Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?

Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

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