Comment / Football

You can be rich or you can be fun

Premier League money vs. Europa League glory.

There used to be a time when football managers expressly aimed to qualify for Europe. A decent mid-table side might look to push for a top six or seven position. It was a sign of progress for the manager and the team, perhaps a chance for players to put themselves in the shop window and, of course, some added revenue for the club.

I recall there being genuine disappoint from Man City fans and players when a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough on the last day of the 2005 season saw the Riverside club qualify for the UEFA Cup ahead of the Sky Blues. These days putting David James as centre-forward may give impression that Stuart Pearce was actively trying to avoid qualification, but back then he really was aspiring to Europe’s secondary club competition. “It feels more like we’ve lost than drawn”, Psycho said after the game.

Carlos Bacca, Sevilla, with the Europa League trophy.

As a straight knock-out tournament, the UEFA Cup offered excitement as well as the potential for glory for both of those sides. Boro rode their luck on an incredible adventure the next season to reach the 2006 final in the Netherlands. While it ended in a 3-0 drubbing by Sevilla, their fans will never forget that season and lead to Steve McClaren’s (admittedly erroneous) appointment as England manager.

The problem is that one appearance in a European final or one great run in a knock-out competition does not make you even a semi-major footballing force. Boro were relegated from the Premier League in 2009, just three short years later. Sadly, we’ve seen that situation repeat itself time and again. Fulham were relegated four years after losing the UEFA Europa League (UEL) final to Atletico Madrid in Hamburg. Birmingham were relegated the same season they won the League Cup. Portsmouth and Wigan have suffered double relegations since their respective FA Cup wins.

It’s the question that always comes up when a team in the lower half of the table gets close to a cup final: would you prefer to win the cup even if it meant relegation? Fans would, shareholders would not.

The fact is teams do not aspire for a top seven finish anymore. With multi-billion pound television contracts growing incrementally with every new deal, simply staying in the Premier League is enough. With Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur seemingly intent on not qualifying for Europe now that the Champions League is out of sight, it looks like either Stoke or Swansea could qualify for the UEL. A few years ago that might have been a major success story for clubs of their stature. Yet Garry Monk says he is “mindful” of the mixed blessing of qualification.

You can see why someone in his position might have that mindset. A team that reaches the UEL final could play an additional 19 matches, or half a Premier League season. On average a team that qualified for the UEL over the last 10 years dropped 2.3 positions in the league. And the money is not very attractive to English clubs, especially when compared to what teams in the Champions League earn.

Why would a Swansea or a Stoke want to jeopardise not only their league position but their stability for a few away trips next season? The stakes are much higher at either end of the table. The top five is essentially a closed shop. The money needed to punch into that group of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs is prohibitive, even for a club like Spurs. The only possible way to compete with them is to spend money you don’t have. And why mortgage your club against the possibility of European football? It’s not worth it, and clubs like the Potters and the Swans know that. They have found their mid-table sweet spot.

In many ways the so-called lesser English clubs are lucky. They don’t have to depend on Europe. The equality with which the TV money is distributed gives teams a certain amount of independence in that sense, as opposed to their counterparts in Spain. La Liga, Atletico Madrid excepted, is another closed shop, with Real Madrid and Barcelona ensuring their relentless dominance with an uneven share of the TV money. An argument over changes to that has resulted in the league being suspended.

Ironically enough, however, such inequality has enabled the aforementioned Sevilla to win three UEL titles in the past nine years. This week they could reach a fourth final, making them one of the most successful teams in the tournament’s history. It’s unusual for a side to consolidate such success in a competition so loathed, but the Spaniards are thankful for the glory, if not the money.

If only more clubs saw it that way.

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