On Friday the draw takes place for the final Champions League qualifying round. Even now I’m simultaneously incredulous and breathlessly excited that the name of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club will be included. Yet even before the balls emerge from UEFA’s tacky plastic cannister, our preparation for the most significant match in recent times has been severely hampered in the pursuit of the true goal of Premier League clubs, money.
The days of a relaxed pre-season to ease the players back into fitness are long-gone. A couple of weeks hard running in the home counties followed by a jaunt round Scandinavia was the traditional precursor to a few friendlies against well-known sides, usually Scottish, a tapered build-up to a long, strenuous season. Now we’re off to the States for three games, back to play at the Lane only four days later, then Portugal, then back to the Lane for Saturday. You can’t hit the ground running if your legs can’t stand the strain.
Harry Redknapp agrees: “Our schedule is crazy. We pile games in but I need to get the players on the training pitch.” The players who went to America have struggled to adjust to the time difference, waking at 3am. Jenas has a thigh strain, Modric and Pavlyuchenko both picked up hamstring injuries in the States, Palacios has a groin strain. Says Harry, “He’s had an injection and I hope that does the trick.”
Two weeks before the opening match and we are using injections to enable a player to work through an injury. All these problems are the natural consequence of athletes pushing too hard too soon. If a podgy panting decrepit jogger like me knows this then I’m fairly certain it’s apparent to the Spurs legion of medical staff. Medics and manager want one thing, the chairman has sorted out something else, a nice little earner.
Pre-season is always a delicate art. If teams start well, you’ll hear it attributed to a good pre-season. If teams fall away in the second half of the season, I guarantee someone, usually the same someone, will solemnly ajudge this to be down to a heavy early schedule. If teams lose their pre-season games, someone will say friendlies are meaningless, it’s competition that counts.
So it can be everything and nothing. Pre-season gives coaches the chance to settle their men into familiar formations and patterns, as well as getting them reasonably fit. The training ground is the place where this happens, not a jolly with half the first team in the states.
This has never been more true than this pre-season. Not only do we have the Champions League, we have players returning late from their travails in the World Cup. Time is therefore precious in order to establish the blend, yet Harry and his coaching staff have been deprived of this most valuable pre-season resource.
Daniel Levy has ensured the financial security of the club at a time when many of our rivals’ self-inflicted wounds have left them vulnerable. For this reason only I’ll lay off the criticism. This schedule was presumably arranged some time ago, indicting that Levy wasn’t so certain of finishing 4th. Of course I realise we need the cash to compete at the highest level but however lucrative the tours, it’s nothing compared with the riches of the Champions League. Oh yes, and the glory but never mind that.
In a way,pre-season proper starts here. Harry has two full weeks and two friendlies with the whole squad, hopefully the injuries will have healed. It’s not just the Champions League: we open against Manchester City, one of our main rivals, who may be bulging with quality but who will be away from home and potentially disjointed with all the new arrivals. One consequence of our lack of transfer activity is at least that the players all know each other. It’s a good time to play them, provided that we ourselves are fully prepared. We’ve not given ourselves the best of chances.