Friday 15 December 2017

Stephen Hunt: Pre-season tours get fans excited but it's still all fakery

David Silva celebrates with Raheem Sterling after scoring against Vietnam’s national team last week
David Silva celebrates with Raheem Sterling after scoring against Vietnam’s national team last week
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

My pre-season this year is taking place at Rosslare Golf Club and, occasionally, Rosslare Community Centre.

Last week, I found myself doing kettle-bells with 10 women and one man in a class, and every night, when the golfers have finally gone home, I run from hole to hole, pushing myself, taking one more lap, believing that the feeling that I want this to end mimics the feelings I had during my regular pre-seasons with clubs.

If I feel resentful towards pre-season, then I know that it's working. Pre-season is a nuisance and it has become more of a nuisance in recent years with the ridiculous tendency to take sweriously those matches in the lucrative tournaments being played around the world.

Perhaps a player might feel a bit of adrenaline if he is playing for Chelsea against Barcelona, but his predominant urge will simply be to avoid injury. In this, it might seem to be no different to, say, an international friendly, but it is even more important in pre- season.

The most important thing for a player in pre-season is what he did at the end of the season before. When you are a young player, you think differently, but you soon come to realise what matters.

I knew that if I had finished the season well, then a rival could climb every mountain and swim every sea and he wouldn't be taking my place. Managers trust what they've seen in competitive games. They can talk about how well somebody has been doing in training and sometimes they even mean it, but often what they mean is that somebody else hasn't been doing it in a real match. But a manager never takes what somebody has been doing in pre-season seriously.

You don't know this when you're young and there really are two pre-seasons, one for the young players and one for the old. A pre-season when you're a young player is full of possibilities. Every run is done at your limits. There is no fear of a little niggle, a twinge in the thigh or a tightening of a hamstring, just exuberance which is aided by the reaction of the older players.

"Get back here, you busy bollox," is the general response from senior pros if you try and burst away from the group on a long run. But they are assessing you, too. The player who drops back might get a few comforting words - "That's better son, let's take it nice and steady" - but the player the old pros admire is the one who doesn't hold back, the one who feels as you once did. The one who tells you to stuff it. "I'm going to take your place this season," he'll say, meaning it but joking at the same time.

You let him run and you watch him, but you know the manager won't gamble at the start of the season, you know that he will be impressed by the player's enthusiasm and he'll be delighted if he scores in every game, but it will make no difference. He'll be more impressed by what you did at the end of last season.

Nowadays, it is different. Supporters follow pre-season and they seem to think there is some merit in what happens. Last season, Manchester United had a great pre-season and people were tipping them for the title. They then lost at home to Swansea and drew at Burnley. Jose Mourinho says pre-season is fake and he's right, but people don't listen.

They'll think that somebody who scores in pre-season should start, especially if he's young, one of the guys who has been leading the charge on the runs. But they don't know that what you see in pre-season is what you see on training grounds all through the year. Players doing spectacularly well, but then failing when given a chance in the real thing. As the season unfolds, managers will have to gamble, but they don't want to do it at the beginning of the season.

I've been looking for a new club and there are some promising leads, but until then, I keep myself going. I can't get motivated for the gym any more, but classes are fine, even kettle-bell classes. Ipswich send me over the drills they've been doing and I work on them myself.

I've been lucky enough that I've been able to train with Wexford Youths. They're into their season and have a happy camp, so that's been great as I get my football fitness. I might even be more motivated than I am during a regular pre-season because I know I need to be ready when a club calls, and they will call. More importantly, I need to be fit, not injured, and they will judge me, as I've always judged myself, on what I do in competitive football.

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