London – It is not only superfans of the elite who are catered for in the modern era of the pre-season international extravaganza. Mansfield Town are warming up for the new League Two campaign in Malta, and the club offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to their supporters including travel with the players on a private Stags Air jet, an invitation to an exclusive barbecue, and five-star hotel stay, all for a mere £3,000. Mansfield beat a Malta Players Association XI 5-0 in the baking heat over the weekend. What better way to build up to the new dawn that 2017-18 might bring?
The pre-season tour has become a significant moment in any club’s calendar. While managers might pine for more serene preparation with the emphasis on fine-tuning the bodies of athletes to handle the upcoming months of relentless competition, pre-season as an event is here to stay. You can imagine marketing gurus sticking pins in maps and circling dates years in advance. Certainly at elite level, for clubs who gear themselves towards growing their international fanbase, summer tours are now extensively planned. There are millions to be made in appearance money, sponsors are granted special access that is more difficult to accommodate in the season proper, and brand building with long distance or new fans is championed.
This summer’s schedule offers an FA Cup final rematch between Arsenal and Chelsea in Beijing and a Manchester derby in Houston. Tottenham Hotspur will get some Champions League warm-ups against Paris Saint-Germain and Roma. Liverpool head to Hong Kong, while Everton have signed up for a trip to Tanzania in east Africa to please their new partner SportPesa. Dar-Es-Salaam will be a colorful first gig for the Wayne Rooney reunion.
It’s easy to be cynical about it all. Why go to a peaceful retreat in the Swiss Alps when you can fill a huge foreign sports arena and sell television rights? But there is more to the pre-season tour than a global commercial exercise. In terms of the connection between fans and a club – and this is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by players either – there is something important in that the vibes are noticeably different to what they experience in the season proper. The support on a summer tour tends to be made up of members of the international fanbase who are ecstatic to have their team actually visit them, plus the cluster of the most dedicated who somehow don’t miss a game, anywhere, ever. The tone is brighter, happier, more forgiving compared to the serious business closer to home. The mood brings a refreshing contrast to the routine pressures.
John Gibbons of The Anfield Wrap regularly travels with Liverpool in pre-season and believes it has become a meaningful experience for everyone connected with the club. “The fans look forward to watching the game and seeing their heroes in the flesh, but what they really look forward to is being the center of the universe for their football club for a short period of time,” he observes. “For once everyone is coming to them. When we went to America last year we kept getting messages saying: ‘We can’t wait to show you how we do it out here.’ There are hundreds of LFC supporters clubs all across the USA now and they combine their own sports traditions with what they see as the values of Liverpool Football Club. So they’ll have tailgate parties before the games, food being prepared on hotplates in a dusty car park, but then sing Liverpool songs with different groups trying to outdo each other for the most obscure.
“I’ll never moan (well, much) about kick-off times again after hearing about some of the crazy times people in Australia, Asia and America have to get up at, or stay up to, to watch Liverpool. But so many of them will not just insist on still watching it live but also travel to a pub so they can all watch it together. The fact that the communal aspect of watching football is still so important, even miles away from the action, is great. I remember the guys from the Seattle LFC Supporters Club telling me a bar owner got so sick of getting up in the middle of the night to open the bar for them he just gave them a set of keys and told them to be honest with drinks.”
Gibbons thinks the atmosphere can have a big impact on the team. “I think it is a great way, especially for a new signing, to see just how big some Premier League clubs are. Liverpool’s brilliant, exhilarating, ultimately heartbreaking 2013-14 season started in Melbourne in front of 95,000 fans. I think it gave everyone at the club a boost.”
Most Premier League managers have come to accept that a far-flung summer tour is an inevitability but Brighton & Hove Albion, as top flight newcomers, have resisted the temptation. Albion fan Kevin Beales has followed the team to all parts in recent years, and is off to see their friendly in Girona. “It is a bit more glamorous than usual,” he says. “We have tended to play very small teams in almost unheard-of locations. It is a rare opportunity to have such a small number of fans, around 100, at a place with no real barriers between you and the players. You only need a couple of people to shout something and the players hear it. There is more bonding between players and fans.
“Probably for the first time we had the chance to jump on the pre-season tour bandwagon but the club decided not to as they thought it might jeopardize preparations for such a big season. Secretly I was hoping we might get to go on a big tour but I understand why not. It would feel weird if people in the Far east or America know who Brighton are!”
Pre-season has come a long way from the time you might catch Dennis Bergkamp kicking off with Ronald McDonald in front of a few curious spectators in a village in Austria. This week Arsenal’s specially decorated plane touched down in Sydney – last visited by the club 40 years ago. For Elia Eliopooulou, who lives in Australia and has one of the most extensive Arsenal memorabilia collections in the world, this is a big moment. “Pre-season tours are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they are for the rest of us, the ones who stay up until 3am every weekend for 10 months of the year to follow our club.”
Danny Peters, an exiled Arsenal fan now living in California, found the experience “beautiful” when his team came to the States. “I’ve seen us play some massive games in the flesh, seen us win titles. But honestly, I enjoyed nothing more than taking my American wife, proudly wearing her Ramsey jersey, to her first ever Arsenal game in San Jose against the MLS All-Stars,” he says. “The excitement and love when they came to New York in 2014 was real, sustained and 100 percent genuine. And that passion came just as much from fans like me who are living away from the UK as it did fans who had grown up in the US and never seen a game in their life.
“Distance and proximity from seeing your heroes in the flesh matters much less today than it did 20 years ago when your sources of information were much fewer and far between. Today, the Premier League, arguably one of Britain’s great exports, is a truly global concern. It doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what you feel about the team.”
The Guardian Sport