“Thursday nights, channel five!” – this cheeky chant no longer graces the ears of the English football fan, there was a time not so long ago when supporters would rarely pass a season without being subjected to it. The intention was clear – to shame, disgrace, and mock fans of clubs taking part in the secondary of the UEFA Club competitions.
From Channel Five’s first airing of the old UEFA Cup in 2008 Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and even Manchester United have all at one point or another been the unfortunate victims of the taunt. However, like many songs born in the stands of football stadia, it has long lost relevance as Channel 5 has not aired any Europa League football since 2012 – “Thursday nights, BT Sport” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
But has it really lost relevance? Though the specifics of the chant most certainly have, the principle of it has not. The Europa League is not considered popular in modern English football – the competition is often scorned by purists, cast as a sideshow to the more prestigious Champions League. Naturally, amongst the neutrals, there is a preference to seeing a European tournament that boasts the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid over one containing less prestigious sides such as Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Sevilla and Fiorentina. This is understandable of course; fans watch football to be entertained and given the choice the bigger occasion would usually be preferred. However the negative attitude towards the competition is often more extreme in certain circles, particularly English ones. In the run-in of the 2014/2015 Premier League season, once it became clear that Tottenham and Liverpool could no longer finish in the much coveted fourth spot, each loss was met by some with a joke that described their closing campaign as being ‘the race to avoid Thursday night football‘. A joke, but one with quite a clear message to it; to certain English clubs, playing in the Europa League is beneath them. It is simply not prestigious enough, nor does it offer sufficient winnings to make up for the disruptions it causes to the domestic football calendar.
— Amir Sham (@AmirSham2000) May 23, 2015
While to an extent this may be true – all four of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City are big clubs and perhaps more suited to the Champions League – the same arrogance does not appear to exist among comparable clubs on the continent. Sevilla FC’s back to back wins over the last two seasons were not met with apathy, but with intense celebration. The question that should be asked then is why a club such as Sevilla, who in relative terms are of similar stature to clubs such as Tottenham, can seize European glory while their English counterparts falter through rotated line-ups. It is perhaps a little unfair to be so negative towards English performance in the Europa League, after all Chelsea won it recently and Fulham spectacularly reached the final not so long before that, proving that English clubs obviously have the ability – indeed, English clubs dominated the Champions League in the late noughties – which perhaps suggests that with regard to performances in the Europa League, the problem is more a case of application rather than ability.
So why does this all matter? If clubs choose to prioritise the Premier League and its massive financial benefits then isn’t that their prerogative? It may well be but it is likely to do a great deal of damage to both the Premier League and its clubs. The cause for concern lies in the very construction of UEFA Club competitions; the coefficient points that decide which country gets how many places and when their clubs enter competitions. These coefficient points have not needed to be thought of over the last few years due to England’s dominance. However, after collective failings last season as well as growing struggles in the seasons before that, Premier League clubs are beginning to lag behind their European counterparts in the continental competitions. The total coefficient point average is decided from performances over the previous five years, meaning that the previous dominant seasons are now being wiped in favour of the newer less successful seasons. The coefficient points from this coming season will replace a high when Manchester United were runners up in the Champions League and both Chelsea and Tottenham were quarter-finalists – the season after will replace the year in which Chelsea won the Champions League. The danger is that Italy are a mere 3 points behind England on the coefficient rankings, and while Champions League performances secured four places for England in the past they may fail to do so in the future.
— theScore (@theScore) August 6, 2015
A new season brings new beginnings though, new players and new challengers – hopefully it will also bring new ideas. However, merely a week into the new English football season and déjà vu has struck; West Ham United, in order to gain an undeniably impressive 2-0 victory at the Emirates against Arsenal, sacrificed participation in the Europa League in preparation for it. The Romanian side Astra Giurgiu went on to be victorious in a tie that involved a West Ham team that was at best unrecognisable to anyone not a West Ham fan in the second leg. The disgruntlement of West Ham’s exit is most certainly not a new one, but while it is disappointing there are still positives to be found – one being that Italy fared no better in the early rounds, as Sampdoria also fell unexpectedly to lesser opposition. Another positive is not only the performances, but the philosophy of Ronald Koeman’s Southampton. Despite a dominant 3-0 home win in their first leg against Vitesse Arnhem, the Saints still travelled to the Netherlands in strength to secure a very impressive 5-0 overall aggregate win. Koeman, rather than rest players for the Premier League opener against Newcastle, displayed a statement of intent that many in England could learn from – this statement simply read Southampton are in Europe to compete. It is in Denmark that Southampton’s next opponent lies, where FC Midtjylland will hope to topple the Premier League side. Whether they will prove a tougher test than Vitesse is yet to be seen, but with a newly added depth to their squad, the Saints appear to be preparing well for a long European season.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) August 7, 2015
What is obvious is that England needs a number of big European performances in the 2015/2016 season. Failure to do so, and failure to start competing in the Europa League where big additional coefficient points can be earned may lead to a shrinking English participation in European club football. The European issue is a growing one for English football clubs, and it may ironically be the competition that is sneered at which seals its fate.