May the lu­cra­tive fourth be with you

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport -

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

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