UEFA's second European cup should not be more trouble than its worth

Another reminder that the Europa League is a poisoned chalice arrived yesterday and Stuart Rayner asks if Newcastle United are better off out of it

Action Images / Peter Cziborra Former Wigan Athletic manager Owen Coyle
Owen Coyle struggled to juggle the demands of Championship and Europa League campaigns at Wigan Athletic and lost his job

The Europa League claimed another victim yesterday morning.

Wigan Athletic’s Owen Coyle was the last manager to pay the price on football’s Weekend of the Long Knives, joining Martin Jol, Dave Jones and David Flitcroft in picking up his P45.

The FA Cup winners’ struggles this season were yet another reminder that domestic success and Europa League progress just do not mix.

Meanwhile, Newcastle United were moving into a position to qualify for next season’s competition.

Playing in the tournament is a real hospital pass. The holders are English but Chelsea, who started in the Champions League, are the only team from this country to win the competition since it reverted to its poor man’s European Cup format.

Teams from other countries cope, but they do not play English football. Most of Europe will be taking it easy in December but there are six rounds of Premier League fixtures this month, plus one in the League Cup and another of European competition. It is not just the sheer volume, but the intensity of games which is so hard to juggle alongside travelling to the continent’s footballing outposts.

While the Champions League is dominated by countries from western and southern Europe, the Europa is more the domain of the east. Newcastle’s group draw was surprisingly kind yet they travelled nearly 10,000 miles playing six away games last season.

The home games were just as depressing. Any format you cannot sell St James’ Park out for is clearly the wrong one.

With qualifying rounds, six group games and up to nine more in the knockout stages, the Europa League is bigger than the Champions League, but the rewards on offer dwarf it. It puts greater demands on teams without furnishing them with the resources to cope.

Playing in the competition almost relegated the Magpies last season. The Europa League is not the only factor, but this term’s entrants are not having a great time of it either.

Tottenham Hotspur were supposed to kick on this season but instead their manager Andre Villa-Boas is in serious danger of joining Coyle and co in earning an unwanted Christmas holiday. Swansea City have just five points more than Jol lost the Fulham job over.

Wigan are nearer the relegation zone than the automatic promotion places, which is hardly disastrous, but they are the FA Cup holders playing in the Championship with a squad containing plenty of survivors from last season’s Premier League.

So would Newcastle, sixth in the Premier League, be better off not qualifying? Of course not.

It would handicap them in 2014-15 but to turn their nose up at it would just be wrong. The only ways the Magpies can avoid playing in it next year is by finishing outside the top six or seven, or in the top four.

Action Images Steven Taylor in action for Newcastle United against Anzhi Makhachkala during the Third Round of the 2012/13 Europa League competition
Steven Taylor in action for Newcastle United against Anzhi Makhachkala during the Third Round of the 2012/13 Europa League competition
 

Football clubs are nothing without ambition. It is why Newcastle supporters are so unhappy their club’s over-riding goal for the season is just to finish in the top half. It is why some squirm every time manager Alan Pardew complains about the demands of the Europa League. He has been at it again.

“Last season we were unable to cope with the increased fixture demands of Europe,” he said. “It is no coincidence that the form of Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City has suffered because of the Europa League. I still think the Europa League needs to change for clubs in the Premier League.

“If they are going to insist we play on a Thursday then we have to play our subsequent league game on a Monday. I think that would be fair.

“If teams play in the Champions League on a Wednesday, they often play on a Sunday. That’s fair and gives you just enough time. But Thursday to Sunday is not fair.”

Newcastle have to use the Europa League as a reconnaissance exercise for the Champions League, learning all about Continental competition on and off the field. The main lessons need to be heeded in the boardroom, where last season’s delayed investment in the squad could have been very costly.

Keeping in-demand players like Tim Krul and Yohan Cabaye is much easier with European competition on offer. Improbably, Cabaye spoke of missing the Europa League in a recent French radio interview with Bixente Lizarazu. It may not float the boat of many spectators, but players want to be in it.

Newcastle supporters might tire of Pardew’s constant complaining about a competition his side is not in, but somebody needs to. Leaving things as they are is unacceptable.

Switching all post-Europa League games from the weekends to Monday would not be much of an improvement, though.

Premier League football has this minor inconvenience to deal with at the moment known as fans. Normally it does not let it bother them too much, happily asking Newcastle’s to pitch up in London in time for a noon Sunday kick-off, for example. Regular Monday night football, though, would be a step too far.

Things have to change, but it is Uefa, not the Premier League, which should budge. The Europa League needs a more realistic size. Aping the Champions League format only highlights how inferior a competition it is. It needs some unique selling points to get supporters excited, not more of the same but without the quality.

Above all Thursday night football has to be quietly put to sleep. It would be a mercy killing and anyway, few would notice.

It looks a tall order, but it is a fight that needs to be waged. If it were to happen, the Europa League would have to start competing for TV viewers with the Champions League.

There could only be one winner. But changing the format is much more achievable.

In an era when money talks louder than ever, Europe’s most lucrative league is excruciatingly shy when it comes to fighting its own corner with Uefa. When it comes to domestic matters, the Premier League is happy to throw its weight around. It needs to start demanding action on this issue.

Europe’s second competition should not be a poisoned chalice.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer