So the reality of this season’s poor start has finally hit home. We are out of the Champions League partly though poor play, partly through bad luck and mainly through an appalling catalogue of injuries. Ultimately we only have ourselves to blame still at least we will avoid playing Chelsea again!
I find the articles and discussions concerning our plight premature. In terms of budget the difference between going out at the group stage and the knock out stage is not too great and it certainly isn’t going to throw us into financial ruin. The real problem might be next year, in terms in finances and attracting and keeping players, if we fail to qualify for the 2010-11 tournament. However, if we are assuming guaranteed Champions League income every year, as part of their financial projections, then those responsible want their heads examining?
In terms of everything else what has really changed? Even if we qualified the same problems would still be there? Our wonderful owners and their unconvincing attempts to steer us into a bright new shiny future remain. Will our exit dampen our appeal to prospective investors? I doubt it. Perhaps it might have the opposite effect or may be they will wait to see if we qualify for 2010-11? Perhaps no qualification might loosen Hicks and Gillett’s resolve?
Talk about Rafa’s future should be just that and it was gratifying that Christian Purslow was keen to emphasise this immediately after the game. No doubt the anti Rafa brigade will gain some new recruits after last night however, there is still a tremendous amount of goodwill for him tempered by a reluctance to sink the level of some clubs by not seeing the wider, longer term picture and wielding the axe at the first sign of misfortune. Hicks and Gillett are aware of this, and will not act for fear of making themselves more unpopular. There are also the potentially expensive issues of Rafa’s severance pay and recruiting his successor.
So we move on and it’s the UEFA Cup, I’m not going to call it the Europa League as why should I acknowledge UEFA for its attempts to tart up what is after all it is a competition with a rich history. Besides changing a name won’t make it any more appealing will it? However, there is no escaping the fact that, like our own domestic Carling Cup, the UEFA Cup’s reputation seems to have taken one hell of an almighty clout has the Champions League has spread it’s tentacles cross the continent.
The regard, or disregard, in which the competition is held was seen only last season when Martin O’Neill, like some latter day Napoleon, lead an under strength Aston Villa to brave the Russian winter and surrendered their campaign as result. In same season Harry Redknapp fielded a weakened Spurs side and, as a result, basically chucked it. Perhaps Redknapp had more reason to do this as Spurs, after being bottom of the table, needed to consolidate their league position? However, it was good opportunity to win some silver. Why do clubs limit their options in this way? Why in particular should they feel the need to regard the UEFA Cup like it is some unsightly dog turd fouling up the golden road to Champions League glory especially as for many it is a road they never get to travel on?
For many it is a question of comparison. They see the UEFA Cup as a come down from the Champions League yet why should they? For the last five years the Champions League has been an exclusive club for the English. Only the big four have featured whereas many clubs have taken part in the UEFA Cup. Surely therefore it is a more realistic target, an important stepping stone to breaking into the Champions League? For us it may be the reverse. many will see it as a sign that we are the wane and that someone such as Spurs or Manchester City might replace us? However, it is not the disaster it is made out to be. I recall the Mancs being eliminated a few seasons back at the group stages and I think, at the time of writing anyway, they are still in reasonable health even though they finished bottom of their group and didn’t even qualify for the UEFA Cup!
The competition also provides us with a decent choice of opportunities. Rafa can blood more youngsters there seem to be enough games to enable him to do so – we go into the last 32 knock out stages? However, if he has the mind he may also seek to try and actually win the dam thing, and secure the clubs fourth record breaking UEFA Cup title. Rafa isn’t exactly unfamiliar with the competition, he won it with Valencia in 2003-04 and we could actually do with winning some silverware. Nothing since the FA Cup 2006.
Of course it is arrogant and extremely presumptuous to assume that we will drop down from our lofty Champions League perch and sweep all before us. In this season’s competition are, amongst others, Ajax, Anderlecht, Valencia, Hamburg, Sporting Lisbon, Roma, Galatasaray, Villarreal, Fenerbahce, Benfica, PSV Eindhoven and Werder Bremen. No cake walks there me thinks. However, if we get back to full strength, as we surely will at some stage sometime, then our chances will be pretty good?
The Champions League may carry more financial clout however but why should we regard the UEFA Cup is inferior? There is too much snobbery and misplaced expectation in the game at the moment. The Champions League is not the be all and end all of everything. It’s only 16 or so games. These days football clubs seem to prioritise their matches according to the amount of financial gain a competition brings but why should the fans? It is a good thing to have a reality check occasionally and yes, thank you very much, I’ll gladly take the UEFA Cup, as our eighth European trophy, and the honour of becoming the competitions record winners to boot!
English clubs have a long and proud tradition in the UEFA Cup, and the Fairs Cup as it was known before. For example the UEFA Cup was our first European trophy win. That final against Borussia Mönchengladbach was a proud moment for the club. It was appropriately secured under Bill Shankly after series of long fruitless campaigns in Europe (remember the Milan referee fix?). It was key milestone in the clubs development the experience gained by the squad in that competition stood us in great stead for the European Cup wins a few years later.
This season marks the 50th anniversary of Shankly’s arrival at Anfield so there will be no shame or embarrassment if we attempt to repeat the ground breaking feat he and his team achieved in 1973? In fact it will be a fitting tribute.