Europa League football: Help or hindrance?

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Being a Middlesbrough fan, I know first-hand the delights going on a European adventure can bring, reaching the final of the then Uefa Cup, humbling Italian giants Roma on the way.

Memorable comebacks against Basle and Steaua Bucharest culminated in a game dubbed as the biggest in the club’s history against Sevilla, only to crumble to a 4-0 defeat.

However, the two years spent in Europe were arguably the finest memories any Boro fan could ask for, certainly myself.

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Despite this, my beloved club were left with a cup-final hangover that we struggled to recover from and in many ways the progression of an exciting squad was hindered.

Being in Europe has also taken its toll on other sides such as Fulham, Newcastle, Tottenham and Liverpool, begging the question: Is being in Europe a help or a hindrance?


So let’s start with the positives. Europe’s secondary competition is a great place to put a side on the map, just ask fans of Fulham, already mentioned Middlesbrough or other ‘smaller’ outfits.

The Europa League can bring some of the continent’s biggest teams to grounds that have never before experienced anything quite like it.

Portsmouth (yes League 2 Portsmouth) held AC Milan to a 2-2 draw just over five years ago and Fulham hammered Juventus 4-1 to name just two unforgettable evenings.

The chance to collect television money also offers an added incentive, albeit a Thursday evening slot on Channel 5.

Despite not really competing with the money-spinning Champions League, ticket sales and other merchandise such as specially made kits offer financial rewards.

You would think managers would put a unique opportunity like this first but they simply do not. Something is going horribly wrong.

As incredible the European adventure was for Middlesbrough and Fulham, both found themselves embarking on Championship campaigns just four years later and Swansea very nearly suffered the same fate last season whilst struggling to adapt to playing Thursday-Sunday with a paper-thin squad.

It is the same sorry story for many other sides and this is not just a Premier League problem. Wigan and Birmingham from the Championship ended up losing play-off semi-finals during seasons which involved Europe.

The Latics managed to combine a win in the Europa League followed by league success just twice in six attempts, Birmingham managed this just once.

In hindsight, during a gruelling 46 game season, both could have done without the distraction of long journeys to the likes of Portugal and Sweden.

The problems are even more evident in the Premier League, Newcastle were dragged from fifth to sixteenth in just one season. Swansea drafted in eight new signings to deal with the drain of Europe but still found themselves dicing with the drop after two excellent seasons in the top flight.

I fear a similar situation for Steve Bruce’s Hull City in this coming season.

Tottenham are often praised for taking the competition very seriously but missed out on the top four under Andre Villas-Boas. This came after failing to win on three successive occasions, just a matter of days after Europa league outings.

This proved costly as Spurs missed out by a point; one defeat was a disappointing home game against Fulham, three days after progressing in Europe against Inter Milan.

This brings me on to my next point nicely; teams without the distraction of the Europa League tend to see their league form change for the better. Sadly, there seems to be no coincidence that Liverpool have just enjoyed an excellent season thanks to not having to travel to Russia and play three days later, just as was the case in 2012/2013.

Manchester United could well now benefit from a similar situation and will be able to solely concentrate on their league form.

Even Champions League clubs struggle and Jose Mourinho often bemoans the fact Chelsea have to play Wednesday then Saturday.

The Blues lost to Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Sunderland just days before crucial Champions League encounters. Had these nine points not been lost, Chelsea would be Premier League winners for a third time, five points clear of Manchester City who were ironically knocked out of the competition two rounds earlier than Chelsea.

So I think it is fair to say at the time, Europe appears to be a great help, Swansea fans I’m sure will need no reminding they beat Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla. However, for clubs that are not blessed with large squads, Europe is just too much.

Something has to change; clubs need more support from the Premier League. Even one more day off to play on a Monday evening for teams such as Hull could prove very successful.

If nothing does change, clubs will be stuck dreading a European adventure when there is the potential for it to be the pinnacle of their season, or even history.

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