While Fulham needs a win in Basel today to advance to the knockout stage of the Europa League, Roy Hodgson doesn’t seem to think this is a must-win game for his club. He told reporters on Monday that he planned to run out the reserves for this match, saying that his club “didn’t enter the competition to win it anyway” and was much more focused on “doing well” in the Premier League.
This, of course, gets back to that old argument about what competitions have “meaning” and whether the Europa League, by any name, will ever be considered a worthwhile trophy by Premier League clubs. It also begs the question — why shouldn’t Fulham take a shot at this trophy?
Hodgson clearly isn’t concerned about preserving Fulham’s league status, what with his side already amassing 23 points in 16 league matches. He specifically said Fulham’s priority was “doing well in the league,” rather than just staying up. With so many subpar clubs in the lower half of the table, though, Fulham really has to do little more than maintain its current form for a top-10 finish. So why does Hodgson automatically assume a few European nights might jeopardize that?
Perhaps Hodgson values league success more because of the monetary rewards. Last season, the difference between Fulham’s 7th-place finish and Manchester City’s 10th-place finish was approximately £3.3 million in merit payments. That number will likely be higher this season. However, Man City decided to pursue a Europa League run last spring, reached the quarterfinals and won more than £4.4 million in market pool and prize money for their efforts. That made up the difference and then some. It would take only four extra ties in February and March for Fulham to get to that point.
Perhaps he’s concerned that his squad doesn’t have the depth required to pursue the Europa League. That was Martin O’Neill’s excuse concern last season when he started Aston Villa’s reserves against CSKA Moscow in an attempt to exit the UEFA Cup knockout stage early and focus on winning in a Champions League bid within the league. Guess what? Villa collapsed in the spring anyway. Not competing in Europe did little to prevent O’Neill’s shallow side from becoming fatigued. Would it really be so different for Fulham?
In justifying his disdain for the Europa League, Hodgson told reporters that his side played these European nights in part “for the joy it would give our supporters.” You know what else might bring joy to Fulham supporters? More European nights. Fans might say they don’t care much about secondary cup competitions; that changes when their club takes a big scalp or makes a long run. Ask Middlesbrough supporters how much they enjoyed traveling to a UEFA Cup Final. Ask Blackburn supporters how much they enjoyed seeing their club knock off Chelsea in the Carling Cup quarterfinals a few weeks ago. Ask Portsmouth supporters how much they relished winning the FA Cup and seeing AC Milan come to Fratton Park a year ago for a UEFA Cup tie. Why deny supporters a shot at Juventus? Or perhaps another shot at Liverpool, a club Fulham has already beaten at home this year?
Managing a relatively small club like Fulham often requires the sort of pragmatism Hodgson is displaying here. Still, the Cottagers’ boss is not stopping to consider that success in a cup competition can build his players’ confidence and help fuel their success in the league. He’s also failing to consider that a trip to the Europa League quarterfinals could be just as financially rewarding for Fulham as finishing a few spots higher in the league table. Instead, he seems intent on minimizing his players’ injury risk by limiting the number of non-league ties they play. Perhaps this will prove wise in the long run, but one can’t help but think that Hodgson, like O’Neill a year ago, is playing with scared money, and we know what they say about that.