In 1558, the French drove the English from their stronghold in the city of Calais and out of continental Europe. England had held Calais and other lands in France for more than 200 years. It would be almost 200 more before England again seized a continental slice by snagging Gibraltar in 1704. Now, the Manchester United empire and its supporters are staring down the end of 23 consecutive years of European campaigns and wondering just when they will rain terror upon its shores again.
Manchester United can still qualify for the Europa League with a Floyd Mayweather-worthy one-two combination of a win over a Southampton and a Tottenham Hotspur loss to Villa. But some supporters feel that United can best return to its proper place above the League and above the Champions League by skipping out on Thursday night visits to the alphabet soup-likes of APOEL, PSV, AZ, and PAOK. Tottenham, Everton, and Liverpool sufferers have all heaped blame on UEFA’s NIT-esque second-tier tourney as they’ve struggled to get a gilded seat at the table of four over the past few years.
There’s no doubt that fighting wars on the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, and Europa League fronts is a supreme test of squad depth. And there’s no doubt that Champions League qualification remains the ultimate goal because of the absurd money it pumps into clubs. But Manchester United is uniquely blessed with the funds and brand appeal to build a squad up to the task of making a run in Europe while charging back onto its proper perch.
And, despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s obsession with knocking Liverpool “off their f**king perch” by winning more domestic league titles, Manchester United’s history is indelibly defined by its European exploits. In 1956, the club became the first English side to play in the European Cup. The Munich Air Tragedy of 1958 could have devastated the club but instead it emboldened a rebuild that culminated in 1968’s first-ever-by-an-English-club European Cup triumph over Benfica at Wembley. And Manchester United’s greatest era, the Sir Alex Ferguson era, may have never happened were it not for United’s 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup cup win over Barcelona. Ferguson’s first few years at Old Trafford had produced middling results. Winning in Europe bought him the time he needed to continue crafting the squad that would eventually win United’s first league title for 26 years in 1993. Then came “Can Manchester United score? They always score.” It was not only the most dramatic Champions League final finish of all time – it also completed United’s historic treble. 2008’s win in the Moscow rain lifted the club. 2008’s Champions League win in the Moscow rain over Chelsea lifted the club to new historical heights and sparked a run that would see them in the final twice more over the next three years.
For all the club’s wild success over the decades, the Europa League is the one competition it has never won. Qualifying for next year’s tournament would mean something was salvaged from this lost season. And a club with Manchester United’s status, means, and ambition shouldn’t have to worry about the Europa League sapping the club’s strength on a charge back into the Top Four. On the contrary, success in the Europa League would be a stepping-stone to a new era.