As Bradford City prepare to play Athlone Town tonight – their first of two friendlies in Ireland this week – Width of a Post writers look back upon their favourite memories of past pre-seasons.
I’m not normally ones for friendlies; in fact I could probably count on both hands how many times I’ve been to them over the years. However, back in 1995 when Manchester United came to town as part of the Graeme Tomlinson transfer, as a family we made the trip to Valley Parade.
Back then as a young boy (think I’d have been 8 or 9 at the time) we happened to be walking past the United team as they disembarked the team bus. For the life of me I can hardly remember the players who walked down the steps and straight past me, apart from a certain young player at the time who went on to be the biggest football name in the world for years…David Beckham!
Becks was signing autographs and posing for pictures. As he came past us my Mum effectively stopped Mr Beckham in his tracks, therefore enabling me to get my memorabilia. Although young, Mark knew better and turned round and said to my mother that he was only a young player and a nobody – I didn’t want his signature. What a huge error! In my defence I had no idea he was going to explode into the global superstar he became.
A truly *face palm* moment.
For those of us who live t’other side of Keighley, the age-old question “Who do you hate most, Leeds or Huddersfield?” has always carried a third option. Burnley might be based over the border, but the fact they are only 20 miles away from Skipton and have a decent history means my town is, for want of a better word, infested with Dingle supporters who tend to be obnoxious types. As Blackburn fans sing, “We hate the bastards in claret and blue”
As such, I find the concept of playing them in pre-season a difficult one to get my head around, but I suppose at least there was added meaning when, for three successive seasons, Burnley rocked up at Valley Parade to play a friendly. For the third visit, in August 2009, they had been promoted to the Premier League whilst we were still in League Two, cutting our cloth severely following a failed promotion push. Burnley were showing off £5 million record signing Steven Fletcher, we had trialists from Bamber Bridge and Guiseley. I couldn’t see anything better than a four or five goal City defeat.
So when the evergreen Graham Alexander put Burnley in front, we sighed at the inevitable. A huge away following – one that included Alastair Campbell – were boisterous and boastful. Yet before half time Michael Boulding and another trailist, James O’Brien had put City 2-1 in front. It stayed that way for the second half, with each passing minute the Premier League newboys’ performance got worse and their supporters became more and more upset.
The Bamber Bridge fella, Steve Williams, was a revelation. The story goes that Owen Coyle told Stuart McCall that “Zesh Rehman played really well today” after mistakenly believing Williams was Rehman. Another trialist, James Hanson, came on and bullied an experience backline. Suddenly the end of the world looked like a promising new beginning.
Pre-season games mean different things to different fans. I know some who are practically frothing at the mouth in anticipation of seeing trialists and a new kit after being deprived of their football fix for several weeks. Others couldn’t care less until the season proper starts.
I remember in the early 90s onwards for a while City used to pull at least one gem out of the hat for a game at Valley Parade. I’ve seen Red Star Belgrade along with the likes of Prosinecki, Pancev, Savicevic and Mihailovic; Real Valladolid with the crazy Higuita and flamboyant Carlos Valderama; and others such as Feyenoord, Dnepr and Santos all turned up for our entertainment.
City also went on Scandinavian tours and one to Holland I recall.
All these added a bit of the unknown to go along with the usual fare of the Guiseleys, Thackleys, the traditional annual City/Avenue game and other nondescript games against fellow league sides of various levels.
Such games are, of course, a precursor to the main event and do have their merits. I enjoy seeing both familiar and new faces wondering if we’ve unearthed another gem or whether we will ever see the trialist again. Also, its wise not to read too much into results; at the end of the day, whatever team is playing they are there to gain fitness and cohesion for the long slog ahead.
Admittedly, I haven’t been to too many pre-season games, but the one that sticks in my mind is Bolton at home, two years ago, for a wonder goal by Nialle Rodney.
A trialist at the time after his Nottingham Forest contract expired, Rodney picked up the ball on the halfway line and went on an incredible run, beating six or seven bewildered Bolton defenders, before placing the ball past Adam Bogdan, who was in net for Bolton. I turned to my friend Tom, who was sat next to me at the time, and shouted “Sign him up!” Had Rooney, Messi, or Van Persie scored that, it would still be replayed constantly on Sky Sports now!
Unfortunately, that was all Rodney managed to produce during his time as a City player (apart from scoring the winning penalty against Huddersfield in the JPT), but I will always remember him for the memorable goal he scored against Bolton, in my most memorable pre-season game.
I’m a sad individual. Name me a competitive City game since 1987 and there’s a worryingly high chance I’ll be able to tell you the scoreline, scorers and, to my slight embarrassment, the approximate attendance (but only to the nearest 250 in most cases. Come on – I have a life outside of watching Bradford City).
I have a blind spot though: friendlies. Don’t take this the wrong way, but anyone who pays money to watch two sets of professional footballers train (because that’s all a friendly is) is either too young to know any better or needs to develop other interests outside of the world of watching lower tier football. Rarely, if ever, have I seen something in a pre-season friendly which has stuck with me longer than it took to leave the ground.
The exceptions are few and far between, but the one that sticks out is watching Lennie Lawrence’s 1995 City vintage take a hammering at Rochdale (my attendance then falls into the ‘too young to know any better’ category). The ‘game’ was as dull as these occasions almost always are but an incident which hasn’t left me is the sight of Chris Kamara warming up in front of the away support and casually chatting to a group of young lads whilst going through a rigorous stretching routine.
The referee then awarded a free kick to Dale – correctly as I recall it – at which point Kamara unleashed a very strongly worded suggestion that the referee was perhaps performing at a notch or two below his maximum. The fact that Kamara wasn’t even facing the field of play when the free kick was awarded gave a subtle hint as to which way his career would eventually pan out.
I went up to Tadcaster last year for the pre-season curtain raiser primarily as a consequence of it being a nice day, and me having nothing on. Pre-season isn’t really ‘football’, but it’s still, umm… ‘football’. Beyond all that, there was a curiosity about the team and what they would look like. The arrow, if not pointing up, was flinching; tentatively teasing for the first time in eons. That summer was kind of exciting, I think. (My new book ‘Revisionist History: How We All Always Knew James Hanson Was Great’ is out next year.)
One forever enduring, forever pleasing aspect of the pre-season is the comical paranoia and self-aggrandisement of managers, stealthily refusing to name trialists and potential signings on team sheets through the anxiety of whispers and intentions being overheard by the obviously-obsessed rivals going all GCHQ on them. Everyone does it, and I love it. I’m still waiting the day all attending fans will be asked to sign the Secrets Act on the way into a leafy park ground, preventing them from Tweeting about Vincent Acapandie lest another team who would have absolutely no other way of finding out about his situation, become aware of the interest.
Sidebar: If I was ever in range of becoming a professional footballer, (I wasn’t), I totally would have changed my name to Alex Trialist. I’m convinced I could have co-opted the nationwide July exploits of A. Trialist and managed to blag a deal off some unsuspecting, buffoonish lower-league manager. *Coughs* Phil Brown *Coughs*. Mr Trialists of the world everywhere you are all missing a trick.
The Tadcaster trip was no different in this regard. Mysterious, faceless quasi-players, only identifiable by their number, littered the twenty two on show, leaving curious onlookers to speculate and propagate rumours and whispers. The uncertainty was the fun.
“Who’s that right back?”
“Not sure, some guy over there said he’s from Man City though…”
When that is the extent of your knowledge of a player, in this case Javan Vidal, you ridiculously become hyper-aware of everything they do, attempting to extrapolate in your mind to who they might be.
“See him go round that left back like he wasn’t there, HE’S LIKE CAFU!!!”
Every pre-season game has these guys, and they disappear from the thoughts as soon as they arrived, when it turns out there is a reason they are out of contract and willing to accept a trial at a lower league team. The preeminent example of this at 2Inspire Park was a mysterious tall centre half who Phil Parkinson apparently got from Newcastle…
“He was on trial up there with Pardew; he’s played for France Under-19s!!!”
“But he doesn’t look like a footballer; he just fell over for NO REASON!!!”
“He’s still young though, and did you see at that how he won that headed clearance! Commanding!”
“He’s SIX FIVE!!! Of course he’s going to win a header! Who was that ball to? Look! He just fell over AGAIN!!!”
Safe to say, Christophe Lowinsky featured in the hoops for only 45 comical minutes, and was thrust down the memory hole immediately after. It was never clarified in what context he represented France Under-19s.
Very little from pre-season, almost nothing actually, can be taken forward with any certainty, but that’s all part of the fun. It isn’t real football, but that’s why it’s fun. Real football isn’t supposed to be fun; even at its best, it’s tortuous. But just because it’s fun, and an illusion doesn’t mean it’s totally worthless.
That Tadcaster game featured a number of people who never played for the club again, but they did represent the Mark One view of what Parkinson was trying to do. Alongside Gary Jones in the midfield was a cultured, talented passer linking together attack and defence, who turned out to be Tom Taiwo. To look back, he was merely a Proto-Doyle. For Zavon Hines, read Anthony McNamee. Javan Vidal, Stephen Darby. The teams we see in pre-season may not be exactly who we will watch into the season, but they will likely look the same, and play in the same way. It is always something to watch for.
Jon-Paul McGovern may only be used to maintain the shape and design Parkinson is creating whilst another similar player is recruited, or he may actually be the answer. We can’t tell from here. But the unknown is more fun than the fact anyway. If we didn’t read too much into it, it wouldn’t really be football, would it?