City's summer tour a sign of the times
Standing in a clearing in the middle of a verdant forest outside the small Dutch town of Apeldoorn, drinking Grolsch out of plastic cups in the shadow of a bar sculpted into the form of a giant clog, fans of Manchester City could have been forgiven for thinking this was about as sophisticated as life watching preseason football could possibly become.
Let's face it: Usually, this neat conglomeration of bucolic pleasures would have only existed in the collective imagination. It is not every day of the week you get to drink Dutch beer in a forest outside a huge wooden clog before going to watch football, after all.
Along with some 1,500 others with nothing better to do with their summer holidays, I was there. It felt right; it felt as cutting edge as watching Peter Reid's City ever could; it felt good to be alive and breathing in the heavily scented Dutch forest air.
Those of us who followed City across the Low Countries 30 years ago saw a side featuring the likes of Gary Flitcroft and Alfons Groenendijk labour in a sunshine tournament featuring Fortuna Sittard and PSV Eindhoven, trip the light fantastic against the amateurs of Halsteren and AGOVV (the aforementioned forest dwellers) and stutter to a halt against the gathered might of Sporting Lisbon.
These were simple times when you could wander up to the great Sporting coach Bobby Robson as he dropped himself down from the team bus to have a quiet chat, shoot the wind with City assistant Sam Ellis about the team's propensity to drink alcohol in vast quantities and still have enough time to take in the Sittard Girl Guides' Percussion Youth Band performing all-time American hits across the town's central square.
These days, the preseason takes Manchester City to Beijing and New York, Hong Kong and Pittsburgh with an entourage bigger than ever before and a media circus that was conspicuous by its absence in Apeldoorn all those years ago. So low-key were proceedings in those days that the fixture between local amateur club and olden-day Dutch giants AGOVV and City might not have taken place at all if I had not been in the right place at the right moment, on a roundabout on the edge of the town, to redirect the Man City bus as it made its way casually toward an incorrect date with the Rotterdam motorway.
In these days of GPS and 24 hours of rolling media coverage, such light moments of inadequacy are unthinkable, such moments of ill preparation totally impossible.
Manchester City confront the 2014-15 preseason as champions of England, with a Chilean manager who has just been courted by the Brazilian national team and a squad of players whose ability and price tags in the modern game match those that can be seen anywhere on Planet Football in 2014 -- be it in England, Spain or beyond. In the old days, new signing Groenendijk, a famished-looking recruit from the Ajax reserves, was all we had to admire in the way of new additions to the squad. How quickly and completely times change.
Having put a shadow squad through two warm-up games in Scotland producing a defeat in Dundee and a win in Edinburgh, City now head to the United States to dip their toes once more into the fervent U.S. football market, a place where a growing phalanx of followers wish to see them in the flesh and any self-respecting club-on-the-up wishes to further display the brand. City's following in the U.S. might not yet match the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, but it is clearly a team that has made its mark on the football-watching public Stateside in recent times.
While City still carry an atmosphere of nouveaux arrivistes to this breathless world at the canopy of the football jungle, this is -- for good or bad -- the reality of life in sky blue these days. It's a far cry indeed from the preseason tours where Derek Parlane and Jim Tolmie were the big summer captures and any talk of toning muscles and lifting weights was more likely to be referring to the antics of Bobby McDonald and Peter Bodak on a late-night sprint down the Blackpool promenade, or an early-hours trip lifting pint pots that saw both players cast out by the club for breaking manager Billy McNeill's stiff curfew.
David Silva hopping out of his five-star hotel suite for a quick breeze through the nightclubs of Beijing is as difficult to imagine today as it would have been to expect Mike Sheron in 1993 to complete a pass anywhere near as perspicacious as the little Spaniard's consistent modern-day production.
A colossal and invigorating transformation has taken place in players' attitudes to their profession and, in the gilded echelons of the sport that Manchester City's players now frequent, pints of beer on Blackpool's Golden Mile are as common as giraffes in pyjamas. For those of us steeped in the warped football culture of Apeldoorn and Sittard, all of this new-world professionalism is still sinking slowly in.