Coronavirus sidelines lucrative pre-season for Premier League elite

Manchester United’s 2019 continental trip swelled Old Trafford coffers by at least £12m

A crowd of 95,446 sing You’ll Never Walk Alone in Melbourne, Australia, during the match between the Melbourne Victory and Liverpool on July 24th, 2013. File photograph: Getty

A crowd of 95,446 sing You’ll Never Walk Alone in Melbourne, Australia, during the match between the Melbourne Victory and Liverpool on July 24th, 2013. File photograph: Getty

 

Back in the olden, golden, days of 2019, leading Premier League footballers spent pre-season collecting passport stamps at the sort of speed with which Roy Keane once accumulated yellow cards.

Two years ago, Keane’s successors in Manchester United’s first XI toured Australia – where they beat then Championship Leeds United 4-0 in front of 55,274 in Perth – followed by further fixtures in Singapore, Shanghai and Oslo.

This traversing of three continents swelled the Old Trafford coffers by at least £12 million in appearance fees alone. Sponsorship tie-ups and merchandising opportunities added further six-figure sums to the overall profit but, two years on, the collateral damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic has virtually eliminated such lucrative jaunts.

Tellingly, Manchester United are not travelling abroad this summer and, having cancelled plans for a match in Malta, will venture no further afield than London (where they face QPR, Derby and Preston.

Transcontinental expeditions

Although as elite athletes Premier League footballers playing friendlies overseas enjoy UK government exemption from international travel quarantine regulations, standard rules apply to teams merely training abroad.

Moreover, the logistics of long-haul tours to Asia and the United States dictate planning must begin about six months in advance – meaning most top-tier clubs abandoned the idea of transcontinental expeditions last January or February.

The two outliers are Arsenal and Everton who will travel to the US to join Internazionale and Colombia’s Millonarios in the Florida Cup at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium while the majority of their domestic rivals remain in the UK. The handful venturing to Europe include Liverpool, preparing for the new campaign in Austria and Germany, and Wolves who are limbering up in Spain.

Rather than cash in commercially in the Far East and US, Premier League champions Manchester City are scheduled for a solitary overseas foray, to Troyes of France, a fellow member of the City Football Group.

It all seems a different world to 2019 when Pep Guardiola’s players combined a by then regular visit to China (significantly Chinese investors hold a 13 per cent stake in City) with touring Japan.

Two years ago Chelsea, too, were in Yokohama but now the Champions League holders have settled for an Irish training camp.

Pre-pandemic, Dar es Salaam seemed a somewhat better commercial bet than Dublin with Africa no longer a field too far for Premier League marketing executives. Two summers ago Everton visited Kenya, playing Kariobangi Sharks in Nairobi as part of their sponsorship agreement with SportPesa and had further trips to east Africa pencilled in an increasingly packed diary.

Indeed in the decade preceding the moment the music stopped in 2020, leading English top-flight clubs played more pre-season matches abroad than at home, with under a third staged within the UK. Midsummer was as much about maximising global brand reach as acquiring optimal fitness levels.

With satellite broadcasters bringing England’s showpiece league to living rooms worldwide, helping clinch valuable overseas television deals became all important. The latest three-year agreement the Premier League have signed with Doha’s beIN Sports for Middle Eastern and north African rights alone is worth £367 million (€428 million).

Yet as Newcastle United wait to learn if the active arbitration case between the club’s owner, Mike Ashley, and the Premier League will facilitate a previously blocked Saudi Arabian takeover on Tyneside, their players’ horizons have contracted.

Decamping to Yorkshire

With a training camp in Portugal scrapped, Newcastle have instead decamped to north Yorkshire’s St Ethelburga’s Collegiate, an independent school equipped with stellar sports facilities. It is all a far cry from two years ago when they flew to China, let alone the 2014 tour of New Zealand which coincided with an Antipodean expansion of Ashley’s Sports Direct business.

Some first teamers are absent from St Ethelburga’s due to self-isolation rules but Newcastle are far from alone. With many footballers still to be double vaccinated, mini-virus outbreaks allied to unwanted calls from Test and Trace officials and the need to quarantine after holidaying abroad, are proving an unwelcome feature of this pre-season.

It is hardly an ideal preamble to a new campaign but certain managers, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp in particular, are surely secretly delighted to have avoided the exhaustion of flitting between time zones as their owners pursue increased Asian and American profits.

Sean Dyche has never been a fan of commercially driven summer tours but Burnley’s manager likes European training camps and is suitably disappointed that quarantine rules forced the replacement of his side’s proposed Austrian camp with a training ground staycation.

“It [quarantine on return] seemed a bit inhuman so we pulled the trip,” he said. “But we’d planned to use Austria as a psychological break amid intensive training.”

As countless Premier League counterparts are discovering, a change really can be as good as a rest. – Guardian

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