Why pre-season is the most crucial part of the year for non-league clubs
Away from the flashing lights in Russia, and the hope of a nation that football is finally coming home, pre-season has started for those back in England.
For the professional sides, players will be back in light workouts and meeting their new teammates; going through nothing too strenuous. For non-league sides, though, it's arguably their season-defining period.
Pre-season is traditionally about integrating new players into squads, while getting everybody up to speed in time for the start of the season in August. This weekend sees the first friendlies take place, ahead of the 2017/18. It gives supporters a glimpse of their new cult heroes, but for non-leaguers, it's much more than that. Let's take a deeper look as to why.
While obviously, the gap between the Premier League and non-league is huge from a technical standpoint, the physical difference between the pair is even greater.
Professional players, while they will have their blowouts, tend to keep in shape over the summer. Eating right and being physically fit are crucial. It's the difference between starting week-in-week-out or remaining on the substitutes bench.
For a lot of part-time non-league players, though, they are less likely to take this attitude. In their off-season, they can do what they like. After all, it's not their full-time career. Players will enjoy lads holidays, while eating like its Christmas for about a month. In that time, very little exercise is done. For the foreseeable future, their focus will be on building their fitness levels back-up, largely training without a football.
Fitness is the biggest reason why pre-season can be make or break for some teams and players. Over the last five years, I have seen players aplenty returning looking completely out of shape. This can quickly result in said footballers being dropped, and remaining out of the mix for months at a time.
Momentum is a huge thing in any division, but particularly in non-league, where the differences between those at the top and the bottom of leagues isn’t anywhere near a gap as it is in the Premier League. If you're fully fit, prepared and ready to go at the season's start, that can be the difference. Just ask Hartlepool and Leyton Orient. Both teams were relegated from League Two, but started last year horrendously in the National Premier. Neither recovered.
New signings and trialists
If you look at professional, Premier League players who switch clubs, the fans know everything about them before they join their new team. In non-league football this is not the case. Pre-season games will be filled with not only new faces, but loads of trialists. A sea of unknowns that can play a huge part in a clubs season. Players will come and go, while playing a game for one side, before moving onto the next. These trialists can sometimes be the difference for amateur football. Gems are sometimes unearthed.
Pre-season games themselves
I am huge believer in the mantra that friendly results matter for absolutely nothing. Over the last twenty years, I have seen the team I support have every type of pre-season. Failed to win any at all, gone unbeaten, beating Premiership and Championship teams. None have any correlation to how the season goes. In fact, we once beat a strong Middlesbrough team one year; only to get relegated from the National Premier that coming season.
For non-league teams the results mean nothing, but pre-season really can define how the season goes. For teams there are many players available that can be picked up and getting the right ones is key. Once again, I refer to the all-important match fitness. Finding the right balance when it comes to organising, and playing in pre-season games, while allowing your body to rest and recuperate in between, is key.
A good pre-season can set up even the weakest of sides in a division up for a good year in non-league. While the best in the world battle it out for the World Cup, the next few weeks will be the most important of the year for those outside the professional game; before the season starts on August 4th.