There was a time, not so long ago, when teams broke up for pre-season and it felt like an eternity before they would be in action again.
The time away, for fans, allowed the heart to grow fonder. At first, they’d enjoy the break, their only real interest regarding who the club were signing, but over a period of time an itch developed which required to be scratched. The only way it could was by attending a football match.
That was where the pre-season friendly would exhibit its usefulness. Seeing familiar faces, frequenting familiar haunts, casting judgement on players new and old, just witnessing football.
That was then. This is now. Pre-season friendlies are a complete irrelevance.
From the supporters point of view, it is nothing short of entrapment. These leisurely-paced apathetic run-outs provoke nothing but unnecessary optimism or, more pertinently, pessimism.
Witnessing some fans question a manager’s position after one particular friendly defeat is downright baffling. Especially when, for example, there were ten substitutions, four debutants, a number of youth players and experiments with the system. Not to forget it was friendly, designed for little else other than fitness.
Little good comes from fans making judgements on pre-season games. There may be something to gleam in how the team is set-up and which players are in and out of favour in terms of the starting XI. But that is about it.
Unless these friendlies provide a day out or weekend away fans should forget they even exist.
Of course clubs enjoy friendlies, treating it as a key fixture in the calendar with the incessant and tedious Twitter updates. More importantly, however, it allows clubs to fleece fans for more money. On top of the season ticket packages, the replica kit and perhaps a membership scheme, they have the audacity to request fans pay through the nose for the football equivalent of the slow and lengthy dialogue scenes of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
All clubs are guilty of it, but two examples can be found in Livingston and Heart of Midlothian. Livingston (LIVINGSTON!) were charging £15 for an adult ticket at their soulless bowl, the Tony Macaroni Stadium.
Meanwhile, Hearts have the temerity of expecting fans to stump up £20 for an adult ticket for a game against Newcastle. The club even reminded fans that it will be Premier League side’s first-team. Your Jack Colbacks, your Paul Dummetts, your Yoan Gouffrans. It is particularly galling from the Gorgie side who’ve asked their fans to dig deep, time and time again, albeit for a good cause in saving their club and building a new Main Stand.
The changing landscape of the game has seen the shortening of pre-season. So no longer are fans starved of live football. Pre-season friendlies are nothing short of a charade.
Thankfully, a light is on the horizon of this giant charade. It may have had its detractors in some quarters but the Betfred Cup is upon us to save the day. And few better fixtures get the action underway than the Ayrshire derby, Ayr United v Kilmarnock.
It is the perfect pre-cursor to the season ahead. While the regional divide and how the groups have transpired may not sit well with every club - it very, very rarely will - it has thrown up a number of enticing encounters, plenty of narrative and no shortage of talking points.
As well as the Ayrshire derby we also have a Dundee derby, Ross County v Hibernian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Falkirk, as well as a number of local derbies lower down the leagues.
For teams at the lower end of the spectrum, they are afforded ties with bigger and better sides. Not only is there is the potential for a large away following or visiting one of the country’s best grounds, but they get to test themselves at an early stage, potentially causing an upset against a team underprepared.
As for Premiership clubs and Championship sides with ambitions of promotion, they are afforded an early indicator as to where they are in their preparation. They know they are going to be tested but don’t have to be quite 100 per cent. There is a competitive edge that focuses the mind, rather than the indifference which comes from pre-season friendlies. Over four games their mindset is switching to game-ready come the first league game of the season.
For fans, they can be provided with a local rivalry or a visit to a new ground, or one which is nothing more than a memory. They know when they are parting with their cash they are paying for a game that shall be taken seriously and played with a higher tempo. Over four games they can make a more serious judgement of what to expect this campaign. The 360 minutes may actually give them real justification to fear the season ahead.
There may be chinks in the format and certain elements a bit ‘Americanised’, but the reformatting and vibrant coverage from BT Sport has breathed new life, not just into the tournament but Scottish football’s summer, a tonic to the pre-season charade and perennial European disappointment.
While football continues to eat itself at the elite level, pre-season tours which do little for players’ condition but much for clubs’ bank balances, not forgetting the repugnant International Champions Cup matches, Scottish football will be up and running on Friday night.
For two weeks the games come thick and fast, the perfect build-up to the start of the league campaign, and thankfully putting an end to the pre-season charade.