Thursday, August 4, 2011

THE MARVELLOUS ILLUSION OF THE PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY

For anyone waiting patiently for the new season to start, especially during these painful  “barren” Summers without a major international tournament to hold the attention, long-awaited pre-season games are a welcome re-introduction to the match routine and a sure sign that the wait will shortly be over.


Gloating Germans, bulging nets: sometimes pre-season can mimmick the real thing


Some of the players may look a little portly after one beach barbecue too many, the new signings may still be studying the intricate patterns of the club crest and the result may seldom matter (obscured from reality by the 17 second half substitutions), but the sun is often out and the time has come to slide the lawn mower back into the tool shed and hang up the power drill for another eight months. Whilst City’s summer warm-up games in the past often involved any number of banal encounters that fall into a category as far removed from “classic” as it is possible to imagine, one or two down the years have provided memories that still manage to linger:

On 7th August 1980, long before the days when pre-season meant yet another trip to Ireland and a bus ride to Oldham, City took on the might of Sporting Clube de Portugal in their old Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon. City had already notched up impressive results in the north of the country, beating Sporting Braga 3-1 and drawing in Porto, when they came up against a Sporting side bristling with top notch international players. The game had been drifting happily City’s way in a solid and professional performance when suddenly local referee Marques Dias sent off Paul Sugrue for retaliation after a rash foul by the Brazilian Ademar. It was a case of Sporting losing their own composure as City had raced into a 2-0 lead by then in the stiflingly humid conditions, goals from Tommy Booth and Kevin Reeves putting the Blues in a comfortable position. Although the legendary Jordao pulled one back for the home side, the Blues held on to win 2-1 and please Malcolm Allison by their approach to a tough pre-season work-out in difficult conditions. City would come home and lose 5-1 catastrophically at Maine Road to Legia Warsaw on the eve of the season, a result and performance which acted as a much more detailed pointer to what we were about to be treated to that season. Big Mal lasted until October when he was sacked with City bottom of the table.

Big Mal reacquainted with Polish teams


Two years later City headed for Barcelona and a prestigious tournament that also featured Cologne, Porto Alegre from Brazil and the hosts, newly boosted by the arrival of Diego Armando Maradona. In the first game, a semi-final of sorts, City were paired with the Germans and held them 1-1 thanks to a fine display by Joe Corrigan and a goal from Dennis Tueart after Power’s shot had been deflected. Cologne’s late equaliser meant penalties and City held their nerve to advance to the final 8-7 on spot-kicks, Corrigan saving twice when the shoot-out went to sudden death. City thought that this would set them up nicely for a final with Maradona’s Barcelona and a certain 120,000 sell out crowd, all eager to see their new recruit from Napoli, but the hosts were beaten by Porto Alegre and City also succumbed to the Brazilians 1-3 in the final. Still there were 90,000 in the ground as Asa Hartford was dismissed for throwing a punch and a David Cross consolation goal was too late to stop the samba party. City finished runners-up in a tournament watched by more than 160,000 fans over the two days and went home happy to have put right the locals’ suppositions that we were the make-weights in the four-team challenge. We would turn out to be just that in the First Division that season, however, suffering relegation on the final day of a season that would see us second in the table at the turn of the year, but ultimately fall to David Pleat’s Luton Town on the final day.

Asa gets his retaliation in first


The following year, City were preparing for their first season out of the top flight for 17 years and took it upon themselves to undergo a pre-season tour through central Germany, playing such luminaries as Eppingheimer FC, Pfingstad, Vfr08 Osterode and Silksheimer FC. It was a tour organised to help Billy McNeil bed in his new cut price Scottish signings McNab, Parlane and Jim Tolmie and how they re-paid their manager’s faith. Having scored four against each of these amateur sides, City took upped the ante and knocked in six against the one team from a slightly more elevated level. Although Wolfsburg were not in those days the established Bundesliga club they are today, they represented a greater challenge for Billy McNeil’s new charges than the other essentially glorified park sides. Goals from Kevin Bond (penalty), Tolmie, Power and Caton enabled City to run up a comfortable half time score, with two more in the second half from Parlane and Gary Jackson completing the rout. City would also win in Tilburg in Holland on the way home before starting the second division campaign with a great win at Palace on the opening day. From these early moments it was already clear for all to see that the big Scot had spent what little money Peter Swales had given him wisely and that the new recruits would play their part in the build-up to eventual promotion a season later.



Although the magic of pre-season to many is the opportunity of a trip abroad to follow the Blues whilst enjoying a well earned summer holiday, there have been one or two memorable games closer to home, as City’s policy of playing more games in Britain and Ireland came to the fore in the mid to late 90s. In 1999, for example, the build-up involved a home win over Liverpool. This coming on the back of inept showings at Bury and Bristol City was a typical response by City: Completely unexpected and at odds with the results up to that point. As Chris Bailey wrote at the time in the Evening News, “...like a cordon bleu chef, Joe Royle has apparently brought his creation to the boil at just the right time...”. After Liverpool had taken the lead through David Thompson’s long range effort, City hit back in the second half with a penalty from the lively Kevin Horlock and a flicked header by Shaun Goater just before the end to send the 20,000 crowd home dreaming of a successful first division campaign ahead. As this all came hot on the heels of the less than overwhelming season down with the dead men of Division Two, it helped provoke great excitement amongst Blues fans and their dreams were realised as Joe Royle’s terriers shot straight through the first division like a dose of salts to gain a second successive promotion, as Norwich have done this year.

A year later, pre-season saw City fans in an advanced state delirium as the side prepared for re-entry to the Premier League. The unforgettable afternoon at Ewood Park, where City had clinched promotion in a fashion only City could manufacture, was still fresh in the memory as the Blues announced their new summer signings: where were you when the news filtered through that George Weah and Paolo Wanchope would be showcasing their continental skills at Maine Road in the new season? 



This wholly unexpected development produced a big turnout at Boundary Park to see the Blues beat Oldham and George Weah slot in an early goal. This was his second in two games, the other a consolation effort in a 4-1 drubbing at Stockport. With the Liberian’s silky skills and superior technique lighting up the game and the spider-limbed Wanchope set to join him, the travelling fans could have been forgiven for dreaming of what was to come. Two months later Weah was gone (too sophisticated for Joe Royle, who preferred the "reliable" Kevin Horlock and the "gritty" Danny Tiatto, City were on their way back out of the Premier League. The memories of Weah would become ever more painful as Royle ended the season dabbling with the superior skills of the mobile bollard Egil Ostenstad in the place left empty by the African. For City followers, as for anyone else daft enough to take pre-season games too seriously, there had been a sharp shock in store after those summer months spent basking in the warm glow of overcooked optimism. 

These days a 3-0 win over Inter fits snugly with the club's new image alongside the exalted elite of football, but never let us forget the lessons of pre-season past. Get ahead of yourself and you'll end up with custard dripping off your chin.

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