The pre-season period is a special part of the football calendar. It is a time when optimism reigns supreme, when managers, coaches and players work with a measurable productivity, usually in complete harmony and well away from the public eye. The unity that epitomises this time of year is based on players working diligently to attain full fitness and backroom staff toiling to create the best possible balance in the squad, the combination of which will hopefully see everybody’s efforts culminate in a successful start to the new season.
As a player I loved the pre-season. Obviously in my playing days the science of physical fitness was far less detailed than today and hill running was the unimaginative but nonetheless effective manner of losing the extra pounds. The consequential and perceptible daily improvement in fitness was a very satisfying factor of motivation and when the footballs eventually emerged from the bag- usually after a couple of weeks- we were like children on the first day of the summer holidays, almost giddy with an irrepressible sense of anticipation
Of course, today’s players work with the ball from day one, which reflects the greater emphasis on technique that summer soccer has cultivated so successfully for Airtricity League teams and the influence of the specialised conditioning coach that every club employs at this time of year further accelerates the fitness and the confidence of the players. The levels of fitness in the game today in Ireland are hugely impressive but it is one of my core beliefs that we should still individualise the training even more. However, even in saying this I accept that the platform to achieve this would prove quite costly in a financial sense.
This is also the most harmonious time of year, a time when ego is conspicuous by its absence as managers rotate robustly and players are fuelled by a great desire to demonstrate their willingness to be a team player. The confidence that materialises on the back of a good pre-season programme is inestimable and if the first few games go according to plan then the belief that is so vital to genuine progression can imbue the squad with real conviction.
One of the perennial difficulties of pre-season is injury. Many of the teams starting this Friday will be missing players as the conflict between hard training and early games all too often produces muscle strains and pulls. In this respect one of the very few drawbacks to summer soccer rears its head in that the preparatory work for the season ahead takes place in the depths of winter, a point further exasperated by the inability of our clubs to avail of the warm weather training camps in Spain or Portugal due again to the cost involved. Hence, managers and coaches have to be attentive to the prevailing conditions but even in this state of mindfulness events can occur totally out of anyone’s control.
I was in Drogheda for the visit of Limerick last Saturday. It was sad to see the home team centre forward Fabio O’Brien, an integral part of managers Mick Cooke’s plans, have to go off clutching his shoulder after a heavy fall. For the bigger clubs an injury or two is annoying but manageable, but for one of the less affluent clubs such happenings can be crucial. For the player it is immensely frustrating to have worked his way through the rigours of six weeks training and then pick up an injury during the final match of pre-season.
This weekend’s opening series of games will reveal much of the effectiveness of each clubs pre-season programme. While suspensions arising from the latter part of last season’s campaign - still a merited bone of contention with clubs- will see more than a few fully fit players sitting it out in the main stand, there will be eager commitment to the cause and I am fully aware that supporters all across the country from Cork To Derry and Dublin to Sligo will welcome the return of Airtricity League football with open arms.