The powers that be in the Premier League tend to get all uptight when a club manager suggests that he’s going to rest his starters for whatever reason. This is somehow an affront to the integrity of the competition and unfair to the other clubs fighting to avoid relegation or to get into Europe. Plus, lots of people bet on these games, so resting players at any given time might raise as many red flags as Urawa Red Diamonds supporters.
That said, managers are not the least bit beholden to gamblers, and no manager should be punished for doing what’s ultimately best for his club. If a manager decides to rest players in order to get them healthy for a particular fixture, then he should be free to make that decision.
Fulham boss Roy Hodgson is the latest to jump into this teapot tempest when he all but announced that winning the Europa League would take priority over Fulham’s remaining Premier League fixtures.
And why not? There’s nothing left on offer for Fulham in the league. They’ve confirmed their Premier League status for next season, and they’re too far behind other clubs to win another spot in Europe through the league. There’s only one way Fulham plays in the Europa League next year, and that’s by winning the Europa League this year.
What’s more, Fulham have already played 55 matches this season, more than any club in the Premier League, including the Big Four. If they reach the Europa League final, that number will jump to 63. That’s a lot of fixtures for a club that’s not very deep. That they’ve managed any sort of run at all in the Europa League — let alone one that saw them knock out Shahktar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg — is remarkable. So why not chase the trophy still on offer? Get Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey fully fit, get a win and a draw against Hamburg, and whatever happens in the final on May 12 happens.
Plus, it’s not like Fulham have completely closed up shop in the league. The Cottagers held Liverpool to a scoreless draw at Anfield yesterday, a result that left Liverpool 6 points adrift of 4th place. Clearly, Hodgson’s defenders haven’t gotten the memo that they’re supposed to take it easy.
Regardless, many will argue that Hodgson should still try to keep his first team on the pitch, because it would be unfair to Burnley and Hull City if Fulham fielded reserve sides against Wolverhampton and West Ham. This is a rubbish argument. Burnley and Hull had 33 rounds to do what they needed to do to avoid the drop. If they haven’t settled matters by now, it’s their own fault for being in this position.
This same argument against resting starters took place last December, when Mick McCarthy put the Wolverhampton reserves on the pitch for a midweek fixture at Old Trafford. McCarthy was fined £25,000 by the Premier League for that decision, which completely ignored the fact that it was the right decision. Wolves took six points from the two matches surrounding that midweek tie, and those six points are currently the distance between Wolves and the drop zone. What’s more, those three points might not save Manchester United’s title hopes after all.
That the Premier League even decided to fine McCarthy set a horrible precedent. Now Hodgson might end up facing a similar fine if he decides to field any reserves in advance of that semifinal tie against Hamburg. Let’s hope the league has the good sense not to charge him £25,000 for this. After all, the league didn’t fine Rafa Benitez £25,000 when he put the Liverpool reserves on the pitch three years ago. Dempsey scored a game-winner against those reserves to keep Fulham in the top flight.
A club like Fulham might never be able to chase European glory again. Hodgson should be allowed to do whatever is necessary to help Fulham win that trophy, and if that means throwing the reserves out the reserves against Wolves and Everton, so be it. The other 19 clubs had an entire season to earn their points. If they haven’t done it yet, it’s they’re own fault.