It is safe to say that every club would bite at the chance of featuring on the European stage and West Ham will be doing exactly that after topping the Premier League Fair Play Table. It will be an early start for the Hammers as they will be entering the competition in the first qualifying round starting on the 2nd of July –alongside 104 other sides fighting for their own place in Europe’s secondary club tournament. It will mark West Ham’s first return to the European stage following a brief campaign lasting only two games before losing to Palermo in the 2006-07 season. They are not strangers to more successful campaigns however – with an Intertoto Cup victory in 1999, and perhaps slightly more impressively, a European Cup Winner’s Cup victory in 1965. However, many consider European competition to be of a huge detriment to a successful domestic campaign. It is clear that European fixtures can offer a source of income and a source of great excitement and pride for fans, but with the increased demand on squad depth, player fitness, and the possibility of suffering domestically – is the Europa League worth the hassle that comes with it?
Joint-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold have announced that while the start in early July will be challenging, that they “want to ensure the Boleyn Ground the best possible send-off possible, and progress in this competition will certainly help with that”. Along with the promise that the new manager of West Ham will be given “significant transfer funds” with which to enhance the team for the upcoming campaign; this all points to a competition that West Ham are going to be taking very seriously. However, a quick look into recent finishes in the Premier League of teams that are competing in European tournaments shows that clubs on average experience a drop of 2.3 league places; and this becomes 3.2 places if the side qualified through the league rather than the cup. The most extreme example of this decline in league form was experienced by Newcastle who dropped a massive 11 places in 2012-13 following a league position qualification in the previous campaign. Likewise, West Ham’s last campaign in Europe saw them drop 6 positions in the following season.
The distraction that is caused by the Europa League is well documented and it is often shown that sides who don’t have to play in European competition tend to fair far better in domestic affairs. For example, Liverpool finished 2nd in the 2013/14 campaign and without the distraction of European fixtures; Louis Van Gaal has led Manchester United back into the Champion’s League.
One possible factor that could cause the Europa League campaign to become a hindrance to West Ham is the change in routine. Footballers are a superstitious bunch and are trained using a strict regime which rarely changes throughout the course of a season. European competition changes all of that as players will find themselves playing on Thursdays and Sundays as long as they remain in the Europa League. This may prove to be a tough test for the less experienced players in the squad as they struggle with the irregular training, and constantly travel to the other ends of Europe for a cold, wet, and possibly hostile away fixture.
Since 2004, the average length of a European campaign for an English side is 9 matches. There have been calls from some managers for the Premier League to allow sides who are in the Europa League to play on Monday nights – mostly notably Tony Pulis and Mauricio Pochettino. The Premier League themselves have stated that this wouldn’t be possible as they are keen for a fixture list that allows no team an advantage over another. However, as already mentioned, teams in the Europa League are already at a massive disadvantage and 64% of sides saw a poorer domestic performance as a result. Pulis bemoaned a “lack of preparation” stating that “you can’t get the lads out on the training field to do what you need”. Although, all fixtures have been allotted strict time slots following the Premier League’s new TV rights deal until the 2018/19 season; which makes fixture changes almost impossible. West Ham’s aim following their respectable 12th placed finish will be to push into the top half of the table and perhaps start to pursue the more conventional method of reaching Europe than through the Fair Play System. However, many argue that the Europa League hinders any attempts to reach the higher reaches of the Premier League and compete with the best sides as the workload the competition demands are far too great. Tony Pulis has also previously stated that the league games were “devalued” in the eyes of the players; leading to a poorer performance.
However, it may not all be doom and gloom for the Hammers as they march into European competition this summer. Former Bolton man and very recent promotion winner Kevin Davies feels that when European football is managed well, it can be a real boost for a team – “It is a different story when you are winning, games come thick and fast but you can’t wait for them”. Phil Neville has said that he feels the Europa League should not be viewed as a detriment to a season – “We embraced the competition at Everton and that is what you have to do”. This could potentially mean good news for West Ham, as their owners have already announced that they aim to take the Europa League seriously and will invest heavily in the next campaign. In addition to this, the board now have the opportunity to sign a manager with more recent European experience that Big Sam Allardyce in the likes of former West Ham man Slaven Bili? – who has been linked with a move to east London in recent days.
West Ham will have to be careful to not focus too much on the glamour of European competition however. While the Europa League does offer some financial windfall in the form of ticket sales and prize money; it is important to remember that while the money from the competition is very welcome – dropping a couple of places down the division can cost a club millions in potential income.
Football is an incredibly unpredictable game and I am sure next season will be no different. It is clear that the domestic demise experienced by so many teams is not purely a result of competing in Europe; but that it is down to a huge amount of demands of ever-improving sides, the game reaching higher stakes than ever before, and the sense of hope and expectation that all fans feel going into a new campaign. It remains to be seen as to whether West Ham can experience a successful campaign while also battling on the European stage. No doubt large investment, strong leadership, and a sense of pride of playing the final season at the Boleyn Ground will fuel the players into giving it one hell of a go. However, when modern game is one that so highly values success in domestic affairs, is it worth going into the furthest corners of Europe whilst running the risk of detriment to your own home campaign? We’ll see what West Ham reckon.