The question I am posing is looking purely at what the UEFA Cup means to clubs from the English Premier League. Judging by recent participants and how they have fared, it appears to feature very low on most Premiership clubs’ list of priorities. Before the profile of the European Cup was sufficiently raised and rebranded as the Champions League, the UEFA Cup was almost equally as prestigious and would appeal to a number of top quality clubs from across the continent. However, with the money that has been ploughed into the Champions League and the Premiership, the UEFA Cup now seems to be nothing more than an inconvenience.
Take for example the teams fielded by both Aston Villa and Tottenham in the last 32 knockout phase of the tournament. Both clubs put out far from full strength sides in order to be defeated, thus avoiding a fixture pile up come the latter parts of the season as well as the added bonus of giving fringe and youth players some valuable European experience. Should for one reason or another, the under strength sides happen to get the better of their opposition, those players are then rewarded by featuring in the next round. However, what I fail to understand is why teams wait until they have got far in the tournament before writing it off as an unnecessary distraction and burden on their resources.
Last season Bolton Wanderers waited until the quarter final stage of the competition before submitting to Sporting Lisbon over two legs, despite some memorable and historic results against the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Sam Allardyce must be wondering why on Earth he worked so hard to drag Bolton into Europe, only for Gary Megson to forfeit a quarter final tie having drawn the first leg. If anything it is an insult to the fans of these clubs who pay to watch their side compete in European competition, some of the more hardcore even travelling to some obscure places for the privilege.
I get that clubs with a small squad have to prioritise and with all the financial implications that dictate the modern game, the more lucrative option of Premiership survival takes precedence over a run in Europe but if this is the case then what are the majority of Premiership sides striving for? What is the point of a side finishing high enough in the league to qualify for Europe, to then deem it pointless and not worth the hassle? Have they ever thought that perhaps their loyal fans would like to see them compete in Europe and give it their best shot considering most of them are never going to qualify for the Champions League or win a major trophy.
It would be nice to see a team show the gusto that Middlesbrough did in 2006 when they selected a strong side and went on an exciting and unforgettable journey all the way to the final before eventually being outclassed by a strong Sevilla side. With a little bit of effort, it would be amazing to see what they could achieve (take Glasgow Rangers last season as a further example). If Premier League clubs aren’t interested in competing in Europe, then why not give up their place to a side that might actually give it a go and embrace the chance to succeed.
Of course the neglect that the tournament has been shown in recent years hasn’t gone un-noticed amongst the UEFA decision makers who first tried to shake things up by introducing a group phase to the mix. This idea backfired though and another restructuring process was brought into effect. So as from next season the UEFA Cup will be known as the Europa League, a tournament that has a similar format to the Champions’ League with the idea of boosting both the competition’s status and profitability. Whether this works or not remains to be seen.