Pre-season: you could argue a case for this being the best time of year to be a football fan. Optimism peaks as a new season begins, last term’s failings a distant memory. And this pre-season it’s worse than ever...
If you had to say something nice about the 2010 World Cup, you'd say that there were some intriguing tactical battles between some highly organised and efficient teams. But that's not exactly a gushing compliment. To liken most of the teams at this World Cup to poker players, a lot of sides were essentially sitting back, folding everything and waiting for aces. Netherlands, Paraguay, Denmark, take your pick. There were plenty of teams waiting for someone else to make a mistake rather than risk making one themselves.
I'd put myself towards the nerdier end of football fans, and found the tactical musings of Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson fascinating reading during the tournament, but we were all craving so much more than just great tactics. Few of the flair players delivered in South Africa, be it through tiredness or effective opposition tactics negating their influence. The ones that could have made games exciting failed to do so, for a multitude of reasons. It wasn't an abysmal World Cup but, if you're like me, you were sneakily quite relieved when it was over.
It was time to start looking forward to the new domestic season. And how. I’ve thrown myself into pre-season with never-seen-before enthusiasm. Where previously I viewed pre-season friendlies as a way of passing the time on a sunny day, they now became enticing prospects.
Having recently moved to southwest London, I’ve decided to take the plunge and accompany an AFC Wimbledon-supporting mate in getting season tickets at Kingsmeadow this season. I’m not a Wimbledon supporter, but have tracked their progress with interest as they gradually return to prominence. It promises to be an intriguing campaign, with the Dons having turned professional over the close season, assembling a young, hungry squad all desperate for a crack at a successful career in the professional game.
Arriving late at their first pre-season friendly against Charlton Athletic, I was immediately struck by the appetite and determination of these young men on a baking hot day. A team loaded with trialists and new signings were covering every inch of the pitch. You could smell the optimism on the terraces as fans – who’d sensibly assumed that turning pro on the same budget would be a initial step backwards, in the hope of several steps forward later – began to reassess.
Dons’ manager Terry Brown has taken his time with his signings, but the majority look worth the wait. Talented left-back Andre Blackman looks like he’ll be the standout player for many reasons. He’s clearly a gifted and athletic footballer, but has an air of nuttiness about him that makes me think there will be a couple of dramatic red cards during the campaign too. He comes with a reputation for off-the-field trouble, with Brown hoping to tame him. He’s clearly a gamble, but if it comes off he should be one of the best players in the Blue Square Bet Premier. He’s had chances elsewhere and blown it – he needs to take this one. It may all end horribly, but right now just the prospect of seeing him play in a competitive game has me like a kid at Christmas.
And it’s not just at Wimbledon that the optimism flows. I’ve made trips to other non-league clubs in my area for friendlies – Tooting & Mitcham and legendary amateur side Corinthian Casuals. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing your local non-league team in action, make sure you give it a go on 4 September in support of Non League Day, a campaign that’s being well backed on Twitter at the moment. There's no top flight or Championship games that day and you’ll be surprised what a thoroughly excellent antidote it is to the slightly saccharine and stinkingly rich Premier League. This special Google Map indicates clearly where your nearest game is on 4 September.
As Tooting destroyed their youthful opposition that day, with brilliant goals from new signings Lino Goncalves and Karl Beckford, you could see Tooting’s fans start to dream that this year will be different – and I hope for them that it will be. There was a nice moment late on, when some kids aged about eleven asked German wunderkind Monty Gimpel for his autograph, perhaps not aware that the leggy teen was young enough to attend the same school as them. Tooting’s management team were in fits of giggles as Gimpel bashfully scribbled away.
This warm feeling of bonhomie I was seeing (and no doubt you’ve experienced it at other grounds if you’ve been to pre-season friendlies this summer) was undoubtedly linked to the good weather and – more crucially – the fact that Tooting haven’t lost any proper games yet. Nobody has. Everyone’s on nought points – we’re all joint top. Your team could win the league. They really could. So could mine.
Ah yes, my team. My lot are AFC Bournemouth, led by the second-youngest manager in the league, 32-year-old Eddie Howe. The man can do no wrong in our eyes. Just look at his chipper little face. How could you not want him to do well? To lead a young group of players to promotion was remarkable. To do it while under a transfer embargo from the Football League that often left us with only two or three substitutes – which at times included the GCSE-bothering Jayden Stockley – was as close to a miracle as I’ve seen in football.
So, exciting times at Bournemouth, and plenty of reasons to be cheerful at Wimbledon, where I’ll be every other Saturday. You can see why I’m energised as the new season approaches. The teams that mean a lot to me look in pretty good nick. But I bet you’re excited too – whoever you support.
I hope you’ll enjoy this blog over the course of the season. The idea is not to hone in on one or two particular teams or themes, but to write about whatever is interesting to me in the football world – and hopefully to you too. There may occasionally be a bit of focus on Bournemouth or Wimbledon (they say you should blog about what you know), but I’ll aim to keep it interesting for the generalist.
I’ll leave you with some quotes coming out of various clubs that typify the wave of optimism currently doing its annual sweep of the football pyramid (you’ll notice I’ve saved the best ‘til last).
"I will work 24 hours a day to help with my knowledge, ideas, leadership and in my way to achieve promotion. We can do it and we go to work this season to achieve that but in two years I don't have doubts, we will be there."
Leicester’s new boss Paulo Sousa believes the Foxes are Premier League bound
“With the season just around the corner, usual subject but are we not coming together well? Team seems to be gelling, good friendly results, luckily so far no injuries (fingers crossed) and what I’m more impressed with is the clean sheets. Didn’t have many of them last year. Definitely think Artell could be a good signing. Feeling a bit optimistic. Let’s hope we can start it off well against Hereford.”
Crewe fan on BBC 606 website. How many of us are saying things like this at the moment?
“There's a really good team spirit, the gaffer knows that. Team spirit is the biggest thing in the world - you can't win anything without team spirit. We've all got to love each other basically, we have, we've all got to love each other, on the pitch we've got to fight for the club, and that's how you win leagues, if everyone loves each other that's how you win leagues. Everyone is very confident, and I wouldn't swap anyone for anyone else in the league. We've got a really good bunch of mixed lads, we've got players with good experience in the Football League and at this level as well, but as I said, team spirit is massive."
New Wrexham striker Andy Mangan plays it cool
You’ve got to love their optimism. When you saw the headline of this blog, maybe you thought I would eventually descend into pessimism and cold, hard reality. But I love this time of year. Who cares if it’ll probably all end in tears/apathy/ripped-up season tickets. The point is: it might not. When our teams run out onto the pitch for their first game of season, let’s hope they’re all wide-eyed optimists like Andy Mangan and cross our fingers that by mid-October they’re not a demoralised shambles resembling the French national side at the World Cup.
Oh yeah, the World Cup. I haven’t thought about it for a while. Must be time for the football season. Can’t wait.