CRAIG NELSON: The Europa League spot is treated like a poisoned chalice
11:00pm Saturday 1st February 2014 in Sport
WHAT is the point of the Europa League?
As a football fan the answer is easy – honour, glory and adventure.
It still feels like a dream that Wanderers made it to the brink of a place in the Europa League quarter-finals.
And any fan who took in those games over two separate campaigns, especially those who travelled to watch them beat Atletico Madrid, will never forget them.
Yes, being a supporter abroad was a bit hairy at times, but they were priceless moments that time and a plunge down the leagues will never be able to extinguish.
That’s the Europa League from a fan’s point of view, but I get the feeling a football chairman’s perspective may be very different.
The wounds are still raw after manager Gary Megson brashly rested players for Bolton’s second-leg defeat to Sporting Lisbon in the last 16 to keep them fresh for a Premier League relegation battle at Wigan – which we lost anyway.
But Wanderers’ European home matches were never sell-outs.
And there were so many of them.
To lift the trophy these days the winning team could have to play more than 20 matches.
Added to a packed league programme, not to mention the domestic cups, and Europe’s second tier competition is enough to stretch the limits of the most sizeable of squads, while offering very little financial reward in return.
Newcastle offer an interesting example of the Europa League effect.
They stormed into the 2012-13 competition after finishing fifth in the Premier League the previous season – a place above Chelsea and only four points off the Champions League places.
But the weekly grind of Europa League competition saw their inflated squad hit hard by injuries and, after being knocked out in the quarter-finals by Benfica, they only narrowly escaped relegation from the Premier League, finishing 16th in the table.
Fast forward a season and Alan Pardew’s team are back up in eighth place, but the optimistic atmosphere around the club has failed to return.
Chairman Mike Ashley remains public enemy number one, a feeling only intensified by the recent sale of Newcastle’s best player – Yohan Cabaye – to Paris St Germain.
Where is the ambition, the Geordie fans ask?
Well a Champions League place looks out of reach and they have been knocked out of the domestic cups, so a Europa League spot is all the club have left to aim for.
The sale of Cabaye, while clearly engineered by the player, would suggest Ashley needs another European adventure like a hole in the head.
So tell me, just what is the point of the Europa League?