relations or friends of the manager, who have paid him to play them for a bet. If you beat an “XI”, it’s probably best to not go too overboard with your celebrations. If you beat a Liverpool XI, for example, the chances are that the Liverpool-supporting bloke in your office won’t have heard of any of the Liverpool players.
2. The bigger the team, the further they’ll travel to play. Brighton & Hove Albion are treating their pre-season friendlies as an excuse to tour the rest of Sussex, as if to remind the rest of the county of just which club is the only club in the two counties that really matters. After Worthing on Saturday, they travel a few miles further up the south coast on Tuesday night to take on Bognor Regis Town. The likes of Manchester United, though, would never lower themselves to such a task – especially not when there are merchandising opportunities to be had in the Far East. On Tuesday, United are away to Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan. Remember that when Alex starts complaining in March about how his team are over-worked from too many League Cup matches. I’ve flown to Japan, and the jet lag is worth about ten Tuesday night trips to Chesterfield.
3. The squads on display will be as big as possible. Pre-season friendlies will often contain two squads of up to fifty players, substituting someone every fifteen seconds or so. This causes problems when England play, but no-one seems to matter at a pre-season domestic friendly. After all, it doesn’t matter, does it?
4. Don’t celebrate too much, no matter who you’re playing. A polite ripple of applause is plenty enough to celebrate a goal in a friendly match, and any player who so much as raises his arms after scoring should be immediately be fired from a cannon into the sun for be far too much of a Prima Donna.
5. No singing. The start of the football season is like waking up after a period of hibernation. You need to be slowly raised from your slumber, and this process may take as long as until the second round of the League Cup. Anyone caught singing at a pre-season friendly match should have their face immediately and suffocatingly wrapped in gaffa tape.
6. Even the biggest football geeks – the ones who go to every single match, know the exact heights and weights of every single squad player, and take Wednesday afternoons off work to go and match the reserves play in Cornwall – should be expected to not know the names of at least three players in their own team’s starting eleven. It’s customary.
7. Pre-season friendlies should never be taken as an indication of how your season is going to go, because a sizeable part of determining how your team is going to do is how they face up to the pressure of competitive opponents, and they’re not going to find them before the start of the league season. Beating Arsenal Reserves, Aston Villa Youth and Friends Of Dennis Wise Wearing Leeds United Shirts does not mean that your team is going to storm the Rutland Senior County League next season.
If I follow these rules, I should be okay. A full match report will follow on Sunday, of course.