May the lucrative fourth be with you
The Olympic Games should have started this week. Athletes from around the world should have been in Tokyo, primed to run, throw, swim and, in the case of most of the British medal contenders, sit down. But whatever their sporting pursuit, all of them would have shared one competitive goal: to not finish fourth.
In the Games, this is the most transparently painful position to end up. So close to the podium but medal-free, four years of work ending up as a footnote to history: for Olympians, fourth hurts more than any other placing. Frankly, it is less demoralising to finish 20th.
But, in the Premier League, fourth takes on a completely different scale. In football, coming fourth represents significant attainment. Arsene Wenger spent much of his career insisting fourth meant success. Because since 2002 (apart from a brief hiatus in 2012 when Chelsea’s victory in the competition that season meant they took the Premier League’s final berth despite finishing sixth), coming fourth has meant entry into the Champions League, and with it access to a minimum £20 million in revenue. For club chairmen and owners, fourth matters more than a trophy for this simple reason: fourth means money.
This weekend there is a fair chance that Leicester City and Manchester United will meet in the most valuable fourth-place play-off in sport. Mathematically, it remains an outside possibility that if Chelsea gain only one point from their two remaining matches, United beat West Ham tomorrow and then lose at the King Power Stadium, then both Leicester and their visitors will qualify for the money-spinning European competition. But the chances are that Sunday’s will be the all-ornothing fixture that decides fourth place. This will be the accountants’ favourite – “the £20million match”.
The odd thing is, in the 18 years since the Premier League was granted a fourth entrant to Europe’s annual elite competition, this will be only the second time that the fixture computer has delivered the possibility that the two clubs pursuing the prize meet at the season’s conclusion. Sure, there have been many times when the race for fourth has gone to the last day. Arsenal squeezed ahead of Tottenham on the final weekend of the 2006 season. But they did so by beating Wigan, while Spurs lost at West Ham after eating some dodgy lasagne.
Arsenal also pipped Spurs by a point in 2012, when they seized third place and fourth was turned into an irrelevance by Chelsea winning the Champions League and being invited to retain it. Arsenal did it again in 2013, and in 2016 Manchester City eased ahead of United on goal difference. Liverpool then outflanked Arsenal in 2017 before finally, in 2018-19, Spurs turned the tables on their local rivals and squeezed ahead of Arsenal by a point on the final day. But, however satisfying it might have been, it was not by virtue of winning a play-off.
Indeed, only in 2010 have the two competing sides faced each other for the chance to qualify. That year Tottenham journeyed to take on Manchester City. Spurs, then managed by Harry Redknapp, needed just a point to secure their qualification. In a game fraught with nerves, in which the significance of the prize seemed to infect every tackle, every headed clearance, every dispute over a throw-in, Spurs emerged victorious after Peter Crouch headed the only goal.
Though, as it happened, that was not the final encounter of the season. It was the penultimate fixture, victory giving Spurs the leeway to lose at Burnley on the concluding day.
Which makes Sunday’s meeting between Leicester and United potentially all the more telling. This is a winner-takes-all, loserpreparing-for-a-season-ofThursday-nights head-to-head. Olympians may be dismayed at the very idea but, as the legendary Brian Moore put it on a previous occasion when two protagonists met at the last to settle the spoils, it is up for grabs now. For both sides, fourth is the new first.
For club chairmen and owners, fourth matters more than a trophy. Fourth means money
High stakes: Peter Crouch heads the goal for Tottenham Hotspur that ensured his side beat Manchester City to fourth place in 2010