How pre-season jollies got turned into serious money-makers

They used to be for sweating off a summer of excess but now club tours are all about building the brand
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The Independent Online

Judy Garland's Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to Kansas; Manchester United believe their path to play the city's Wizards tomorrow is paved with gold. Whether it is the ideal preparation for a 10-month English season remains to be seen.

Last weekend United played in Toronto. Next weekend they play in Guadalajara. Besides Canada, Mexico and the American Midwest they will have also fitted in matches in Philadelphia and Houston before returning to England, via a game in Ireland, for the Community Shield.

In 1994 their pre-season routine consisted of two matches in Ireland, one at Wolves, and another in Glasgow, before again concluding at Wembley. Alex Ferguson wrote of that schedule in his diary of the season: "It has involved more travelling than we wanted to do."

Sixteen years on the Manchester United manager is all smiles as he goes from airport to hotel to press conference to sponsor's reception, fitting in matches and training sessions when he can amid the glad-handing. What has changed his view? Nothing has, but he recognises the realities of life at a globally supported football conglomerate such as Manchester United. The tour began not with a match but a launch, of the new £80m sponsorship with Aon in the insurance giant's Chicago HQ. United are also, of course, American-owned, though the Glazers' Florida base is not on the schedule.

This is United's first trip across the pond since back-to-back pre-season tours in 2003 and 2004. They have subsequently focused on Asia leaving Chelsea, with five trips in six years, to prospect out west. During the hiatus United appear to have lost support. There were more than 30,000 empty seats in Toronto and Philadelphia combined, $20 tickets are available in Kansas, and open training sessions have attracted nothing like the 40,000 crowds in Malaysia last year. It seems the marketing men have scope to improve brand awareness.

They will work to achieve that because, though Asia remains the long-term future, the major clubs have already made inroads there, and counterfeiting currently limits the revenue which can be squeezed from China and the Far East. Thus the presence in North America of Manchester City (whose matches are at the centre of a promotional campaign by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority), Tottenham, Celtic, Bolton and impecunious Portsmouth. Pompey are a draw because they have reached two FA Cup finals in three years but Bolton's presence underlines the lure of the "EPL"; as does relegated Burnley's trip to Singapore.

Other factors also dictate destinations. Birmingham, now under Chinese ownership, have been to Hong Kong and Bejing. Everton went to Australia, followed by Blackburn, lured by promoters seeking to build on the popularity of players like Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton. QPR are in Italy, taking advantage of chairman Gianni Paladini's hospitality. Fulham are in Sweden, a result of recently departed manager Roy Hodgson's Scandinavian connections.

It is a long way from the once- traditional week in the West Country, though that has been on the agenda for some clubs, such as Blackpool and Crystal Palace. Far-flung pre-season tours are not entirely new either. Everton went to Canada in 1985, but this was less a case of cashing in on their championship triumph than finding somewhere to go after English clubs were banned from even playing friendlies in Europe post-Heysel.

Wherever they go, managers will hope the experience helps prepare for the forthcoming season. To that end they need decent weather and good facilities. Manchester United players described the facilities in Philadelphia last week as among the best they have experienced anywhere. However, training in 93-degree heat met with less enthusiasm. By contrast, Liverpool's opening match in Austria was cancelled due to a heavy downpour.

For the new Portsmouth manager, Steve Cotterill, there are other concerns. "I would rather be at home trying to put together a team," he said in Edmonton, Canada. "It's very difficult for me at the moment. I'm really out of the loop. I could do with being back home so I can ask a few questions and get to the bottom of a few things."

The one major team who make no compromises to commercial needs are Arsenal, currently in Austria for the ninth season in a row. That says much for Arsène Wenger's power within the club, given Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2005, despite preparing in perfect seclusion.

It is true that Chelsea and Liverpool are also remaining in Europe but that is in part because their marketability is reduced by the need to rest World Cup players. Chelsea usually go to the US while Liverpool went to Asia in 2003, 2007 and 2009, summers which did not follow international tournaments. This time they have to rest Gerrard, Torres, Reina, Carragher, Mascherano, Kuyt etc. Chelsea have been similarly denuded but Manchester United, while less of a drawcard without Rooney, were able to take Giggs, Scholes, Van der Sar, Nani and Berbatov to the US.

Whatever the location, the main aims are to build fitness, hone tactics, enhance team spirit and develop confidence. To achieve the latter some managers prefer to play weaker teams, either lower division or local, enabling their side to have time on the ball, score goals and rack up victories. This is not so easy for those clubs involved in money- spinning tournaments and prestige friendlies. Hodgson admitted he was worried his youthful, understrength Liverpool team could get badly beaten in Zurich this week and was relieved when they drew with Grasshoppers.

Building fitness is less of an issue in the modern game. The days when players spent the off-season in an orgy of Bacchanalian excess, then spent the first week sweating it off, are largely gone, not least as many clubs hand their players fitness guidelines to follow. As recently as 1997 Lars Leese, Barnsley's new German goalkeeper, was stunned when the club's preparation for their Premier League debut began with two days of running. In Germany he had been used to starting with light weights work to prepare the muscles. Now, says Ferguson, who will be well aware of the legendary Rangers' manager Jock Wallace's penchant for sending his players running up and down the sand dunes of Gullane Sands, notably one nicknamed "Murder Hill" by his charges, the longest run United's players do is "maybe 200 metres".

The nearest Ferguson's team got to the old way, which also featured running up and down the terraces, was jogging up the 72 "Rocky Steps" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That, though, was less about exercise than team-bonding. Though less alcohol is involved, due to the advice of sports scientists and the lack of interest of many foreign players in getting drunk, this remains a key benefit of touring. Eamon Dunphy, in Only a Game? his seminal account of a 1970s pro's life, describes an unforgettable evening with Millwall when Gordon Hill, then a cocky but naive teenager, later a winger for Manchester United and England, was stitched up on a pre-season tour to Bournemouth. Hill, a junior Wimbledon player, was left in the hotel foyer in his tennis gear waiting for a fictitious newspaper interviewer to arrive. Then, when the players returned from their night out and Hill was still hanging around, he was cajoled into an imaginary match with the club tennis champion, Harry Cripps. The foyer's furniture was rearranged into a makeshift court and Hill and Cripps started to describe the shots they were making, while other players acted as line judges and umpire, usually finding against Hill, who in total seriousness started to dispute their made-up calls like some forerunner of John McEnroe.

Similar tricks will be pulled this pre-season, whether by Manchester City's millionaires in New York, or Gillingham's journeymen in Le Touquet. For all the commercial aspects, and the training and tactics, for the players, pre-season tours are the last bit of fun before it all gets serious. As Dunphy wrote: "It's what being a footballer is all about. You stay at a luxury hotel. You never have to check in. The meals are all laid on. You bring your golf clubs. There are no responsibilities. No bills, no wife, no mother-in-law, and no competitive matches to spoil things. Just the lads." That is as true now, as it was in 1973.

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