It’s that time of year again which rolls lazily around each June and July. Footballers squeeze their flip flops and tracksuits into a hastily packed suitcase, the kit men neatly fold pennants into an inside zipped compartment of their suitcases and any young red haired ballers make sure they’ve stocked up on sun cream in preparation for the eagerly anticipated pre-season tour.
Like most things though, this long-standing institution has metamorphasised into something bigger, wider and more important than its humble origins. Traditionally an opportunity to enjoy a bit of sun and down a few drinks before the graft and gruel of the pre-season training regime, it is now a televised, glad-handing, palm pressing exercise in establishing and widening the corporate brand of the football club to hitherto untapped international markets. These days, such affairs are micro-managed to within an inch of their existence with barely time for a footballer to even look at a bottle of beer, never mind procure one, down it on one and smash it on the head of the guy against whom he’s held a long time grudge. Some of these events are even beamed into our living rooms for our delectation.
Of course this type of thing (the violence thing, that is, not the TV thing) probably happens more often than we humble punters imagine. A pre season tour, what with the balmy sunshine and jagerbombs, merely precipitates the perfect conditions for grievances which have previously been festering to break free from their shackles and explode into a drunken orgy of hijinks or violence.
But one club in particular seems to have cornered the market in pre season japery gone too far. Britney Spears’ classic uptempo popalicious groove, ‘Oops I did it again’ seems an appropriate theme tune for a certain dressing room in the East Midlands since prior to the recent misdemeanours in Thailand, Leicester City managed a treble of sorts between 2000 and 2004 as they stumbled between La Manga and Finland to chalk up notoriety alongside a hefty bar bill.
Back in 2000 and with a League Cup final looming against Tranmere Rovers, Martin O’Neill decided that a trip to Spain was just the ticket in order to relax the players and offer some respite from the arduous grind that is the Premier League. Such a strategy worked well enough for Brian Clough and his frequent mid season excursions to Mallorca when his Nottingham Forest side was in their pomp. This one backfired badly though.
Alcohol, dancing and fire extinguishers seem to feature heavily in the ‘incident’ in the wee small hours of the morning. Tony Coles, La Manga managing director, told the Leicester Mercury that the players were, “dancing on tables and being a general nuisance. They were insulting and rude to people. They were asking ladies to dance that didn’t want to and being obnoxious.
“They were all fairly drunk by that stage. They had had a lot to drink. The team’s behaviour up to that point had been unacceptable.
“Around 40 people were covered in the stuff from the fire extinguisher. It was irresponsible. The guests left the bar as soon as they could possibly get out.”
Leicester City squeaked past Tranmere 2-1 a few weeks later to lift the League Cup. Not to be deterred though by such adverse publicity, team bonding must go on and so in preparation for the 2002-03 season, a pre season trip to Finland was organised – perhaps a more temperate climate might prevent a repeat of such La Manga scenes. However, such a calming environment failed to curb the ire of Dennis Wise who, according to The Guardian, ‘…Wise did not punch Davidson in a toe-to-toe brawl designed to settle a row following a game of cards but that he attacked the Scottish defender as he lay in bed in his hotel room.’ Apparently, ‘Davidson sustained a double fracture of his right cheekbone as a result of being punched by Wise and will miss the start of the new season as a result.’
The season went swimmingly as the Foxes reclaimed their place in the top division at the first time of asking, finishing in 2nd place behind Portsmouth.
A grim hat trick was completed in March 2004 as Leicester returned to La Manga, Spain. Allegations were made against various players and Paul Mace, the club’s chief operating officer was moved to make a statement: “This is not the first time that the football industry as a whole has found itself with disappointing coverage that does not portray our national game in the best possible light. This is not good for Leicester City Football Club, this is not good for the game.”
Indeed not, although it should be noted that Keith Gillespie accepted substantial undisclosed libel damages over the allegations. At the end of the season, Leicester City slipped out of the Premier League back down to the Championship.
Of course, the Foxes aren’t the only club to be involved in such scrapes. Famously, England warmed up for Euro 96 by heading to Hong Kong, culminating in the Dentist’s Chair and all that.
As planes laden down with expensive footballers taxi down the tarmac, bound for all manner of exotic destinations, there will no doubt be a few nervous press officers on board, desperately hoping that all they are required to comment on is transfer speculation.