Leeds United add glamour to Marcelo Bielsa's pre-season schedule but it won't get every heart racing
It’s just not the same as the real stuff, no matter how realistic Marcelo Bielsa aims to make it or how robust Kalvin Phillips’ challenges are.
For this writer the visit to Bangor of Sheffield Wednesday, complete with Chris Waddle and the soon-to-be £2.7m man Paul Warhurst, was about as glamorous as it got growing up.
“You’re not worth 2.7p Warhurst,” came a cry from the Clandeboye Road end terrace in what amounted to the highlight, after the Blackburn Rovers bound defender-striker hybrid missed from inside the area.
The goals, the scoreline and even the kit the visitors wore have all long since faded from memory, because friendlies, at club level anyway, have never floated my boat.
They are important, of course.
Visits to small non-league outfits are a staple for big clubs like Leeds United forming a hugely significant occasion for the former and ticking a box for the latter.
When Jamie Vardy was making his way into first-team football at Stocksbridge Park Steels, where my football writing career began, the annual friendly visits of the Blades and the Owls helped generate a sizeable portion of that season’s budget.
At Worksop Town, where the chairman once revealed he wasn’t expecting one of his summer signings, a striker with a bit of a profile at that level, to show anything close to his ability until the season began and he started picking up his £100 a week, the Sheffield two were almost ever-present in the summer schedule, along with a game or two against superior but more realistic opposition and trips to smaller, beatable near neighbours.
For most clubs beneath the Premier League the ideal fixture list consists of money spinners, tricky tests and sure-fire winners.
At Chesterfield the very best of it was a trip that straddled the Spanish-Portuguese border and games against Benfica B and a Middlesbrough side boasting Patrick Bamford and Adam Forshaw.
A move to the YEP came a little too late for the trips to Australia and Sardinia, then Covid-19 did for last summer entirely.
If there is any justice for a fanbase kept away from so many historic and iconic moments in recent club history, next summer will bring games of the highest profile, in the most attractive settings possible.
This summer they have put together a solid, hectic-looking schedule that will max out the heart-rates of every member of the squad, if not every supporter.
They had already ticked off the local smaller club with Guiseley and games best described as ‘run outs’ against Blackburn and Fleetwood but without meaning to disrespect any of those clubs, the announcement of Real Betis and Ajax fixtures was a bit more like it.
While the pandemic makes the Ajax friendly in Amsterdam a practical impossibility in terms of attending for reporting’s sake, it will at least provide something a little different, giving Leeds a test against the kind of company they hope to be keeping in the not-too-distant future.
Although Bielsa is said to prefer the idea of keeping the squad at home for friendlies, rather than travelling away from Thorp Arch for too long, one suspects he was quite taken with the notion of a game against a team who play with intensity and will seek to dominate possession.
Ajax are the Dutch champions and Champions League regulars. If a friendly can ever be described as mouth-watering, it has to be played against a club like this.
And if it goes ahead – friendly games in this country at all levels have started falling victim to Covid-19 cases in squads – it will re-introduce the concept of a big crowd to Bielsa’s men, who Euro 2020 star Phillips aside have played in front of sub-10,000 attendances since March 2020.
Real Betis, at Loughborough, will allow 3,000 or so Whites to reacquaint themselves with most of whichever squad plays that game and potentially introduce themselves as a collective to new signings like Junior Firpo.
There will be, if nothing else, plenty of intrigue. How fit are the new lads looking? Which of the 23s appear closest to first-team football? Is Forshaw nearing a comeback? Has Bielsa tweaked his tactics? Did Phillips get enough time off? These are the questions pre-season friendlies can, in part, provide answers to.
All of that is well and good but none of it will look, feel or sound like Old Trafford on the opening day of the new season, when last summer’s signings, never mind the latest additions, will begin to learn what it’s really like to play for Leeds.
Everything that comes before then is just a rehearsal, hard work without the reward that only competitive football can bring.
The countdown to the real stuff is on.