Today sees the eagerly awaiting return of Newcastle United to European competition after a five-year absence. For fans used to watching their club in continental competition it has been a long time, but is the Europa League a welcome return or an unwanted distraction for Newcastle?
The fans will almost certainly see it as a welcome return, with European qualification a reward for a fine season under Alan Pardew’s stewardship. At the start of the last campaign qualifying for Europe seemed a long shot to say the least. Despite steady investment of ‘the Andy Carroll money’, United were tipped for mid-table at best. However, a fantastic start and end to the campaign saw Newcastle briefly threaten to break in to the top four and push for Champions League qualification, although Chelsea’s win against Bayern Munich would have dashed those hopes in a much crueller fashion than a final day defeat to Everton.
Last season Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur and Birmingham City represented England in the Europa League, although it wouldn’t be unfair to say these clubs didn’t prioritise Europe’s secondary club competition, resting first team players and utilising the games as a chance to blood youngsters and use squad players. Stoke progressed to the first knockout round where they were beaten 1-0 in each of the legs by Spanish giants Valencia. Spurs didn’t even make it that far, finishing third in their group behind the slightly less glamorous PAOK of Greece and Russian outfit Rubin Kazan. Championship side Birmingham had arguably the hardest group featuring Club Brugge, Braga and Maribor but were only a point behind the joint group winners.
Perhaps the main inconvenience is the scheduling of the Europa League games on a Thursday and the subsequent rescheduling of Premier League fixtures to a Sunday (unless it doesn’t suit Chelsea). The ‘two games in 72 hours’ argument was used many times by Pulis and Redknapp as a reasoning for the rotation, arguing that they owe it to the fans to make the Premier League their top priority. With each Premier League place being worth a reported £700k it is an argument that has some relevance, but not as clear-cut as first suggested.
If Newcastle are able to overcome Atromitos over two legs, they would be awarded €1.3m plus €200,000 for every group stage win and €100,00 per draw. Stoke qualified for the knockout phase in 2011/12 with three wins and two draws, so banked €2.1m plus €200,000 for finishing second in the group and another €200,000 just for featuring in the last 32. All in all The Potters banked €2.5m in prize money alone for the their European sojourn, not to mention the increased gate receipts, commercial revenue and merchandising (something Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias will be keen on). In 2010/11 Stoke finished 13th in Premier League and qualified for the Europa League as beaten FA Cup finalists. In 2011/12 they finished one place lower in 14th place, so £700k worse off in Premier League prize money but roughly a minimum of £3m better off as a result of their Europa League participation.
With the exception of Hatem Ben Arfa, nobody expects Newcastle to be challenging for the Premier League title, so what lies ahead is a decision for the club to make on whether they feel they have enough to break in to the top four and the mind-boggling riches of the Champions League.
If it is a case of aiming for the top four then the Europa League will be a distraction for Pardew and he had already spoken about utilising his full squad in the competition, demonstrated by Coloccini, Ba and Tiote not travelling to Athens. United are due to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge less than 48 hours after the Atromitos game, and with this in mind Pardew will want to do enough to make the second leg comfortable, which is why Cabaye and Cisse have travelled and will likely only be called upon if necessary. Pardew has told the press pack in Athens that Steve Harper and Sylvain Marveaux will start and Mike Williamson will be captaining the side, which gives an indication of how the Toon will line up.
A sensible approach to the Europa League for Newcastle should they qualify for the group stage would be to use the competition to give the squad players game time whilst maintaining a core of the first team to ensure they are strong enough to be competitive. For the likes of Ryan Taylor, Mike Williamson and James Perch, this will be a first taste of European competition, and for a new generation of fans it will be the first chance to watch the Toon on the continent. For Haris Vučkić, Sammy Ameobi and Gael Bigirimana it will be valuable first team experience that they may not get otherwise now the reserve and junior games are scheduled on the same day as Premier League fixtures.
If Newcastle are able to qualify from the group stage, the prize money begins to creep up, and they could then assess how they are progressing in other competitions as to how they approach the knock out stage. Should they be pushing for the top four then they could continue the taken approach of a mix of first teamers, squad players and youngsters. If things aren’t looking so rosy in the league then Pardew could decide to go for broke and try to etch his name in to folklore as the first Newcastle manager to win a trophy for over 40 years. In recent times Middlesbrough and Fulham both reached the final whilst taking the UEFA Cup/Europa League seriously, so there is nothing to stop the Toon doing the same.
Finishing 7th for £10.5m in prize money or finishing 10th for £8.3m plus a trophy and the £8m+ that would bring doesn’t seem much of a choice. Unless it is all irrelevant and Hatem’s title challenge is on!