Thursday 17 July ~
In WSC 78, published in August 1993, Ian Plenderleith offered advice for anyone thinking going to a pre-season friendly – find something else to do instead
A gentle summer's evening at Brisbane Road, the end of July last year. It is exactly five weeks since I last watched a game, Denmark versus Germany in the final of the European Nations Cup. That's how long my close season lasted because I couldn't keep away from a pre-season friendly between Orient and West Ham. A meaningless fixture in every sense. There could have been a bit of East End needle, but the local papers have failed to hype the game up as The Pie and Mash Clash. The players seem similarly disinclined to do much more than stroke the ball about casually while showing off their Spanish island tans. The crowd murmurs distractedly to the backdrop of Leyton's dreaming tower blocks – this could almost be a county cricket match.
I don't know why I'm here. My companion actually has a reason,but it's a sad one, as you would expect from someone who's both a schoolteacher and an Arsenal fan. He wants to see a West Ham defeat so that when the new school starts in six weeks he can bait a class of 12-year-old Hammers fans with the ignominy of losing a lower division side.
Pre-season fixtures throw up games which sound interesting. Gravesend & Northfleet v Boca Juniors. Carlisle United v China. We, the fans, are sometimes lured along by sexy competition titles like the Wainwright Portaloos Anglo-Norwegian Challenge Shield, only to find the incentive of silverware still fails to inspire the players into open stride. I am not proud to admit that I am one of the few people alive who can claim to have seen Albion Rovers lift the Lanarkshire Cup (on penalties).
Back at Brisbane Road the O's have tucked away the opening goal. There is a smattering of polite applause and the players refrain from the usual congratulatory buggering over by the corner flag. Some passing geese command my attention for a few moments. Managers will argue that these games are necessary in order to take a look at some of their players after the summer break. But the break is so short now that the players can't really have changed that that much. We all know that Geoff Thomas will still be crap and that Niall Quinn will not have metamorphosed into a silky winger.
The players, moreover, do not want to bother trying with 60-odd games ahead of them. What's the point in taking on five players and scoring from 30 yards out in a pre-season friendly? That's the goal they want to score in the last minute of the promotion play-off at Wembley, not at home to Whitley Bay in August with their side already five ahead.
When I was younger, I genuinely thought that these games were significant. I once gleefully came away from Lincoln beating Ipswich 1-0 in a testimonial game. "I'll bet there's some words being said in the Ipswich dressing-room," I said to my Dad, still in that under-ten mental state that permits repetition of Motsonese. He laughed and explained that Ipswich were probably more concerned with the First Division title. My vision of Bobby pouring hot tea on Kevin Beattie's perm evaporated.
One August in Scotland I stayed in the same hotel hotel as Bradford City, who had inextricably trailed north to take on the aforementioned Albion Rovers. The side was brimming with former Leeds stars such as Paul Reaney and, er, Davd McNiven and Mick Bates. Still, at least I recognised them and spent an hour staring at them in the hotel lounge over the top of a crossword book.
When Bradford beat Albion the next day 3-1 (I was outvoted by the same scoreline by the rest of my family on actually going to see the game) I expected the hotel to be jumping with wildly celebrating Yorkshiremen when we got back from a day in the countryside.
But again the harsh truth about the importance of the encounter was brought home to me when I realised that Bradford had packed their bags and either headed home or on to another salubrious fixture at Stranraer.
All this is going through my head at Brisbane Road with 20 minutes still to go until half-time and sparsity of pointers towards entertainment. Then Kevin Keen runs onto a through ball and scores. Not very exciting really. A hint of offside perhaps? But who could possibly care?
In front of me a mid-20s youth turns slaughterhouse red and springs up and down in total fury at the linesman's failure to wave the offside flag. He stalks the official up and down the touchline for the remainder of the half, unleashing an incessant stream of vitriolic abuse calling into question both the touch-judge's sight and his knowledge of the game's laws.
Everyone around is embarrassed and, as always in such scenarios, tries to pretend that the young spectator is simply not there. I forget the game (not difficult) and stare, both aghast and fascinated, in the way you are at the zoo when you see a wild animal prowling in its cage and you think: Christ, just imagine what would happen if that got out.
But this guy is not only out – he's outed. Outed as the one football fan in history to become emotionally involved with a pre-season friendly. Then my awe turns to admiration as I realise he is attempting to compensate for the game's lack of passion, that before me is a primal cry for help in the face of on-pitch lethargy. Never before at a pre-season game have I witnessed such an unbridled display of hard running, off the ball calling and total commitment.
At half-time it is my turn to be stared at; I am the only person in the entire stadium applauding as the players leave the pitch.