Off and Running At Last
It has finally started. This season. At least it feels like that.
This stop/go, week on week off silliness has been irritating, especially having a game called off in August for a waterlogged pitch.
Four draws didn't help. It might be better than kissing your sister but four in a row leaves you with the frustration of unfinished business. So finally we, and the season, have lift-off, even if we come crashing back to earth next weekend.
But there's something else that niggles: something beyond chance, schedules and North East weather patterns. It starts with the seemingly endless pre-season of meaningless fixtures that do the opposite of what they are touted for. They don't even flatter to deceive a football public desperate for their fix after an empty summer following a remarkable end to the Premier League which reminded everyone why this is such a glorious game.
And, more importantly, they fail to improve the fitness and match sharpness of the players - the supposed reason for their existence.
Who says so? Players and managers alike.
Except they want it both ways. A player misses pre-season and it's all "Oh, I missed pre-season so the rest of the year was tough." But then there's his mate who moans "Well, pre-season is alright but you need a competitive game to get fit."
But, it seems, they need way more than one. After a handful Sess, on Saturday, finally looked somewhat similar to the player who entertained us last season. He is hardly alone.
If a player is involved in transfer or contract talks then that's the problem. On international duty? Well, he must be tired. Coming off an injury? It takes time. Or the general excuse - he just needs some games to get sharp.
So does that mean while all these players are getting up to 100 per cent that the fans get a break on admission prices? "We're just not ready for full price yet. It takes a few games before we can reach that deep in the pocket." Sure.
I know one of the perils of age is runaway nostalgia but I have a fondness for the way the season used to start 50 years ago. A game against the reserves then one "friendly", often at home, then we're off. And no whining about not being match fit. And far fewer injuries right out of the gate. Plus no stopping for international games (and don't get me started on having games postponed in the summer)
Which is the real question. If, as the media continually bleat, the players are just so much fitter today then how come so many can't put in a full season? Not a Manchester United season but a Sunderland season - 38 games plus a handful of cup matches?
After all they are so much fitter. Certainly the vast majority can't wait to pull off their shirt to show the world their torsos and tattoos each time they complete a pass. Yet they are always injured or stale apparently. Not enough games in August, too many games by March.
But back in those unfit days they weren't substituted, played 42 league games, sometimes three in five days over Easter, (God help me, I can still hear echoes of Bruce bleating about the Christmas period rush of games). They were also part of the first eleven and not a squad and almost always turned up to play on the first day of the season and were never "rested" for Cup games.
And then they had to endure tackling that would have both teams reduced to five a side in the first half if it went on in front of today's refs - we've gone from Norman-bites-your-legs to Lee-taps-your-ankles.
Put it down to two things. First, give someone a ready made excuse and they'll take it. Tell them they are not sharp, that they needs games and, suprise, they'll play like that. Collectively the football establishment sings that same song to all the pampered princes.
And finally, speaking of pampered. Once upon a time, in a season long, long ago, there was a thing called appearance money which made up a good chunk of a player's beer money. It wasn't just an add-on to a contract already paying more than any sane person could spend in a year. That money mattered.
Strange. Players got their rest at Butlins in July back then.
(Our Canadian Correspondent)