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Pre-season Friendlies or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Watch the Cricket

July 29, 2011

At some point over the summer we all realise we miss football. For some, competitions like the Copa América, the U17 World Cup or the women’s World Cup sate the appetite and plug the gap. For others though, the prospect of watching such tournaments does not appeal. Forget the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in competitive action; these people are after the real cut and thrust of their club’s programme of pre-season friendlies. After all, who wants to watch South America’s finest when the reserves are getting a run-out on a cash-counting tour of the Far East?

Before the days of 24 hour sports news and club TV channels, pre-season friendlies were relegated to the classified results section of the sports pages. Now these warm-up games are much more significant, for the top clubs at least. They form part of lucrative foreign tours. For supporters back home, matches are shown live, either on TV or the club website. This exposure is welcomed by advertisers and sponsors, and indeed fans, but it can cause problems.

Anyone who frequents football forums will be aware that sanity and rationality are often hard to find. It’s the same on Twitter. Anyone who doubts this is the case need only to peruse the big Liverpool messageboards and read reaction to recently friendly results. The first two matches – a 4-3 win over Guandong Sunray Cave and a 6-3 win over a Malaysia XI – resulted in general contentment but concern at the six goals conceded. The next two results – both 3-0 losses, the first at Hull and the second at Galatasaray – caused anger, consternation, anxiety, and a belief that Liverpool could kiss goodbye to any meaningful tilt at success this season.

Well, not everyone reacted like that. But a large number did. Never mind that some of the players involved in these games are unlikely to feature much, if at all, during the coming season. Never mind that the main purpose of pre-season games – on the playing side – is improve the players’ fitness levels. Never mind that the combinations in which players were appearing on the pitch are unlikely to repeat themselves in mid-season. Does anyone really expect Martin Kelly and Sotirios Kyrgiakos – who started in central defence against Galatasaray – to be Dalglish’s favoured centre-back pairing? Let’s just forget that Liverpool were missing the likes of Gerrard, Reina, Suarez, Johnson, Lucas, Adam, Henderson, Downing and Meireles in Istanbul. Rational response to defeat can evade football supporters at the best of times, but when a loss or two in July is met with predictions of doom, the line between overreaction and stupidity can become blurred.

In the pre-season of 2006, Liverpool lost 5-0 to Mainz, who were then in the second tier of German football. In May 2007, the club was competing in the Champions League final. Essentially, pre-season matters a lot less than many believe. The league begins on August 13. That’s when we should really start to care about poor performances and results. In the mean time, there’s a test match on…

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