Pre-season Blues


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A traditional part of Arsenal's pre-season used to be a match with near neighbours Barnet. In 2004 the Gunners won the fixture 10-1 at Underhill. Robin van Persie scored on his debut for the club, the then promising Quincy Owusu-Abeyie netted, Jose Antonio Reyes and Francis Jeffers scored hat-tricks, and Dennis Bergkamp got two. Barnet supporter Jeremy Aves, meanwhile, came on as a sub after having successfully bid for a place in the team at an auction.

The goalscorers from that day show some of the success stories and false dawns from Arsenal's subsequent adventures. From a supporter's point of view, getting a glimpse at new players and future potential is half the appeal of friendlies and the inclusion of Aves shows the sense of fun these fixtures can have.

The best example of this came in 1994 when then West Ham boss Harry Redknapp challenged a heckling fan to turn out for the Hammers in the second half of a friendly against Oxford United, telling a watching journalist that he was a member of the Bulgarian 1994 World Cup squad called Tittyshev.

These incidents are typical of the “fun day out” feel these games had, even at the top level. Nowadays, though, money blabbers so loudly that even the pre-season friendly is becoming sterile. Arsenal aren't playing Barnet this year, while West Ham are insisting on only using actual footballers in their games.

Pre-season games once tended to be against lower league sides or were one-off matches against European opposition. Tours were confined to nearby parts of Europe so as to only be taxing on the pitch, as the teams tried to get fit in preparation for the season ahead. Now it isn't unusual for Norwich to play Everton in a show piece tournament in Thailand. Far flung pre-season tours are an annual fixture on the calendars of all of the major clubs.

This summer Manchester United visit South Africa, Manchester City and Arsenal will tour Asia, while Spurs and Chelsea will take trips to America.

Pre-season tours of the US are now the norm. They provide a way to make money in the short term and lay foundations for the long term, because if football ever really takes off there - and more than ever it looks like it will - then establishing a support base will be hugely lucrative. As Financial Fair Play looms, those transatlantic shirt sales look particularly enticing.

These tours are almost certainly what paved the way for the thinking behind the dreaded 39th game, a parasitic idea that is no doubt still lurking in the crevices of Richard Scudamore's brain, waiting for the right moment to come out again. While they're good for the commercial and marketing arms of the clubs, the same can't be true from a sporting point of view.

A good pre-season is fundamental to a club starting their league campaign well and these tours must take it out of the players. I've been to America, it took ages. When I came back I was exhausted and I didn't play any football or arrange any promotional engagements for weeks.

Players and managers so often talk of the need for a winter break given the amount of games teams have to play. Perhaps a better idea would be to rethink the preseason tour. Maximising income is important to stay competitive in today's financially erratic game, but it does players and domestic supporters no favours.

It's yet further confirmation that the people who run the game view it more like corporate entertainment than something that fans and communities have an emotional attachment to. While players may prefer these matches to be in Miami than in Barnet, I'm sure the same isn't true of Jeremy Aves, Mr. Tittyshev and their ilk.