A lot of football fans and football people in general disregard the Europa League as a status-free, unwanted distraction. The argument goes that it offers neither the financial rewards nor the glamour of its flashy cousin the Champions League and that there are too many games to play.
All that may be true but try telling that to Aston Villa fans today. Once again they have capitulated and been knocked out early in the competition that they spent a long hard season qualifying for by finishing 6th.
Let’s face it, Villa were never going to win the league and finishing 6th three seasons in a row was probably performing to their maximum ability, so the Europa League is the only European trophy they are ever going to be able to compete for – and yet they have fallen way short of the required standard in Europe.
Try telling Villa’s fans this doesn’t matter because it’s ‘only’ the Europa League. You really might as well finish 10th if you’re going to fall at the first European hurdle. It makes the whole of last season seems a bit pointless. All that work to finish so high in the league and the one reward for it is immediately lost.
Surely, European progress is part of building the club into a bigger, more competitive force. It gives young players experience and it puts the whole club in the shop window. The fixtures against other European sides add texture and variety to the season and the chance to visit places you might not normally see.
It is not to be lightly dismissed not least because if it is deemed worthless there is little more point in trying to finish fifth or sixth than there is to finish 12th or 13th and the league will quickly fall into a series of dead rubbers from March onwards.
For a club like Liverpool, desperate for a revival, a good run in the Europa League will be a huge boost to club, fans and players; you could see just how important it was to Hodgson by how he celebrated their winning goal. This wasn’t a nothing tournament to him because he knows it represents a route back to the glory days. A long route it may be but every opportunity must be taken to try and make it happen.
The UEFA Cup used to be a really important and well-regarded trophy – and it was an important one to win for any club. The league format of the Europa League has extended the duration of the tournament and that may not be a good thing but it still matters and really doesn’t deserve to be held in the contempt that it is within some circles.