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For Martin O’Neill, Fourth Place Finish Is Bigger Prize Than Winning a Trophy

Martin O’NeillIn a finer world, each football club would try to win every competition it entered. Only the biggest clubs, however, have that luxury, and managers of smaller clubs are forced to look at their fixture lists and determine what their biggest priorities are.

Such is the case with Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, who told The Guardian last Thursday that he was likely to put some reserves on the pitch for FA Cup and UEFA Cup matches so that his best team could focus on finishing in the Top Four.

Of course, this is a perfectly reasonable position for O’Neill to take. Aston Villa is only three points off the top of the Premier League table, and with Chelsea’s form and Liverpool’s form both slipping in recent weeks, a surge from O’Neill’s side could put Villa into the top three, which would punch their ticket to the group stage of next year’s UEFA Champions League. A fourth-place finish would put Villa in a playoff round to get to the group stage. Surely even a shot at Champions League football is a potentially huge prize.

Still, it says something about the current state of football when a fourth-place finish in a domestic league becomes a bigger priority than putting an actual trophy in your case. Everyone dreams of hoisting a cup at the end of the season, while a fourth-place finish doesn’t even get you on the medal stand at the Olympics.

Yet in English football, fourth place comes with a much greater reward than actually winning a trophy. That reward, of course, is money. The FA Cup winner pockets £3.8 million in prize money, plus box office and broadcast fees, for a successful run. The UEFA Cup winners will earn roughly £5 million for their success. By comparison, the Champions League group stage alone would earn Villa at least £15 million. That number could climb over £20 million if Villa makes it through to the knockout stage.

The end result is that the trophies lose their shine. Witness the disappointment at Stamford Bridge in 2007 when Chelsea brought home both the FA Cup and the Carling Cup. Yes, Jose Mourinho brought home two trophies, but those trophies ended up feeling like consolation prizes. Steve Coppell spent his first two years in the Premier League badmouthing both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. In addition, at least one Manchester United fan told me recently that his club needs the Carling Cup like it needs a hole in the head.

Perhaps if any of these cup competitions were gateways to the Champions League, clubs would see the cups as an opportunity rather than a burden. After all, changing the name of the UEFA Cup to the Europa League won’t be enough to spark real interest in it, especially if the prize is only a few million and an invite to the same competition next year.

Alas, O’Neill has to be practical and determine what’s best for his club in the long run. This makes a top-four finish the biggest prize of all for Aston Villa. A full bank account and a future on football’s biggest stage will soften the blow of an empty trophy case. One has to wonder, though, if UEFA and the FA should do more to make winning those trophies a priority. After all, history usually doesn’t remember who finished fourth.

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  1. Thomas

    January 28, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Unless you have an influx of money, like Man City, it's going to be difficult to succeed if you do not build with a plan. Villa have done just that.

    Initially people scoffed at the fee that O'Neill paid for Ashley Young. Now that 10mill is looking like quite a good piece of business. Especially considering City just paid 14mill for Bellamy. And who in their right mind would take Bellamy over Young at this point?

    Gabby and Barry, two huge parts of the team are homegrown (Barry essentially).

    Swapping Baros for Carew was a great move.

    And you can't really argue with picking up players like Sidwell and Reo-Coker. O'Neill is slowly building a deep squad that will be able to challenge domestically and in Europe.

    If Villa can qualify for the CL, I think that they might be able to add some serious impact players at LB.

  2. peachy

    January 28, 2009 at 6:01 am

    I think Thomas is spot on. Getting into the CL spots isn't just significant financially, it also provides access to the top tier of players in the transfer market. You can build a top four team without a big-name star, by developing your own talent, swiping potential starlets from other teams, and raising the game of second or third-tier players with good coaching… but that's definitely the hard way of doing things. Of course, it may also be the only way to break the monopoly.

  3. Thomas

    January 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Money talks my friends.

    Since no one outside of Everton has finnished top 4 in recent memory, I hope Villa pull it off.

    Obviously the lure of Champions League Football is more important than winning the FA Cup or the UEFA Cup.

    Money aside, look at what O'Neill could do with summer signings. City, with all the money in the world wasn't able to sign Kaka. Do you really think that it has as little to do with money as he makes it out to be? No, he doesn't want to play in a relegation struggle. If City were sitting in Villa's shoes, I think Kaka would have jumped ship.

    And going back to the transfer saga of Gareth Barry…if Villa can assure their players Champions League football, what's the incentive to jump to one of the other top 4 sides. This is especially pressing with some of the young talents that O'Neill has at Villa…ie Gabby and Ashley Young.

  4. AtlantaPompey

    January 27, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Finishing 17th in the Premier League is more important than winning either the FA Cup or the League Cup. It's worth more money, plain and simple. Give the FA Cup winner the spot in the Champions League that is reserved for the 3rd place team and give the League Cup winner the spot for the the 4th place team. Do that, and the big clubs will take it so seriously that they would field weakened teams for the league rather than a cup competition. No amount of money would change the mindset of the big clubs on this competition. It has to be Champions League spots.

    The Premier League for some of the clubs has become a qualification round for the Champions League. The Cups are meaningless to ManU/Chelsea/Liverpool/Arsenal. Going to the UEFA Cup/Europa Cup would be a huge disappointment.

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