THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

No sooner than Euro 2008 had finished than friendlies and summer tours began. Mark O'Brien remembers a time when football went unnoticed – and you could look forward to the real thing 

All dads have their quirks. Mine’s was his annoyance if anyone, ie me, read his Liverpool Echo before he got in from work. “But the words are all the same, I don’t get it.” “Yes, but you’ve let the newness out.” I thought he was mad at the time, as I was left to pick the paper up off the mat, hold it by my fingertips and pore over the back page but no more. Over the years, though, I have come to understand the simple pleasure of opening an unsullied newspaper. It’s all about neatness, order and anticipation, and in many ways those same feelings always applied to the football season, too.

All dads have their quirks. Mine’s was his annoyance if anyone, ie me, read his Liverpool Echo before he got in from work. “But the words are all the same, I don’t get it.” “Yes, but you’ve let the newness out.” I thought he was mad at the time, as I was left to pick the paper up off the mat, hold it by my fingertips and pore over the back page but no more. Over the years, though, I have come to understand the simple pleasure of opening an unsullied newspaper. It’s all about neatness, order and anticipation, and in many ways those same feelings always applied to the football season, too.

Of course there were the odd little teasers to build you up towards the new campaign, such as the traditional photograph of a tanned and tubby team reporting for their first day back in training, but then after that you were lucky to get a glimpse of them again until the opening match of the season. Indeed, actually finding out the results of friendly fixtures took a certain amount of tenacity. You were lucky to find them at all if you didn’t live locally, and at best you might find the scores in microscopic type, tucked away in a corner beneath the racing results and next to an advert for a dubious loan.

Now, though, there’s every chance that you will be heartily sick of the whole thing by the time of the “big kick-off” in mid-August. For a start, the television companies are all over pre-season like a rash. Setanta and Five in particular have gone in for it in a big way, giving us the opportunity to watch Liverpool’s and Manchester United’s Carling Cup line-ups stroll through lack­lustre exhibitions in eastern Europe and South Africa. Sky aren’t without blame, either, as for years now they have focused on bigging up, in their inimitable style, the “prestigious” Amsterdam Tournament.

Clearly money is the motivating factor. Fancy that. In the past clubs would go out to Germany or Denmark, play a load of postmen and bakers up a mountain, watched by only a few locals and the absolute completists, numbering in their tens, who travelled over from England. Reading any number of player biographies, these tours were all about team bonding – which means drinking – and getting fit.

It was probably inevitable, though, that accountants would begin to view these tours as opportunities to raise more cash to feed the insatiable beast that is the wage burden, while the biggest “brands” such as United also see them as a method of trying to drum up more support in “emerging markets”.

Talking of rapacious appetites, friendlies also provide much needed content for the non-stop news channels and websites that need to keep building an audience to please advertisers. Mammon never takes a holiday. Reporters are now embedded with squads in Alpine hotels and every morning a bored player wearing a baseball cap and a massive diamond earring will give an exclusive interview explaining how the lads look sharp, the training’s been really tough but we will feel the benefit of it when the season starts.

As fans we must take some of the blame for this desecration of the summer months. Clearly if we treated these matches with the indifference they deserve, then there would be no camera crew at Cobh Ramblers versus Sunderland or Norwich against Tottenham. But obviously there are plenty of us now who are no longer satisfied with whiling away July with a bit of cricket and creosoting the back fence. It would break every rule of the rant not to point the finger at message­boards, too. They’ve created a type of virtual peer pressure that can make fans question their loyalty if they cannot answer “Got the flights booked already, we’re going from Bristol via Liechtenstein” when someone asks: “Who on here is going to...”

By the time of the first League match, then, this upcoming season is hardly going to feel like a pristine Echo. More like the crumpled Daily Express in the works toilets with a moustache drawn on Gordon Brown and Sudoku workings-out scribbled all over it in biro.

From WSC 259 September 2008

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