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Is Roy Hodgson Playing With Scared Money?

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.

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  1. PhillySpur

    December 16, 2009 at 11:18 am

    The Europa/UEFA/NIT is a joke for the simple fact that most clubs don’t care. They get into it and then can’t wait to get out. I can’t say I blame them with how difficult it is in the league and all the money at stake. Have less teams, get rid of the group stages and maybe the clubs would be willing to go all out.

    • Dave

      December 16, 2009 at 1:56 pm

      Most ENGLISH clubs don’t care. The German, Spanish and Eastern European clubs actually compete to win the Europa League. I suspect if UEFA threatened to revoke one of England’s spots in this competition, the English clubs might start caring a bit more.

      Of course, I’ve always contended that if the Europa League were a gateway to the next season’s Champions League, EVERYONE would care, but I suspect this won’t happen anytime soon.

  2. Peter

    December 16, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Well we’ll see, but the fact of the matter is that he’s only got about 14 eligible outfield players to pick from tonight (from the first-team squad), because of injuries, suspension and ineligibilty — rendering the entire discussion above semi-academic. The main expected voluntary change from recently is to play Murphy and Etuhu in central midfield — injured of late, but, as you are doubtless aware, our first choice last season.

    Judge Hodgson by deeds, as opposed to words (which are a bit irritating in this case, agreed), and it’s not really been as you have depicted. Only in one match has a mainly reserve team been played — away to Sofia who proved the group whipping boys. Otherwise it’s been basically a full-strength team with a sprinkling of the better bench-warmers.

    • Dave

      December 16, 2009 at 2:54 pm

      Indeed, five starters from the weekend’s match at Burnley also started at Basel, and two other weekend starters (Dempsey and Duff) came off the bench for Fulham in the second half.

      Perhaps Hodgson was just lowering our expectations?

  3. David

    December 16, 2009 at 10:48 am

    I’ve learned to trust Roy when it comes to transfers, team selection and what have you. His reasoning in this case makes no sense. We beat United last year, and we haven’t been able to consistently do so ever. We’re top 10 in the league, and in absolutely no danger of being relegated (never thought I’d say that in the five years I’ve been following the club), and we have a chance in a winner take all match to go forth in a home/away series against a top quality opponent with TV revenue and all the other goodies. Now I ask, why the hell not go for it at the risk of what Wolves did over the weekend against United? Only this time, it would be for a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds.

    Do the right thing, Roy.

  4. AtlantaPompey

    December 16, 2009 at 8:59 am

    I find it hilarious that so many supporters are focused on finishing high enough to earn a European berth when the clubs clearly don’t care about the UEFA Cup/Europa League. It’s a shame that they don’t, for the very reasons you wrote about. However, the only real solution is for UEFA to fine teams for playing reserves and showing obvious disinterest. Taking away European spots from leagues who’s teams don’t put forth an effort would get their attention. Managers would stop griping about midweek away fixtures when Saturday’s clash against so-and-so is just the most important match of the year.

    If the second tier tourney is valued so little, let the teams decline to play in it. Put teams in there, even if they are second place Romanian teams or whatever, and let the compete. Matches are always more compelling when both teams want to win.

    And yes, we thoroughly enjoyed winning the FA Cup, traveling to Portugal and Germany, and getting AC Milan at home. Wonderful memories to help get us through the mess that’s going on now.

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