Europa League? I love it!
DAVE PAGE says the much-maligned competition deserves a break…
THURSDAY nights, Channel 5! as the jibe used to go, until the changing of broadcast rights rendered the song redundant. The chant has even got its own Wikipedia page, which seems rather… odd.
Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that the Europa League, and the UEFA Cup before that, is on the whole not taken very seriously in this country, and for some fans merits mockery.
I’ve tried many times to understand and sympathise with such a mentality, but I honestly just can’t. It’s a European trophy for Christ’s sake, how often does winning one of those come around?
When Manchester United were labouring through another round of the competition on their way to winning it last season, I heard some of their fans declare that this was a must-win purely for the purpose of getting back to the Champions League.
Presumably such people are less enthused at the prospect of their team winning a piece of silverware than getting to compete in a tournament next season which, at this time, they stand little chance of going far in.
Three seasons ago, UEFA introduced a much sought after Champions League place for the winners, in order to give teams a greater incentive to try.
But, for me, this just devalued the Europa League itself even further. This decision merely confirmed it as a secondary level tournament that teams should be looking to ‘get out of’, which is not the right way of going about creating interest.
What’s more, it deprives teams (unless they re-enter via finishing third in their Champions League group) of the opportunity to defend their title.
I think many would have liked to have seen if Sevilla, the true hallmark of excellence in this tournament, could make it four titles on the bounce and create history.
Instead, they exited UEFA’s elite competition at the round of 16 stage, something sure to be long forgotten in just a few years time (though maybe not by Leicester City fans).
On the continent, the Europa League commands more respect than it does on these shores. For many clubs over the years, it has provided brilliant European campaigns that would be otherwise impossible in the virtually closed shop of the Champions League, where the exclusive group of big guns reign supreme season after season.
Sure, the group stages are drawn out and a bit boring; watching the English representatives play on dire pitches at near-empty stadiums, in the likes of Belarus and Moldova, is no more fun that it sounds.
But once you reach the knockout stages you can witness genuinely exciting teams and plenty of young talent.
Just look at the way Ajax’s kids took last season’s edition by storm and revived their glorious history in continental competitions by reaching the final. And need I say it once more? It represents a GENUINE chance of winning a European trophy.You know those things, trophies? The things that football used to be all about once upon a time. The glory, the drama, the unforgettable emotion. But nah, some Red Devils fans see the real victory in greater marketability, so they can sign another expensive player who can provide some edgy new alternative to the ‘dab’. While it may sound like it, this isn’t specifically a dig at Manchester United supporters. I’m sure I’d be hearing similar sentiments if other established Premier League powerhouses were in the same position. It’s not even really a dig at Paul Pogba, I think he’ll come good with time, but he doesn’t help himself either. Anyway, I digress. Taking the view back home again, just ask Middlesbrough and Fulham fans for their best moments following their club, and they are sure to mention various points on their way to the final, and probably even that climactic day itself, even though both ended in defeat. The response may well be similar from followers of Bolton and Swansea, too.Yet it seems that even teams of this ilk no longer feel compelled to try and have a run, instead prioritising the bread and butter of Premier League mid-table anonymity. At the end of the day, the three sides from this country to have made the final in the last four years are Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United – all teams who probably feel that they ought to be ‘above’ the Europa League. Maybe English football is just not as good as it thinks it is, although that’s a debate that would require another article entirely. As I sit here now, it’s possibly a bit strange that I’ve put up such a passionate defence of a contest that my team, Brighton, have never played in. But one day they might, just might, and if it does happen, I will be simply ecstatic. @page_dave
Final joy: Man Utd’s Paul Pogba