The Europa League began this week, so Greg hashed out the blessings and curses of the competition and England’s League Cup.
As a Liverpool FC fan, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching the 2011-2012 Carling Cup (which will properly be referred to as “The League Cup” for the rest of this article because of the impending name change). Needless to say that us winning the competition played a huge part in my enjoyment, but even if we had lost in the Semi-Final or Final of the competition, I could honestly say that I enjoyed every single minute of it. From pummeling Exeter City handily in the second round to winning a phenomenal Final on penalties against Cardiff City, the entire cup run was, far and away, one of my favorite parts of the season.
However, The League Cup isn’t universally considered to be a major trophy by a significant amount of English Football. This is partially because of the competition’s relatively low Prize Fund; losing semi-finalists receive £25,000 apiece, the runner-up £50,000, and the winner £100,000. To put that in perspective, the FA Cup Prize Fund rewards £900,000 to the runner-up & £1.8m to the winners. In other words, Liverpool made nine times more losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final than they did for defeating Cardiff City in the League Cup Final.
Because of the competition being seen as a “Mickey Mouse Cup” by fans, managers, and clubs as a whole, some managers use it as an excuse to play a weakened side or give young players a chance to get first team experience. One Premier League manager who preferred for many years to play weakened sides in the League Cup is Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger, who described it as a “non-trophy” in early 2010. His preference to play young players in the League Cup has been mirrored by other top-flight managers.
Another big issue with the League Cup is a relatively new perception by many that focusing on the competition has had a tendency to negatively affect results at the end of the season. This has been exemplified of late by Liverpool’s fall from grace after winning the Cup this season, in addition to Birmingham City getting relegated after winning it in 2011 coinciding with Finalists Arsenal going from title contenders to fourth place in the aftermath.
This belief that success in the League Cup has a negative effect on league form is very similar to another theory: that being in the Europa League has an adverse effect on clubs while in the competition.
The Europa League, known as the UEFA Cup until the 2009/10 season, is Europe’s second-tier cup competition. Founded in 1971, the format for this competition has changed constantly & drastically over the years, as UEFA has merged the “Cup Winners’ Cup” & Intertoto Cup into the competition, expanded the number of teams that qualify, the number of rounds, etc. for a number of different reasons. The Europa League’s current format consists of four qualifying rounds, a 48-team “Group Stage” (from which the top two teams in each group advance), and is closed out by four two-legged knockout rounds, the first of which contains the 24 teams that advanced from its Group Stage in addition to the eight third-place finishers in the Champions League. The last two teams remaining play in a 90-minute Final held at a pre-arranged “neutral” venue. The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for the group stage of the tournament the following season.
Since being rebranded and re-formatted in 2009, the Europa League has, for the most part, been an entertaining competition. Teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Fulham, and S.C. Braga have made entertaining runs and reached the Final of the competition, defeating the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, and Liverpool on their cinderella runs. It’s a competition that produces entertaining football and gives the fans some enjoyable moments along the way.
However, the Europa League, much like the League Cup, has its problems. While most of Europe enjoys the competition and treats it seriously, clubs, pundits, fans, and managers in the UK view it in a very negative light, and consider the competition to be more of a burden than anything else. Playing on Thursday nights, half the time with kickoff being at 6 PM, isn’t exactly the most entertaining thought for clubs that consider themselves to be a part of the most competitive league in the world. The competition is shown on Channel 5, the UK’s least appealing basic network, a fact which was subject of a chant from United fans as a way of ridiculing LFC for the better part of the two seasons they were in the Europa League (“Thursday night, Channel Five!” repeated at nauseum). For the most part, the competition isn’t even shown on live television outside of Europe, with most hardcore foreign fans watching via internet streams on very sketchy websites, making the appeal even bleaker.
Playing on Thursday nights means having to play the majority of your league matches on Sunday, giving your side just Friday and Saturday to rest prior to a match against a league opponent. When you consider the fact that you might have to fly back from Lichtenstein for a Europa League game on a Thursday night prior to playing at Old Trafford in a league match on Sunday afternoon, it’s understandable why teams might not take the competition as seriously as UEFA would like.
The big problem with playing in the Europa League is the adverse affect it supposedly has on a team’s League form. By only having two days’ rest and enduring some long travels prior to returning home, teams supposedly suffer as a result of being in the Europa League. This is especially bad for clubs that are aspiring to get into the Champions League (such as Liverpool and Tottenham), as Champions League qualification in England is based almost solely on finishing in the Top Four. If you’re stuck in the Europa League and have a faltering League form, you’re stuck in this zone of mediocrity. It’s a ridiculous catch-22 in some people’s minds: By losing in the Europa League, you feel ashamed about getting eliminated from Europe’s second-tier competition, which could have an adverse effect on morale and an already mixed League form. But if you win, you have to keep playing in this second-tier European competition and risk fixture congestion and continuously faltering league form at the sake of winning a European competition which has a winners payout that’s equivalent of a Champions League Quarterfinalist that had to play 5 less matches to earn the same amount of money.
That’s the big problem with the Europa League today: the supposed “big clubs” have no incentive to go out and win it. The luster of the competition is not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t pay as much as the Champions League does, and if you win, you seal a spot in next year’s competition, which is where you’ll probably play because your league form wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Champions League. With that, your cycle of mediocrity continues, and goes on and on and on until either you get lucky and somehow get back into the Champions League or fall out completely, which is even more humiliating and degrading than being in the Europa League.
So, all of the above in mind, the question must be asked: are the League Cup and Europa League competitions worth focusing on at the sake of sacrificing a club’s League form? Is either competition, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “A pot worth winning”?
The first answer to this, at least in my opinion, is that it’s relative to each club. If you are a club that has an ambition of getting into the Champions League, you play your reserves in those competitions and focus on winning in your domestic league. If you advance, then great, it’s a bonus. If you get eliminated, who gives a fuck? That’s the beauty of the League Cup in some ways: if you lose, some fans really don’t care, and if you win, at least you can say that you won one more trophy than the majority of teams that season (yes, Arsenal, I’m looking at you.).
In spite of the relevence of a competition to a club’s goals for the season being a major factor in determining whether or not a trophy is “a pot worth winning,” there is another spectrum to the argument that I can’t ignore, and that’s playing a weakened side just because you don’t give a fuck. Why in God’s name would any club play a weakened side and then have the nerve to charge fans for the right to come in and see the reserves play in a competition that you don’t care about? It’s horrifying. Obviously, exceptions to this rule do exist (e.g. Man United not charging season ticket holders for Europa League tickets as a part of their auto-cup scheme), but numerous clubs have made this such a regular practice in the Europa League and League Cup that bigger headlines are made when a club doesn’t charge for a match than when they jack ’em up, a fact which, as a sports fan, sickens me to my core.
Another factor that hurts is the lack of pride that a club portrays in playing a weakened side. It literally says to the opposition and the fans: “We’re sorry, we don’t care about this match, so we’re gonna send out the reserves to play this game, and if you don’t like it, then screw off. Also, if you’d like to buy a ticket for a match we actually give a fuck about, please go down to the box office after the game.” On top of that, if you get eliminated, it’s even more humiliating and degrading, because not only did you lose to a lower league side, but you didn’t even bother to send out a half-decent side. You didn’t even go for it.
That’s what hurt most for me when LFC lost to Northampton Town in the League Cup in 2010. Gerrard and Torres were both on the bench, and youngster Nathan Eccleston was handed his 2nd club cap (He has yet to appear in a League match and hasn’t been seen in the LFC first team since). Roy Hodgson put out such a poor side that he was essentially saying to the fans in attendance “We’re not even gonna bother advancing in this tournament. Thanks for your money, but we’re not sorry for being piss poor today against a League Two side at home.” What pride is there in that? That’s right: There’s none.
Look, I’d love to see Liverpool make it back into the Champions League next season, but I’m of the belief that every match, regardless of the competition, is one worthy of a full-strength side. We should be going into this season with the intention of winning every competition we’re in. Playing a few reserves in a match isn’t a bad idea every once in a while, and sometimes it’s necessary with injuries, suspensions, and matters that are out of a Manager’s control. But if I was told before last season started that I’d get to choose between seeing Liverpool finish Top Four or have a shot at a Cup Double, with no gray area in between, I would’ve honestly chosen the Cup Double. Because that means that the fans would get the chance to go to Wembley three times and have some fun along the way. It also would’ve meant two shots at winning our first trophy in six years compared to a single year in the Champions League.
The last season, while incredibly frustrating, was a lot of fun and gave me some memories I’ll never forget. A cup run, regardless of what competition it is, can be just as exciting, if not more exciting than finishing fourth. From Bellamy’s goal against Man City to Kuyt’s winner against Man United to Carroll’s winner against Everton, all three were cup moments from this season that put me and other Liverpool fans on Cloud Nine. We celebrated each goal like it was a goal that had won us the Premier League. Each moment made the fans happy. That’s why any trophy is “a pot worth winning” in my book, because at the end of the day, professional football would not exist without the fans themselves. When you win a competition, you win it for those people in the stands, not owners or sponsors or anybody else. I know that’s a minority opinion, and it’s old fashioned, but I stand by it 100%.
Follow Greg on Twitter @njny