On The Left Side

I never wanted to be one of those bitter, old football supporters. The type who sit at the bar of the pub nearest the ground, wearing a cup-final scarf they’ve owned for the last 30 years and moaning about how football was better “In the good old days”.

There comes a time in a man’s life when he simply has to accept his lot. A time he must tread the path down which he is being led and fulfil his destiny. Turns out my destiny is that grumpy old git because, quite simply, football was better in the old days.

This week it struck me that this thought was applicable to one particular part of football. An element of the game that has changed so much over the last 20 years that it is unrecognisable from the original form that I knew…. The pre-season friendly!

Here’s the thing. I don’t think there have been any drastic revolutions here. There hasn’t been a sudden change in the way that your average Premier League team undertakes its pre-season preparation. It’s been a slow, gradual development. So slow that I’d hardly even noticed it happening. Until now.

On Saturday I watched a game of football. I sat on my comfy sofa. I sipped tea from my favourite mug. I dunked a chocolate digestive into my brew avoiding the begging gaze of my dog. All whilst trying to focus on the game and not think about the list of chores that awaited me at full time and it struck me.

“Arsenal… are playing Chelsea… in a friendly… in BEIJING???”

How had we reached a point in football where two teams, usually based not 6miles from each other, had travelled over 5000 miles to play a match under the guise of helping them prepare for the season ahead?

I’m not an idiot (despite what my wife says) and in reality, I know exactly how we reached this point. It’s the same way in which we reach many points in football which lead to a bemused “How” or a “Why” from football fans: money. In modern football, a pre-season game has as much to do with preparing for the new season as Oscar’s move to China had about playing football. It’s about building relationships with lucrative new markets, showing off flashy new shirts to chunks of the population yet to pick their footballing allegiance and impressing new sponsors on their home turf. It’s all boils down to piles of filthy moolah.

If you need any more convincing of this then take Cristiano Ronaldo. The biggest property in world football is currently undertaking the usual far eastern promotional tour. The big difference being: He’s doing it on his own. No team mates, no club allegiance and weirdly no football. His pre-season is being spent spreading the CR7 message off the pitch rather than by getting ready to deliver the goods on it. It’s promotion over preparation.

When did this happen? For years the likes of Manchester United have been playing pre-seasons tours in the far flung corners of the football watching world to try and gain a competitive edge in the market place rather than on the pitch. But at what point in football’s development did it get decided that it was in everyone’s interest for Crystal Palace vs West Brom to be played in Hong Kong? Surely submitting the Hong Kongese public to that kind of event is going to cause a major diplomatic issue!

I shouldn’t care. It shouldn’t bother me in the slightest. The result of the game has no impact on my life. My team will still start pre-season in the same shambolic state that it always does. Plus, actually, at least the people who turn up to these games in Asia and America seem to care about the game. The Premier League is watched all over the globe so why shouldn’t these fanatical football followers get to see their heroes in the flesh? More so, if playing meaningless friendlies in different venues around the world holds off that reoccurring topic of actual real-life Premier League games being played on foreign soil then that is probably not a bad thing.

But it does bother me. It bothers me because it’s messing with the way that I discovered football.

As a young fan, my very first game was a pre-season friendly between Woking and West Ham at the Kingfield Stadium back in 1995 (and the term stadium was really stretching the definition). I stood yards away as Julian Dicks crunched tackles into the opposition’s centre forward, watched Ian Bishops long locks flowing behind him as he sprinted from midfield and marvelled as to how much Tim Breacker looked like his Panini Sticker picture as he signed my match day programme.

That match cemented my relationship with my team. Not only was it a game that I could afford to go and watch but I felt a real connection with the players who wore the shirt. I could hear them breathe, shakes their hands afterwards and, excitingly at that age, hear them swearing at each other. The fact that these games don’t exist anymore is in no way to blame for the lack of connection between fans and players in the modern game but it has certainly played its part.

It’s a part of football that lost. So, forgive me if I take a moment to mourn its passing before punching my credit card details into the internet to watch my teams latest promotional tour on a pay per view fan site.

It really was better in the good old days.

You can hear more from Jim in the weekly, funny football podcast On The Left Side. Hear the latest episode below:

On The Left Side | The Alternative Football Podcast

On The Left Side is THE alternative football podcast. No tactical analysis or heat maps here just a sideways look at the very best stories from the beautiful game in a handy bite sized form. From commentary catastrophes to managerial misdemeanours. Jim guides you through a satirical look at the last seven days of football funny.