It is very appropriate that on 27 July 2022 as Arsenal are heading for an unbeaten pre-season, we find ourselves at the anniversary of the first ever unbeaten pre-season with FC Utrecht 0 Arsenal 3 on this day in 2005.
In the early days of football most professional teams played just one pre-season game – in Arsenal’s case the Reds v the Blues, or the first team against the reserves. The sort of tour that we sometimes see these days before the start of the season was actually arranged in the early days of football at the end of the season.
The modern approach to pre-seasons started in the 1950s: on 4 August 1956 Arsenal played Stuttgart away, putting out the entire first team in what appears to have been our first pre-season game in the modern style. It ended 1-1, and was the only-pre-season game recorded for that season, although I believe Arsenal did play Arsenal Reserves at Highbury on 11 August in private, with the season starting the following weekend. So that game against Stuttgart can make a fair claim to being the start of Arsenal’s pre-season in the modern style.
In 1957 there was again just the one match away to Stockholm, but in 1958 the modern approach finally emerged with games against Schalke, Enschede and Young Fellows Zurich (the latter being a team sadly no longer with us).
The notion of starting the season with a series of friendlies then took off and has continued ever since.
When Woolwich Arsenal joined the league in 1893 the regulation was that league football started on 1 September, unless that day was a Sunday, in which case the league started on 2 September. It was just one of those arbitrary rules that seemed to be adopted by the league in the early days – undoubtedly as a sop to cricket, whose season had been established long before the Football League came along.
In 1896 the rule was changed so that the first Football League matches would be played on the first saturday in September. Woolwich Arsenal, noting the new arrangements that year played their first ever pre-season friendly as a league club, on 1 September 1896, beating Rossendale 4-0.
In these early days friendlies were dotted around within the season, which is not too surprising because most of the clubs Arsenal had played prior to joining their joining the Football League in 1893 were still without a league to play in, and thus just playing friendlies. And as the earlier AGMs of the London FA and Kent FA had shown, when objection was raised to Arsenal’s move to professionalism, the majority of the local clubs were very much wanting to continue playing a couple of games a season against the most famous club in the south of England – irrespective of whether they were a professional team or no.
In 1903 Woolwich Arsenal played its first end-of-season friendly series, expanding this in 1907 to its first overseas tour incorporating Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
End-of-season games were stopped in 1913 with the club more engaged in getting Highbury ready than in playing friendlies, but they recommenced in 1921, and incorporated tours of Sweden in 1922 and Austria in 1925. Such end-of-season affairs continued until the early 1970s.
As for an unbeaten pre-season where there were more than just one or two games, the first I can find ran like this…
- 16 July 2005: Barnet 1 Arsenal 4 (Hleb, Henry, Bergkamp, Hoyte)
- 20 July 2005: SC Weiz 0 Arsenal 5 (Flamini, Henry, Bentley, Bergkamp)
- 24 July 2005: SC Ritzing 2 Arsenal 5 (Bergkamp, Henry, Reyes, Hlev, Larsson
- 27 July 2005: FC Utrecht 0 Arsenal 3 (Pires, Reyes, Henry)
- 29 July 2005: Ajax 0 Arsenal 1 (Lupoli)
- 31 July 2005: Porto 1 Arsenal 2 (Ljungberg 2)