♪Thursday Nights, Channel Five.. Thursday Nights, Channel Five. ♪– Fans.
That song, back in the halcyon days when you could watch actual European football on terrestrial TV, would ring out with glee around stadiums when it became apparent that one of the Big Four would be finishing in the Europa League positions. It’s a fundamentally odd situation; fans of clubs who’s only hope of playing in the Europa League is an asteroid impact that renders them one of only six teams left in the country, mocking another team for finishing in a European place. I am guilty of this myself, I remember the smug joy I felt when it was clear David Moyes’s Man United were as likely to finish in the top four as Nadine Dorries is to one day win a Booker Prize.
Why should this be case? In the example of mocking the traditional big teams, it’s because the Super Clubs have created a financial hegemony so total that there is a karmic humour in them spending all this money and not even making the top four. I was born in 1992, so football did only exist for me when the Premier League started, it is hardwired into me to hate Man United, no matter how awful they’ve become.
Yet, there is a deeper, more depressing aspect to this. The mocking of those clubs reflects a wider, ingrained view of the Europa League (and now the Conference League), which is a complete indifference to the second-tier European competition.
In the 21st century, English teams have won the Europa League (previously the UEFA Cup until 2009-10) only four times. Spanish teams have won it nine times, with Sevilla winning an astonishing six times in twelve years. With five runners’ up, that means there have been English teams in the final a paltry 7 times in 21 years, due to the 2019 final being played between Chelsea and Arsenal.
Why such a lowly total? Why is it that the only winners are traditional Champions League clubs that have dropped down to play in the Europa League? Everton, often thought as the embodiment of the English Europa League team, have only gone as far the Round of 16 in six attempts.
European football outside of the Champions League is often seen as an inconvenience to many English clubs. It is often remarked by pundits and fans when clubs, either the traditional Big 6 or smaller ones, are nearing the Europa League positions, that it would better for them not to qualify. The basis for is always based on their potential league position the following season: it will either allow the bigger team a greater chance of qualifying for the Champions League or mitigate against the impact European football has on a club’s resources and potentially cause a relegation. Why put so much effort into finishing as high in the table as possible and not seize with relish the opportunities it provides.
This brings us to Leicester, now considered ‘the best of the rest’ after two 5th place finishes and an FA Cup win, not to mention the title miracle of 2016. By the standards of the previous seasons under Brendan Rodgers, the 21/22 campaign has been something of a disappointment. Currently sitting 13th in the league, out of the League Cup, demolished by local rivals Nottingham Forest 4-1 in the FA Cup and out of the Europa League group stage after conceding a brutal 11 goals in six games.
Though by historical standards, Leicester even being in a European competition is an enormous achievement. The club have only competed in Europe six times in their 128-year history. They are now in the UEFA Conference League, somewhat derided as not being a major competition by sections of the football press. However, Leicester are in a great position to prioritize winning this trophy. Their league campaign is effectively over – they’re not going to be relegated and finishing in the top seven seems very unlikely now. To win a European competition, the first winners no less, in a cup that has featured genuinely good teams like Feyenoord, PSV, Roma and Tottenham(ish). They should ignore the sneering, exceptionalism of English teams’ treatment of second-tier European competition and focus on bringing the Conference League back to Filbert Way.
You can follow James Turrel on Twitter @JamesTurrell1
Main image credits: Embed from Getty Images