In a finer world, each football club would try to win every competition it entered. Only the biggest clubs, however, have that luxury, and managers of smaller clubs are forced to look at their fixture lists and determine what their biggest priorities are.
Such is the case with Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, who told The Guardian last Thursday that he was likely to put some reserves on the pitch for FA Cup and UEFA Cup matches so that his best team could focus on finishing in the Top Four.
Of course, this is a perfectly reasonable position for O’Neill to take. Aston Villa is only three points off the top of the Premier League table, and with Chelsea’s form and Liverpool’s form both slipping in recent weeks, a surge from O’Neill’s side could put Villa into the top three, which would punch their ticket to the group stage of next year’s UEFA Champions League. A fourth-place finish would put Villa in a playoff round to get to the group stage. Surely even a shot at Champions League football is a potentially huge prize.
Still, it says something about the current state of football when a fourth-place finish in a domestic league becomes a bigger priority than putting an actual trophy in your case. Everyone dreams of hoisting a cup at the end of the season, while a fourth-place finish doesn’t even get you on the medal stand at the Olympics.
Yet in English football, fourth place comes with a much greater reward than actually winning a trophy. That reward, of course, is money. The FA Cup winner pockets £3.8 million in prize money, plus box office and broadcast fees, for a successful run. The UEFA Cup winners will earn roughly £5 million for their success. By comparison, the Champions League group stage alone would earn Villa at least £15 million. That number could climb over £20 million if Villa makes it through to the knockout stage.
The end result is that the trophies lose their shine. Witness the disappointment at Stamford Bridge in 2007 when Chelsea brought home both the FA Cup and the Carling Cup. Yes, Jose Mourinho brought home two trophies, but those trophies ended up feeling like consolation prizes. Steve Coppell spent his first two years in the Premier League badmouthing both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. In addition, at least one Manchester United fan told me recently that his club needs the Carling Cup like it needs a hole in the head.
Perhaps if any of these cup competitions were gateways to the Champions League, clubs would see the cups as an opportunity rather than a burden. After all, changing the name of the UEFA Cup to the Europa League won’t be enough to spark real interest in it, especially if the prize is only a few million and an invite to the same competition next year.
Alas, O’Neill has to be practical and determine what’s best for his club in the long run. This makes a top-four finish the biggest prize of all for Aston Villa. A full bank account and a future on football’s biggest stage will soften the blow of an empty trophy case. One has to wonder, though, if UEFA and the FA should do more to make winning those trophies a priority. After all, history usually doesn’t remember who finished fourth.