Premier League

“It Won’t Count for Anything”: Let Friendlies be Friendlies

There is plenty of evidence that football fans care a little too much about their teams. From the fact that some bear their initials initial on social media as middle names to the way people will fly off the handle with claims of disloyalty if someone places a bet against their own team, there are a number of ways that some fans take their spectating of a sport as something more.

Maybe you could tell this because they’re wearing a replica shirt with their own name and number as if they’re part of the squad that they sit in the stands, or in front of a TV, to watch. I’ve been one of those people; I’ve got Huddersfield shirts – home, away and goalkeeper – with Marco 4 on the back. At least two other people have got one, too. One I gave away to a good friend, one I left on a bus.

Irrelevant events, heralded by fans

There’s another way to tell as well, and its happening right now. I write this an evening after Huddersfield Town have beat Olympique Lyonnais at the John Smith’s Stadium, while Premier League new boys Cardiff City lost at Rotherham. Last night, some big European teams faced off in the Champions Trophy. People will have stayed up to watch.

These games are friendlies, all of them. They are designed for players to build themselves up to a level of fitness that will see them ready to face the gruelling league campaign to come, and for coaches to see how certain ideas might work going forward be it players in positions, or tactics, or even routines at set pieces or staged in open play.

Yet each set of games, each ‘debut’ or first goal for a new club is heralded by fans as though something that has occurred will be relevant during the course of the season to come. Almost invariably, it won’t.

It’s not hard to get drawn in

I won’t pretend it isn’t difficult to get drawn in; to see a team struggling in a game against an opposition you think they should beat and realise that you expect most of that side to be in the first team in a few weeks’ time. I won’t pretend that you don’t see a goalkeeper playing a second half of a game and think that maybe a club can save money on a stopper because forty-five minutes of comfort has writ itself too large.

I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen new signings look comfortable on the ball in a meaningless match, assumed they were going to be able to do the business when the real games started only to find them woefully out of their depth within a few minutes (step forward Tyrone Thompson).

No, Marcelo Bielsa will not find himself under more pressure because a Leeds side failed to win at Oxford Utd the other night; nor Phil Parkinson because his Bolton side lost at Guiseley.

“Tonight was just about getting the lads some minutes,” Parkinson told the Trotters’ official site, “We pieced a team together with not much thought, in terms of the structure of the team. The selection was purely based around which players needed minutes.”

Now, a number of Bolton fans attended that game at Nethermoor, and all will have been disappointed to see their team come away with a 3-1 loss to a side who are well below them in football’s pecking order. Its fair to think they might have been trying to imagine how those players will fit into their first team.

The dugout and the stands: two differet mindsets

I chose Bolton because that result is a nice juxtaposition between expectation and outcome, and Phil Parkinson has given a perfect example of what managers are looking for in friendlies that fans aren’t. It is a completely different mindset in the stands to the dugout; instead of counting goals, they’re counting minutes safe in the knowledge that whatever the results, they’ll be forgiven when three points get on the board.

If you’re going to watch a pre-season game as a supporter, you really do need to adopt that thought process. I watched Middlesex play a pre-season cricket match against Durham University this season. Cricket is a little more honest with its warm-up games; while they count as experience for the students, the counties will retire players, bowl short or long spells, do whatever they need to ensure that their players are getting the ‘in-game’ practice they need. Middlesex looked good and particularly Sam Robson batted decently. I thought they would have a good season after seeing that. I was wrong.

Football for football’s sake

Despite all this, there are advantages to fans going to pre-season games. One of those is that they get to see their team in their new kit. I once went to see Brentford win the Hounslow Cup; they beat Bedfont in the final. The Bees were in an excellent black and yellow kit that day, but their numbers were illegible; by the time the season came around, the names and numbers were red, and could be read. Another advantage for the practice sessions.

Just as you can acclimatise to a new kit, there will be new players, too. They arrive at all clubs over the course of the summer, even if just from the progression of young players to the first team squad. If you sit down for the first match of the season and can’t tell your star signing from the right back from the youth squad, what kind of fan are you.

Perhaps most importantly of all, if you’re a fan, you’re watching football. That means you get all the things that football has. Goals, shots, skills, saves… all of it. In a safe, pressure-free environment. You can go to a friendly, you can watch football, and it really doesn’t matter what happens, because you’ll be told at the end of the game at that it was only important that some players ran about a bit.

James Coppinger scored a ludicrously good goal for Doncaster Rovers the other night. It won’t count for anything, but football is football, and it is being played for fun. We just all need to train ourselves to enjoy it as such.

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