Summer breaks end early as clubs fly to foreign fields

The most deliciously mischievous transfer rumour of the summer, by several air miles, insisted that Wolverhampton Wanderers would unveil their major signing this week on the Premiership newcomers' first day of pre-season training. The location was RAF Cosford, the player Dennis Bergkamp.

The fear of flying for which Arsenal's celebrated Dutchman is renowned is not common among the footballing fraternity. Just as well, for there has never been a close season like it for taking to the skies. Before the long haul that will be the 2003-04 campaign, culminating in Euro 2004, many clubs are undertaking the long haul.

Manchester United will play four matches in the United States. Chelsea, Birmingham and Newcastle are to take part in a tournament in Malaysia, Liverpool will be in action in Thailand and Hong Kong, and Tottenham will tackle Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in South Africa. All but a handful of clubs will venture overseas.

The growing number of such trips illustrates the changing nature of the so-called summer break. Not so many years ago, many players saw it as an opportunity to drink and eat in quantities forbidden to them the other nine months of the year. Even Robbie Fowler, one of the more ample figures, was "only three pounds overweight" according to Kevin Keegan when he checked in at Manchester City this week.

Fowler's last action came on 11 May, the final day of Premiership fixtures. However, England, Scotland and both Irish national sides were involved in Euro 2004 qualifiers well into June. France, with a sizeable complement of London-based players, contested the Confederations Cup final a full fortnight later.

By then, some of their contemporaries were already in training for a new season. At Leeds, for instance, Nigel Martyn joined long-term absentees such as Seth Johnson and Michael Bridges for no other reason than to be ready as and when the chance came to reclaim his place. And the entire Tottenham squad assembled as early as 15 June to spend three days at Five Lakes, an Essex health spa.

Everton's players were among the first to forsake the golf clubs for the football club, reporting back on 3 July. Goodison Park's head of corporate affairs, Ian Ross, probably spoke for most clubs when he described the differences he had witnessed since moving to Merseyside as a journalist 25 years ago. "The days when players came in overweight after a summer of beer and junk food are largely gone," he said. "The close season is getting shorter and shorter so there's no time to get out of condition.

"There's also an acceptance that rewards come with responsibilities. Players know that if they don't look after their bodies, they're going to struggle in the Premiership. To prolong a lucrative career they have to look after themselves 365 days a year.

"Most clubs provide fitness programmes and dietary advice for the close season. Our squad were all checked for weight, body fat, heart rate etc at a local university the day before they started training. Since then they've been working mornings and afternoons, which used to be unheard of."

Everton's build-up takes them to Austria for a five-day training camp. Otherwise their preparations are among the more low-key, their only high-profile matches being a visit to Rangers and Bologna at home as a testimonial for Colin Harvey.

No such restraint informs Manchester United's plans as the champions gear up for life without David Beckham. The Stock Exchange does not recognise a close season, so United's summer itinerary tends to have as much to do with marketing the brand as with match practice.

Having declared their desire to crack the United States in 1998 in a merchandising tie-up with baseball's New York Yankees, United will now play four exhibition matches there. First up, on 22 July, come Celtic in Seattle, with Club America in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Juventus at Giants Stadium, New Jersey, and Barcelona in Philadelphia to follow, all in the space of 12 days.

United will fly straight from Philly to face Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. The wisdom of such a schedule is questionable. Their tour of the Far East in 2001 opened new markets (Beckham and Real Madrid follow their trail next month), but at a probable cost in physical terms. United started 2001-02 by taking a modest eight points from 15. They finished it without a trophy.

Liverpool, another club with an eye on shifting replica shirts, will blow away the cobwebs in Switzerland before playing eight times in 24 days at venues as disparate as Cologne, Crewe, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Aberdeen. Arsenal will not stray as far afield, their principal opponents being Austria Vienna, Celtic and Rangers, all away.

Lee Bowyer's debut for Newcastle will come in the Asia Cup (which some may see as darkly ironic) in Kuala Lumpur against Birmingham, the winners facing Chelsea or Malaysia in the final. Some 250,000 are expected to attend the matches, which, along with television coverage, underlines the fact that breaking new markets is a prime consideration in arranging pre-season games.

A twist of fate means the first Premiership club Aston Villa will encounter under David O'Leary is the one that sacked him, Leeds, in a Dublin tournament. That is as exotic as it gets for the cash-strapped Elland Road club, who went to the Far East and Australia under Terry Venables.

As for Wolves, tongues were soon hanging out as they lapped the athletics track at RAF Cosford. Next week, they will head for a rural retreat in southern Spain. Flying, of course. No doubt to Mr Bergkamp's regret, in the 21st-century pre-season there is no longer any such thing as plane sailing.

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