For U.S.-bound Man United, preseason tours serve multiple purposes
Earlier this week, Manchester United announced a five-game, five-city preseason tour of the United States. From July 15-26, they will play in Los Angeles vs. LA Galaxy, Salt Lake City vs. Real Salt Lake, a yet-to-be-determined venue vs. Manchester City, Santa Clara vs. Real Madrid and Washington, D.C. vs. Barcelona.
For the club's many U.S.-based fans, it's another chance to see their heroes in the flesh. After not playing in the country at all between 1982 and 2003, this summer's visit will be United's seventh in 14 years, during which time they have played across the country, from Seattle in the northwest to Miami in the southeast and plenty of places in between.
In an interview last year, Jose Mourinho told me that, if he wanted to work in a city for the lifestyle then he'd manage LA Galaxy and go to the beach each day. While he's got no intention of managing in MLS just yet, he's happy for his players to have a training camp in the city, just as Sir Alex Ferguson was content to use Nike's facility in Portland, Ore.
Were it up to Mourinho, the club's preseason would be based in England, with its cool summers and home comforts; Barcelona have twice chosen to train there in recent years. But when you coach at a big club you know that you're likely to travel far and wide ahead of the new campaign.
Coaches are uncomfortable with tours take because they their clubs of their comfort zone and into countries where their control has limits. So many things can and often do go wrong. In 2013, for example, David Moyes wasn't pleased with the poor state of a pitch in Hong Kong, a surface so poor it made Rostov's recent threadbare surface appear lush.
The next year, Louis van Gaal was unhappy that it took the team bus two hours to travel through LA's crawling traffic to reach a training session in Pasadena. And that was with a police escort. Days later, the then-United boss complained about the heat and altitude in Denver. Van Gaal had more say over the organisation of the 2015 tour to the U.S., not that it did his players much good in the season that followed.
Last year in China, new manager Mourinho wasn't satisfied with travel arrangements, the Beijing pitch -- a friendly vs. Man City was cancelled -- or a room lacking air conditioning for his press conference and words were exchanged with the club's organisers.
But these are modern day problems; in the 1980s, the biggest worry for managers was discovering what players had been up to during what they considered to be a lads' holiday. In 1989, the team met some U.S. Marines in Japan and challenged them to an arm wrestling competition: "All the marines were stood around the table going 'ooh, ooh, ooh,'" said United's then-champion arm wrestler Clayton Blackmore.
Another time, the club played in Bangkok, recalls Blackmore: "We were all in the swimming pool on our knees, pretending to be in the deep end. So (assistant manager) Mick Brown dived in and hit the bottom. For a while it looked like he had shattered his knees. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
Brown was often the unfortunate recipient of pranks.
"We saw a dead giant turtle washed up on the beach in Tel Aviv," said former striker Frank Stapleton. "The lads lifted the turtle between about six of them. It absolutely stank; it was rotten and decomposing and yet they carried it through the hotel. The other guests looked on incredulous. They carried it into Mick Brown's room and into his bath. They put a cap on its head and one of Mick's cigars in its mouth. Mick was down in the bar with (manager) Ron Atkinson. The smell was filtering throughout the whole floor. It was so bad that we decided that we had to get the turtle out of the hotel. Mick Brown returned to his room and went straight to bed. Everyone was waiting for a reaction from Mick the following morning, but there wasn't one. His nose had been broken and his sense of smell wasn't what it should have been. He hadn't even noticed!
"Mick Brown was scared of peacocks and there were lots of them wandering around in the grounds of our hotel in Jamaica following the FA Cup win in 1985," said Blackmore. "They were always shedding their feathers, so four of us started collecting them and stuck them to a parasol, which we attached to a piece of rope. We got into Mick's room through (coach) Eric Harrison's, which was next door. We hid the parasol covered in feathers under his bed and waited for him to go back to his room. The chairman Martin Edwards was sat with us, giggling. He always wanted to be one of the lads. When Mick walked into his room we pulled the rope and he flipped. He wouldn't speak to anyone for the rest of the trip."
By contrast, United's current players will be fortunate to get one night out in America this summer. There are many other reasons why they -- and many other big clubs -- go to the States.
The first stems from the demand to see the team play, but that would be applicable anywhere in the world. In Norway, for example, there's not a stadium big enough in a country of four million to justify United's match fees.
The second reason is that facilities in America are excellent, from stadia to the training pitches.
Third, many of United's biggest sponsors are based there. They want to glad hand and connect in the land of the club's owners, the Glazer family. Transatlantic tie-ups are no longer about superficial tie-ups with the New York Yankees baseball team, but about attracting sponsors' dollars.
Four, it's the world's biggest economy and football continues to become more popular there. American fans can and do buy branded merchandise, not cheap copies.
Five, the presence of other big teams means opponents are naturally at hand. Plus, there is always keen competition from improving MLS sides.
Six, the players are predisposed to American culture and enjoy the anonymity afforded, though they get recognised a lot more now than in the past.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.