In early 2008 the Chief Executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, put forward the most controversial proposal to alter the English game in living memory.
Scudamore suggested, with the support of a few chairmen of Premiership clubs, that there should be an extra ‘39th game’ added to the Premiership season. This additional game would be staged in a neutral venue outside of England and the argument was centred on distributing the Premiership to its global fan base.
However, the overwhelming majority of football observers stared right through this thinly veiled attempt at diverting attention from the disease that has engulfed and altered the beautiful game beyond recognition: money, money, money.
Even widely criticised figures in the game came out and condemned the ‘nonsensical’ idea, namely FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini. It would dispose all too readily of traditional and longstanding values and principles of the so-called beautiful game. Easy for them to say; they would seek to gain no obvious financial benefit from any such round of fixtures.
Money has plagued both men recently: Blatter and his organisation are now synonymous with corruption, bribes and general fraud. FIFA is now more widely discredited than ever.
Platini’s lambasting of the 39th game can now be rendered total hypocrisy, considering his recent calls for the European Championship Finals to be spread throughout the continent to reach out to its entire fan base. Sound familiar?
The Frenchman quickly changed his stance on such issues when that all important commercial factor comes into play. The outrageous decision to expand the tournament from its 16-team format to 24 displays the all-powerful financial aspect kicking even the most fundamental football ideologies into touch.
But what has all this got to do with United’s preparation for the upcoming campaign?
The Reds pre-season tour is more than useful for anyone wishing to chalk up on their geography. The six fixtures which have been arranged span five countries and three continents. The squad will jet out to South Africa this coming Monday, before travelling to China, then take in half of Scandinavia with matches in both Norway and Sweden, before a final game in Germany.
In total, a staggering 23,019 miles will be covered. To put this into perspective, this is over four times the total distance the team will travel to all away matches combined this coming league season. There is of course, nothing particularly new or unusual about this tour for the club. United have visited all these countries at some point in their pre-season tour’s over the past decade, and last year the main focus was games played in the United States.
While the States will not be on the far flung tour this summer, six other Premiership clubs will be playing matches there, including Swansea. This would have been unthinkable up until a few years ago.
Another recently promoted club – QPR – will be travelling a total of 17,554 miles this summer, the greatest travellers outside of ourselves. Coincidentally, West London rivals Fulham are the least, covering a ‘mere’ 1,156 miles.
We all scoffed at Scuadmore’s plan to throw treasured traditions and values out the jet plane window, and I’m sure we all similarly smirked at Platini’s plans to redraw the fundamental organisation and planning of European Championships. ‘Bringing the game to its entire fan base’, yeah right! Pull the other one.
Yet, what differs between that and a typical Premiership club’s preparation for the upcoming season? The motive is the same, traditions are ripped up ruthlessly as the business-minded club owners stamp their authority.
Every Premiership club seeks to make a profit and be run like a business, or at least it should. But it must be stressed that core principles are being discarded in order to make a quick buck. From a purely footballing perspective, it makes no sense to hold your pre-season games in different parts of the world.
Constant long-distance travelling will tire out the entire squad at a time they are focusing on regaining fitness after a short summer break of indulgence. It is arguably the hardest part of a footballer’s season: when strict diet and fitness regimes are reinstalled. Playing in much warmer climates only adds to the struggle.
The Red Devil’s will play South African outfits AmaZulu FC (18th July) and Ajax Cape Town (21st), before going East to play Didier Drogba’s new club Shanghai Shenhua (25th). The squad will then have ten days to recover before playing Norwegian side Valerenga (5th August) followed by the ‘glamour tie’ against Barcelona in Gothenburg (8th). The tour will then conclude on the 11th August with a game away to Hannover 96 of Germany.
As per usual, the squad will be a mixture of familiar first-team faces and untried, inexperienced youngsters.
Unfortunately, Darren Fletcher has already been ruled out due to his ongoing battle against illness; hopefully we’ll see him back on the pitch sooner rather than later. Chris Smalling, another long-term absentee, is also likely to miss out. On a more upbeat note, club captain Nemanja Vidic is aiming to be back for the European leg of the tour. The Serbian colossus has been badly missed in the heart of defence and these games may prove more than useful in helping him regain his match sharpness.
Also set to miss the first half of the tour are the six men who featured in this summer’s European Championships – Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Patrice Evra. Club policy is that any player who participates at a summer international tournament is given an additional three-week break. The six will then undergo an intense fitness programme in order to get them up to speed for the European-based friendlies.
Tom Cleverley and David De Gea will also be unavailable as they are on Olympics duty a long with Ryan Giggs who will be captaining the GB football team, as he finally gets to compete in a ‘major’ international tournament.
New signings Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell will both feature in the squad. Fergie has already hinted that they will look to adapt Powell to the central midfield position, with the Japanese playmaker probable to be pushed further forward into a role just behind the striker. Pre-season gives the wiley old Scot the chance to experiment with his acquisitions.
Anderson and Macheda are also likely to play a part. For the pair of them, this is at best their ‘make or break’ season, and at worst these games are their last chance saloon. Both have struggled for form and fitness, and have also failed to progress at the rate that was expected. Arguably this tour will be more important for them than anyone else in the squad.
Pre-season is also notoriously used by Ferguson to give the younger generation their first real experience of being involved in the first-team squad. In recent years, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, amongst others, have used these games as a launchpad for their United careers. The hints this time around are that Jesse Lingard, Tyler Blackett, Larnell Cole and Michael Keane could all be involved as they look to make a name for themselves.
Lingard is a 19-year-old midfielder whose game can be most closely likened to Shinji Kagawa. The Warrington-born player flourished in his first season in the reserve squad after stepping up from youth team level, where he helped the side win the 2011 FA Youth Cup. He prefers to play in advanced position, typically floating between the midfield and the strikers, where he scored nine goals on his way to making a three-man shortlist for reserve player of the year last season and is tipped to be loaned out this coming season ahead of a bright future with United.
Tyler Blackett only recently turned 18 but is tipped to have a future with both United and England. He is a powerful centre back who can also operate effectively down the left flank. He was another key component of the 2011 Cup winning squad and likely to feature heavily in the reserves over the coming seasons.
Skilful midfielder Larnell Cole made his debut in the first team in the Carling Cup victory at Leeds last September, and is highly tipped to become a regular squad member within the next two years. An England Under 19 international, he has just been rewarded for his impressive progress with a new long-term contract at the club and is also tipped to be farmed out on loan this season.
Another stand-out of the youth teams over the past few years who is set to feature on tour is defender Michael Keane. He can operate either in the heart of defence or on the right hand side, and was handed his first team debut in last season’s Carling Cup game against Aldershot. He capped a splendidly consistent season by winning the Reserves’ Player of the Year trophy and representing England Under 19’s, where he played alongside his twin Will.
Unfortunately his brother, who operates as a striker and is another hot prospect for United, suffered a cruciate knee injury in that match. However, it will derail rather than destroy his prospects of playing for the first team, and the pair will no doubt rival the Da Silva’s in terms of Man United’s most popular set of twins!
Manchester United’s extensive pre-season tour will certainly prove to be interesting if nothing else. The trip will be characterised by taking on some old foes – once again play the mighty Barcelona, but first they will face the Chinese outfit who have snapped up both Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba.
Team wise, it will be an interesting blend of youth and experience representing Man United, with new faces and probably new formations on display. Let’s enjoy it but be a little more reserved when laughing at Scuadmore, Platini and Co.