English Football

Nice try Cambridge, but pre-season’s pre-season

P1040751 (400x319)It seemed a little too good to be true: Cambridge United – newly promoted to the Football League – hosting West Ham United, Espanyol and Shakhtar Donetsk. Surely, there was some mistake?

And at £ 12 per ticket, it seemed remarkably good value. I was told that Cambridge had pulled off a coup in getting European opposition to the R Costings Abbey Stadium.

There was precious little information in the media about the Absolute Sports Travel (AST) Cup, a two-day tournament very much in the style of Arsenal’s celebrated Emirates Cup. But just a day before the first games, I discovered that West Ham were sending a “development squad” (de facto youth team) and that both Shakhtar and Espanyol (B, not A) were fielding under-21 teams.

This message had clearly got home to the locals a lot earlier, for there was no buzz of excitement about the games and no more than 1,200 people in the Abbey Stadium. Not everyone was happy to find out that we were paying £12 to watch three teams that were used to playing in front of parents and friends rather than a crowd.

The first game, between West Ham and Shakhtar Donetsk from troubled Ukraine, was no more than a training workout, with the Hammers dominating. At half-time, Cambridge’s tannoy man felt the need to explain the situation: “Anyone expecting to see A teams from these clubs is being a little optimistic.”

Probably true, sir, but the game was billed in such a way that the casual observer might have expected more than academy/development teams. Too often, [non-league] clubs publicise pre-season games against “Arsenal”, “Tottenham” and “West Ham”, but then the public turn up, find that they are watching youth team players and feel cheated. The simple answer to this is to bill the opposition  a “West Ham XI” and then people interpret it as 11 players with West Ham shirts on.

Mr Tannoy also said that the conditions were “perfect” which could not have been further from the truth. True, the thermometer was not breaching Qatar 2022 levels, but Britain was suffering from a heatwave and it showed on the pitch.

On the evidence of the first game, West Ham have a few promising youngsters that may find themselves on Premier team-sheets at some point in the future. I was impressed by Reece Oxford, Blair Turgott and Kieran Sadler, who all went close to breaking the deadlock.

The AST Cup allows for up to nine substitutes and West Ham took full advantage, switching almost their entire team on the hour. Of the new lads, Jerry Amoo and Djair Parfitt-Williams caught the eye.

Shakhtar were quite poor, although late in the game they came alive and Artem Gabelok almost scored with a fierce drive.

It ended goalless, mildly entertaining at times, but not enough to keep us in the ground for the second game of the day, the host team against Espanyol B. That also ended in a draw, 2-2.

At £12 it was fair value, but Cambridge will do well to be more transparent about the make-up of the tournament if it goes to a second year. Doubtless this inaugural AST Cup will be a learning experience for a club on the brink of a first Football League campaign in almost a decade.


  1. Sorry you felt compelled to write such a negative report of the weekend. I doubt whether many were blinkered enough to expect Shakhtar to send their army of Brazilians to the Abbey. And even if they had, how would such a mismatch have provided either entertainment for fans or a meaningful encounter for the players. Sure, friendlies are no more than training exercises, that’s part of the deal and anyone expecting more is deluded. As it was, Shakhtar’s Under 21s and Espanyol B – both of whom play in front of many more than just parents and friends, by the way, provided just the right level of opposition to make the games competitive in spirit. Pre-season is not about results, but the weekend’s games gave United coach Richard Money a chance to see how his players are shaping up, as well as to run the rule over some reserves and trialists. If you don’t buy into the spirit and purpose of pre-season, then don’t go to the games.

    1. Mike, I’m far from blinkered about these fixtures. I rang Cambridge United and questioned if Shakhtar and Espanyol were sending strong sides. I was told by the club that as far as they were aware, it was first teams. The club could have saved themselves sone grief by declaring that the opposition was Shakhtar XI and so on. You’re a Cambridge fan, so I expect you to support the club, but as a neutral, there was a bit of misrepresentation. It’s a common practice in football when it comes to pre-season games. Good luck in League two, I’m glad to see you back in the Football League.

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