The concept of the “close season” is becoming a rapidly fading memory. This summer has seen the European Championships pass seamlessly into the first round of friendly matches which will fill the schedules now until the middle of next month, when the league season finally begins. These matches serve an obvious function for clubs. At a playing level, they allow managers and coaches the opportunity to fine tune squads of players with new additions included before the competitive season starts, and they can be very lucrative for all, from the smaller clubs playing their bigger local rivals to the plutocrats travelling half the length of the world to take part in a mini-tournament with a sponsors’ name and an odd-looking trophy.
What, though, about the supporters? We all know that friendly matches are unlikely to provide the caffeine rush that a competitive match of any sort will do. Friendlies are football matches devoid of context, played out by lethargic players in front of crowds who haven’t quite worked up the appetite to fully get into the swing of the new season. We’re unlikely even to learn too much about the strength of the team that we have, partly because there are so many triallists taking part at this time of year, and partly because there can be no guarantees of how strong the opposition is. Just because the eleven players that your team has beaten are wearing Manchester City shirts, for example, doesn’t mean that they’ve vanquished the Premier League champions. It’s considerably more likely – especially if the match was advertised as “Your Club vs Manchester City XI” – that they’ve just beaten a group of callow youths, the majority of whom will never make it as professional players.
Yet still we turn out for them. We scan the pitch for new arrivals and unfamiliar faces, for faces that are missing and those that are occupying the substitutes bench. We maintain a facade of taking it something approaching – much, it could be argued, as those on the pitch are – but in the back of our minds the key point remains the same. This doesn’t mean anything. No bragging rights, whatever they are, will be won or lost today. There will be no place in the next round of the cup. There will be no league table, and no points dropped. That will all have to wait until next month. The pre-season friendly is the warm-up comedian of professional sport, the act that nobody remembers while waiting for the real deal to begin. Methadone to feed the habit that we don’t have access to for a few weeks, yet.
There is a consolation, however, that we can take from all of this – particularly from the perspective of a smaller club. Last night, for example, Hitchin Town played Luton Town in a pre-season friendly. For a club the size of Hitchin and given the size and relatively close proximity of Luton, this was an event for the Southern League club. The result was of relative unimportance – Luton won by a goal to nil, hardly a result that will be leading that many people to put up bunting outside Kenilworth Road this morning – but the size of the crowd most definitely wasn’t. It was reported that 1,400 people turned out at Top Field last night. This is four and half times the average crowd for a league match at Hitchin last season, and they paid £10 each to get into the ground. If we add in the amount of money raised through the bar and other commercial activities on the night, it is quite possible that Hitchin Town raised £20,000 towards the coming season last night, an amount of money that could well cover the operating costs of a club of this size for a whole month before a competitive ball has even been kicked. That’s a significant amount of money for a football club playing at a level at which a hand to mouth existence is the norm.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, things are somewhat different. Arsenal are off to Kuala Lumpur at the weekend, whilst Liverpool are off to North America and Manchester United are managing to squeeze in both South Africa and China before the new season starts. We will have to wait and see whether any of the managers of these clubs have cause to try send blame that old canard of an overcrowded fixture schedule for any shortcomings that their teams may display over the nine months from August on. Those who do may be well served by being reminded of the possible effects of travelling three-quarters of the way around the world in the name of brand-building before a competitive ball has even been kicked. After all, those that took part in this summers European Championships only saw last sreason finally end a couple of weeks ago.
In modern football, though, all’s fair in the pursuit of money. In the case of the likes Hitchin Town, this money is what keeps the club alive, and their desire to keep the wolves from the door by playing a couple of lucrative matches is entirely understandable. In the case of the Premier Leagues brightest stars, however, there is perhaps less of a justification. Money from the Premier League and Champions League is more than enough to keep these clubs ticking over. The icy glare of commercialism sends them to the other side of the world – the requirements of sponsors and the never ending quest for “new markets.” This season, as ever, the Premier Leagues quest for complete global imperialism will begin with weeks to go before the start of the season. For the rest of us, however, there are still weeks to go before it all starts to matter again and the wait, while it might be necessary for us to recharge our batteries, is agony. In the meantime, the warm-up comedian is all we have for now.
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