My first visit to a 2013-14 football friendly at Deepdale on Tuesday provided a reasonable evening’s entertainment with at least a suggestion of authenticity about proceedings. But I might have given it a miss had it not been midweek as I’ll explain in due course.
As we get within a couple of weeks of the proper stuff starting, it makes perfect sense for Gary Bowyer and any other managers to field something approximating to the unit they intend sending out for league duty and it also begins to benefit the players to stay on the field a bit longer than the regulation 45 minutes (then change the entire side) commonplace in the earliest encounters.
Of course it isn’t the real thing, Rovers’ bench (with only a goalkeeper and three outfield players, two of them kids) told you that.
Many of the absentees from the Deepdale squad had been involved with a behind-closed-doors game against Bury at Brockhall earlier in the day. That might actually have just been as interesting with UAE international Abdul AbdurRehman on trial.
But with a few on – and it was a few, 5,700 compared to the 21,000 prepared to fork out considerably more to see Preston take on Liverpool 10 days earlier – and a few spicey tackles flying about, local pride at stake and Rovers one down almost immediately thanks to old adversary Kevin Davies, there was a competitive edge to the game which prevented it from lapsing into one the torpor of the late-summer training exercises we’ve all been bored rigid by.
My personal favourite moment of the game came as I sat in the Press Seats at the top ot the Finney Stand an hour before kick-off and watched my nine-year-old daughter and two mates, standing by the front fence clutching pen and paper, beckon Chris Taylor over as he wss gently warming up.
Rovers’ new winger, signed from Millwall, bears an uncanny resemblance both physically and in playing style to Dirk Kuyt, the Dutch former Liverpool striker, and he jogged over expecting to be handed the pen and paper, only to be rebuffed and asked if he could send Olivia’s idol Jordan Rhodes over! (He duly did with perfect grace and Rhodes signed the kids’ tickets).
And it was interesting to see Taylor and Rovers other new boys, Alan Judge, Alex Marrow and Matthew Kilgallon in action.
Prior to the game I had no thought whatsoever to Rovers mounting a promotion challenge this season and I saw nothing at PNE to change my mind.
I’ve seen a bit of Barry Bannan, who sounds as if he’s set to sign, and while I have not been carried away with him, the thought of a central pairing of Marrow and Josh Lowe playing most games terrifies me.
But I haven’t come on to assess Rovers’ prospects in full – my Blue Eyed Boy column next week will discharge that duty – but to discuss the merits or otherwise of friendly games.
I have mixed feelings about them. My dad, a Rovers fan since 1945, wouldn’t attend a friendly if we played the full Real Madrid or Barcelona First XI at Ewood and charged a quid to get in. He hates them, and regards them as a waste of everyone’s time which should be conducted behind closed doors.
One of my best mates John, however, has travelled to virtually every continent to see every last Rovers pre-season game as long as I can remember. India, Australia, USA, Hong Kong, Sweden…not to mention Southport, Stalybridge and Spotland for every last Reserves or under-21 run-out he can get to.
I’ve had my moments myself. Multiple pre-seasons in Scotland, Ireland, Austria, Germany with John and a dedicated bunch as well as jaunts to the less exotic milieu of the likes of Halifax and Darlington and Morecambe down the years.
When my single days came to a belated end after what Springsteen describes as an “extended adolescence” 10 years ago this very week we arranged to go and tie the knot in New York City.
Between planning the trip and our wedding at City Hall Manhattan on July 25th 2003, Rovers arranged a friendly in Washington DC. On 23rd July 2003. Well, we couldn’t miss on an opportunity to see the American capital, could we? Greyhound buses were duly booked.
We even had our honeymoon part paid for when two chumps from a local paper were refused entry to the USA without work permits and at the stadium I picked a few orders and some radio summarising work up they had been earmarked for!
I’m pretty sure the only time I really got to see George Best in the prime of his brilliance was at a game arranged against Man United at Ewood on a Friday night in 1970 after both teams had been knocked out of the FA Cup. I saw Best later, the whereabouts of his mojo unknown, but the sight of him that night at Ewood, Beatle hair, slim as a girl with bright red shirt down over his shorts, is as vivid as his image on the Typhoo Tea cards which you cut off the packet.
In 1990, John Harkes was in the USA team which lost 1-0 to Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico before 90,000.
Ten days later he (and me also just back from Italia 90) made his only Rovers (trial) appearance before about 1,135 disparate souls in the run-down surroundings of Halifax’s dilapidated Shay Stadium.
Three years after that I rolled up at Easter Road for a first look at some centre forward we’d signed the day before.
“Waste of money,” I grunted as Hibs battered us 3-0. What? Oh – his name?
In pre-Euroboom Dublin I watched Rovers at several grounds and stocked up on cheap Hamlet Cigars. No 5 Euro Guinness in them days. One of the same chumps left his phone in a taxi.
In Germany and Austria in the early 2000’s Rovers played on some grounds no better or bigger than Feniscowles Rec and Keith Gillespie got himself sent off two years running in friendlies. The year before Marlon Broomes had been red-carded in a game and Souey asked me not to report it in case he got a suspension. He never asked when the daft Irishman got himself in bother, I suspect he secretly hoped I would.
After an 8-0 win at tiny Amberg, Dwight Yorke’s first game, I asked Tony Parkes if three games and six days was too long.
“When you get silly games like that it is,” muttered Tony wisely. But I still exchange e-mails and mementos with the Stadium Announcer or “Speaker Fred” as he introduced himself, a top fella.
At least Tony presumably didn’t get lost in the former East (Germany) as we did after a game at former DDR town Plauen, a smart new town but five miles out of the centre there wasn’t a road, house or directions sign with a light anywhere near on within 100 miles.
In Austria I watched two blokes I’d not seen before disembark from a coach at a beautiful Alpine village park ground.
Both lit fags. One looked cool, supremely confident and exuded charisma. The other looked nervy, haunted and puffed anxiously as if he was anxious about playing against a team of Alpine goatherds. Guess which was Corrado Grabbi and which was Tugay Kerimoglu?
I’ve always liked going to new places, new grounds whether home or abroad. I’m more ambivalent about home friendles though. Barcelona got me down to Ewood, that was a super afternoon.
Anyone also remember us beating Barca 3-1 in Almeria during the 1994-95 title season. Bet Ian Pearce does, he scored twice. Even my mate John never made that. I think we did go to a pub in Darwen to watch a tape the landlord’s sister had video’d of it though.
But Chievo couldn’t tempt me. Or PSV Eindhoven.
One needs to be careful when entertaining foreign sides in any case. Do you recall Burnley playing Gremio only to find they weren’t the reasonably well-known senior Brazilian club but a few enterprising chancers from the area who’d fancied a free trip to Europe and organised the South American equivalent of Church CC/Oswaldtwistle Immanuel’s legendary cricket tours of the 1980’s/90’s?
I’m not convinced of the need or benefit for public friendlies. Watching Sunderland and Spurs slosh about in Hong Kong mud or Liverpool try to play on the shocking MCG surface, a stunning almost entirely red-scarved 95,000 there I grant you, it’s clear that the financial pickings are far outweighing any physiological benefits.
Just remember these jaunts in November when people are pulling out of international squads, their managers saying they have too heavy a shedule and workload.
I want Rovers ready for Derby next Sunday so it would make sense for Bowyer to select as near a side as he can to the one he’ll pick at Pride Park for tomorrow’s game against Everton. And to let them get stuck in and sweat as much as they will do on 4th August.
I may even be there. But not because it’s advertised as a “return to the traditional prestige pre-season friendly” (good heavens we won 4-1 in the FA Cup at Goodison six years ago!).
The weather forecast ain’t great and the cricket may be off.
Because at the end of the day, I’d rather, see 20/22 amateur sportsmen playing a game that matters than watch a game which won’t matter a whit ten minutes after it’s finished.
But then again, when will be the next time those kids get to pester a really famous player for his autograph.
Be warned, Leon Osman. It’s Fellaini they’re after tomorrow.