Pre-season friendlies have always been among the more whimsical dates in the football follower's diary, or at least they always used to be until the leading clubs began jetting off to all economically viable points of the globe in search of extra income and latent support.
Gruelling is now the word of choice to describe any self-respecting Premier League side's pre-season tour schedule, whereas in the old days the opposite used to apply. Only a few decades back top sides headed for the English riviera, and played teams such as Exeter, Plymouth or Torquay in the hope of picking up a few holidaymakers to swell the crowd. It never really worked as a money-making exercise, potential spectators knew only too well that the more famous side would be barely recognisable in terms of personnel or commitment, but as long as the admission price was fairly fixed so that a dad and two or three kids could go without causing a family row over finances the arrangement seemed to suit all parties.
To an extent, the spirit of balmy summers and barmy fixtures past survives, even if Wigan Athletic have cancelled a friendly in Morecambe to fly to the United States to play Columbus Crew and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Shrewsbury v Galatasaray this summer sounds fairly irresistible, as long as you happen to find yourself in or around Shropshire, as does Bournemouth v Real Madrid should you be in Dorset on 21 July with a little time on your hands. If you fancy watching Cristiano Ronaldo et al at the Goldsands Stadium, however, you may need sufficient time to make a trip to the bank first. Tickets are £60 for adults (though Cherries season-ticket holders get a generous £5 discount) and roughly half that for children.
Unsurprisingly this has not gone down well in all quarters, with Bournemouth being variously accused of cashing in, fleecing their fans and spoiling everyone's holiday fun, though chairman Eddie Mitchell is unrepentant. "I don't think that's a big price to see a team like Real Madrid in action," he said.
Actually, Mr Mitchell, yes it is. Sixty pounds is a big price to see anyone in action. Tickets in Spain to see Real Madrid or Barcelona in actual league or Champions League action are not generally that expensive, and just because Madrid have promised to send along a full-strength side does not promote a pre-season friendly into that category. Sixty quid is a lot to pay for any friendly when you can see most competitive football in this country much more cheaply, though it is the pre-season bit that is the dead giveaway. Pre-season implies sub-season, and therefore sub-standard. By definition it will not be a premium game, so there is no justification for charging premium prices.
Bournemouth must be hoping that enough of their regular fans feel proud enough of the coup to sell most of the stadium's 10,700 seats, because at those prices they are unlikely to pick up too many families on their way back from the beach. Yet that said, football has its fair share of ground-baggers, badge hunters and nutcases, cricket does not have a monopoly on the summer sporting eccentric. Quite a few people farther afield than Bournemouth will consider £60 a reasonable price to see Real Madrid in the flesh In fact it could be viewed as a bargain since every other opportunity would normally involve travelling abroad or paying over the odds to chase a limited supply of Champions League tickets.
Most people might take the view that Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly against Championship opposition does not really count as the real Real Madrid, though for some supporters pre-season friendlies, by the nature of their obscurity and illogicality, represent a challenge that regular fixtures cannot offer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters of leading clubs visit say, every Premier League ground every season, and have done for years. It is relatively easy too to tick off all the lower league grounds a club might visit in the course of its cup runs, and though it takes a hardier streak to follow a team deep into Europe, plenty of fans will be doing it. The real badges of honour for the more intrepid/dedicated/lunatic fringe of a club's support will be the pre-season friendlies in Norway or Canada.
Associated with every major club is a very small number of people who do their absolute best to see every single game, no matter when, no matter where. If they miss one, for work commitments, lack of funds or spousal ultimatums, they sulk about it for months, aware that their escutcheon contains a blot and that others who made the trip will have noted it. Not only do these extreme loyalists/fanatics/ sad cases all know each other – pre-season trips to the Arctic circle are great for bonding – but they quickly become known to the clubs as well.
The clubs then use them as sounding boards for the opinions of their general support, which is where a harmless pastime can become quite dangerous. These ultra-fervent supporters are not representative of a club's main body of followers, many of whom quite sensibly feel that watching the regulation 38 games a season is already a sufficient display of loyalty.
But I digress. The point I was trying to make is that though £60 is an outrageous sum to charge for a pre-season friendly, plenty of people will consider it a snip. Though not, one suspects, many Real Madrid fans.
Bournemouth might have to throw in a free tour of Harry Redknapp's house on Sandbanks to entice more than a handful of fans from the continent. Anyone looking for an actual snip, and an I-was-there boast that should trump most others this summer, might consider the exotic Oldham Athletic v Dinamo Bucharest at Leigh Sports Village on Friday. Tickets £12 to £15, roll up on the night. The same venue (the eastern end of Wigan, below Bolton) offers Hearts v Dinamo on 9 July, and the week after that you can see Manchester United's U19s take on Club Brugge. You won't see David Moyes, of course, he will be in the south-east Asia with the first team, but that's the basic deal with a summer friendly. You can't expect the earth for £12 to £15.