Always Friendly, Often Bizarre
By Gerry Smith
As can be seen elsewhere on football.com , the pre-season friendlies are in full swing across Europe and beyond. These days, at the top end of the scale, it's about money as much as gaining match fitness, as Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga clubs travel the global looking for a pay-day as well as a decent workout.
It wasn't always like that. Before the love of money slithered its way insidiously in the present-day culture of football, there were some weird and wonderful match-ups. In fact, away from top level football, there still are. And occasionally, they have the capacity to go away thinking 'Well, I'll never see that again." Sometimes thankfully so. Here's just three that I've been fortunate - or unfortunate - enough to be at.
Sunderland v Seattle Storm, 1988
En route to Scotland, this just had to be done. Sunderland were in one of their revival phases, with Denis Smith having led the club out of the abyss of Third Division football, and Marco Gabbiadini making himself a hero on Wearside with his spectacular goalscoring exploits.
This, however, wasn't enough to tempt the locals out for a first look at the new Sunderland getting ready for 1988/89. A virtually empty Roker Park welcomed Seattle Storm. By this time, however, football stateside was on its' knees, and the quaintly named Western Soccer Alliance champions didn't have quite the crowd pulling effect that the NASL, Pele, and the New York Cosmos had worldwide a decade or so before.
It did, however have it curiosities. Cruising to a 3-0 win, taking centre stage was John McPhail, a rough, tough Scot, who was the heart and soul of the Sunderland back four at the time. He was also the penalty taker, too, with his scoring tally the previous season gone well into double figures. John had missed just one spot-kick, with promotion and the Division 3 title already won.
Today, however, was different. Local referee George Tyson had given Sunderland three penalties, of which only one was anything like clear-cut. The Seattle players were understandably aggrieved. They needn't have been though. McPhail's record that afternoon was just one successful spot kick out of three. In just 90 minutes he'd doubled his miss stats from the whole of the previous term.
McPhail was perhaps never the same player, or penalty taker ever again. His one and only appearance in the top flight resulted in defeat and an own goal, and he was soon on his way to Hartlepool. Many feel he wasn't really cut out for the higher levels of English football.
But football is a confidence game, too, and those who were at Roker that summer Saturday afternoon in 1988 saw McPhail's confidence evaporate alarmingly. He was never the same player after that.
Nor, indeed, were Seattle Storm. Within eight years they withdrew from pro football completely and now operate as a youth club in the local leagues.
Southend United v Vitesse Arnhem, 2007
I never knew where I stood with Sammy. She was young, nice looking, and at times seemed really into me. At other times, she was very stand-offish. A quiet drink had been sometimes too quiet a few days before. Time to make or break this hardly blossoming romance. If she wanted to date me, she'd have to know what I'm into as well.
Roots Hall, rather obligingly, come up with something out of the ordinary. Only just relegated from the Championship, with high hopes of an instant return to second tier football, they welcomed Eredivise outfit Vitesse Arnhem to the seaside (by the way, it's pronounced Vi-te-sse, not Vi-tesse as many do).
Quite why a side used to being in the top flight of such a cultured footballing nation as the Netherlands, in a stadium with a retractable pitch as well as retractable roof, would want to visit the homely but ramshackle Roots Hall and face up to a third flight side, is beyond anyone's wildest guesses. But Sammy was treated to a seat in the South Upper, possibly one of the best views of a football ground in England, to witness this bizarre match-up.
The match was a good one. Southend United prevailed 3-2, with Richie Foran grabbing one of the Shrimpers goals - more about him later. What stood out, however, was Sammy. She was transfixed by it all throughout. She never kept her eyes off the action, even though it was just a bit of a kick-around in a largely deserted stadium.
At full time, she asked, almost awe-struck, "When's the next game?" When I told her, she asked to come again with me. Despite a follow-up phone call, and a couple of texts, I have never heard from Sammy again. Which just goes to show - football is a funny old game, but dating women is funnier and older game. Neither of which I've ever got the hang of .....
Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Real Valladolid, 2010
For one reason or another, the Caley Thistle Stadium has never been a happy hunting ground as far as goals and entertainment are concerned. I've seen more goalless draws there, and more dull matches, than any other place than I care to remember.
Needs as must, however, in a place as remote as the Highlands. Many miles from any other alternative, my son and I reluctantly settled on an evening, unusually warm by local standards, but destined to be filled with tedium. So why go? Simply because you might, just might, be proved wrong.
Not this evening, however. It was the visitors first pre-season friendly of the summer, which meant they were weeks behind the Highland capital's side in terms of match fitness and sharpness. This was counterbalanced, however, by their comfort with the ball at their feet, nullifying ICT's long ball and running game.
In fact, it nullified any sort of goalscoring opportunities for either side. As the boredom continued, the Caley subs started running down the side of the pitch and behind the goal, presumably as a viable alternative to either watching the game or staring at the cars heading towards the Kessock Bridge on the A9 close by.
It was then that a familiar Irish brogue shouted out to me. "How much longer left, mate?", came the question from Richie Foran, having moved from Southend United to ICT. He immediately heard a familiar tone himself when told there was around 15 minutes left, which would feel like 3 hours.
He came over. "So where are you from?" I ventured that I came from the same area he'd been plying his trade before and indeed has seen his career stifle, albeit not being his fault. For my money playing forwards in midfield is never a wise option.
"And what are you doing up here, for goodness sake?" The response couldn't be missed. "Well, we had an enjoyable time at Roots Hall mocking you and we thought it might be a good holiday continuing it up here."
"So you've come all the way from Southend to have a go at me?"
"Yep. And watch those splinters from all those subs benches you've been sitting down on these past few years!"
All three of us chuckled. Richie knew none of it was true, we were just there to see a game, and genuinely pleased to see him. If nothing else, it confirmed for Richie that, from the Southend United supporters at least, there were no hard feelings that the move didn't work out for him. I'm genuinely pleased he's been a real success at Inverness.
To add to the surreal proceedings, Caley Thistle boss Terry Butcher boasted that his side had played the Spaniards off the park. I could only conclude that he was referring to the ball being played 'off the park and high up into the earth's atmosphere' by his side. Any football on the park itself was played entirely by an at half speed Real Valladolid.
Still, he's played in World Cups and managed teams both sides of the border with varying degrees of success. How would I know when a team is hoofing it and when one is actually playing football? All I do know, though, from that night, is that Irish footballers are good company and have a sense of humour. Even during a game.
And that is but a tiny, tiny selection of the weird and wonderful experiences pre-season football can throw up. Enjoy it while you can, for in a few short days the serious business starts. And often that can be no fun at all. Whoever's playing.