Then again, if Leicester had been in the Europa League, they would have just come out of a last-16 tie with Rangers — and could be anticipating Arsenal in the quarter-finals. And then the winners of Villarreal versus Dinamo Zagreb.
And that’s exciting. Certainly if you’re Leicester. They have played just 11 teams in total in European competition.
Leicester bounced back from their Europa League loss by beating Man United in the FA Cup
Never known the thrill of an all-English tie. Never played one from Italy, Germany or France. Reached a solitary quarter-final, and lost that. And they’ve never won the FA Cup, either. Yet they can contest it every year.
European journeys, by contrast, are exotic. When will Aston Villa pass that way again; or Middlesbrough; or Fulham? Or West Ham?
Yet we are getting to the time of year when clubs of the smaller variety are advised to know their place. West Ham are currently fifth which would afford a Europa League spot. Then there is the Europa Conference League for sixth or seventh, which is even more poorly regarded.
These are the competitions that should be avoided, apparently. The likes of Burnley in the past have suffered when stretched by Europe.
Ambition becomes the enemy. Better to buckle in for season on season of mid-table mediocrity. That’s the spirit.
Well, stuff that. Every supporter should embrace the idea of European competition. Every club should hope for the challenge that Thursday night brings.
Leave it all to the elite and what does that make the rest of the League? Cannon fodder. Fixtures to be fulfilled. If the relative success of a top-seven finish is feared by those outside the big six, the only thrill is a successful fight against relegation. Wha-hey, 17th. That makes Newcastle’s year more exciting than what is going on at Everton.
Supporters should embrace Thursday night football – the football West Ham are trying to get
From next season, the Europa League places will be split between two competitions with the winner of the League Cup or sixth in the Premier League going into the Conference. And the Conference is death. Less profitable commercially than the Europa League, but just as disruptive.
‘The cup winners from Liechtenstein, the second-placed team in the Faroe Islands,’ as one report had it. Well, yes, in the first qualifying round.
But also the sixth or maybe seventh best team from the major leagues, too. Currently Real Betis or Villarreal in Spain; Bayer Leverkusen or Union Berlin in Germany; Roma or Lazio in Italy. West Ham versus Roma in the London Stadium? There is an entire generation of West Ham fans who have never seen a game like that.
Not mine. We grew up with West Ham in Europe. Not often. But four seasons in 17, including two finals, one victorious.
The semi-final at home to Eintracht Frankfurt in 1976 is up there with the greatest games at Upton Park. For different reasons, the visit of Dinamo Tbilisi in 1981.
What Pep Guardiola is doing with Joao Cancelo and his defenders now, Tbilisi did then. It was breathtaking. Like no football being played in England at the time.
And my sons, now men in their 20s, have never experienced such a night. One of their biggest disappointments was to be knocked out of the Europa League by Astra Giurgiu from Romania in consecutive seasons.
Yet, supposedly, that was a blessing. The road from there went to Athletic Bilbao, Roma, Partizan Belgrade, Austria Vienna. Something you’ll remember. Unlike coming 11th, which is what happened next to West Ham.
From here, all those mid-table finishes run into one anyway. European nights never do. Maybe to followers of Manchester United, or Chelsea. They’re probably sick of playing Olympiacos in the group stage.
And there is a generation brainwashed into believing Premier League survival alone is success. It isn’t. But if you’ve never done anything more, you won’t know what you are missing. Ask your dad.
‘CAPTAIN’ KANE’S SILENCE IS LOUD
It will be interesting to see if Harry Kane fulfils his duties as England captain over the next two weeks. He didn’t in November.
Kane did not appear before the media then and has kept a resolutely low profile since. Normally approachable even in the worst of times, this does not bode well for his imagined future at Tottenham.
Harry Kane has stayed clear of media duties in recent months which does not bode well
If Kane had only good news to impart, there would surely be no problem facing the camera. If, however, he is undecided about remaining — or decided, and wants a change of club — he would find certain questions difficult to answer.
A third way would be that Kane appears, but a Football Association official announces he will only be taking questions relevant to the match.
Yet that, in its way, constitutes an answer about his intentions, too.
SORRY NEWCASTLE FANS, BUT ASHLEY MAKES THE DECISIONS
There is no point owning a football club unless you make the decisions. Mike Ashley is standing by Steve Bruce. That may prove a mistake, but at least it’s his mistake.
If Newcastle are relegated, it will be because Ashley got it wrong, remaining loyal to a man he clearly admires. At least he knows more about him than whoever made up the banner with a picture of Bruce, marked ‘coward’.
Nobody ends up with that nose, unless they are the bravest of the brave. One imagines nobody ends up Sir Alex Ferguson’s captain, either. Bruce personally has won as many league titles as Newcastle since 1905. As far as trophies go, club and manager are neck and neck. They just had 87 more years to do it.
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley (left) is standing by Steve Bruce despite the Magpies’ poor form
No club can be run by a committee of 50,000. In 2008, when Kevin McCabe fired Bryan Robson at Sheffield United, he issued a statement lauding the manager’s performance.
‘I am disappointed that the fans could not be more patient because I know more than anyone the tremendous effort Bryan Robson was putting in behind the scenes on our youth development as well as with the first team,’ McCabe said. ‘Sometimes, if they only sit and think, the people they abuse are actually the people that are doing their best, doing so much good for the club.’
Yet McCabe sacked him anyway, because the fans were screaming about it. Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s current interim appointment, is the club’s 12th manager since Robson, a span of 13 years.
For once you have announced that if the supporters shout loudly enough you will sack a man you actually think is doing a good job, you are no longer the decision-maker.
Micky Adams lasted 24 games at Sheffield United, David Weir 13 and Nigel Adkins 54. Loyalty was also harder to come by. Gary Speed left for Wales after 18 matches. Why stay and wait for the place to turn?
Ashley’s support for Bruce may prove misplaced. The injury list is ruinous, and mounting, but Saturday’s abject defeat at Brighton went beyond the mitigation of rotten luck.
Yet he could sack Bruce, go down anyway, and then he would never know. At least this way it’s his call; and if he’s wrong there is no one else to blame.
HONEST FODEN A NIGHTMARE FOR REFS… OR IS IT GENIUS?
Phil Foden is giving referees a problem. He’s too honest. It means they have to do their job and spot fouls, not falls.
Not for the first time this season, Foden should have had a penalty but stayed on his feet against Everton. Had he tumbled after his ankle was taken by Mason Holgate, Michael Oliver, the referee, would surely have given it.
Certainly, Andre Marriner, the VAR, would have swept up the mess if not. That two of our best officials should penalise a player for not simulating the effects of a foul tackle is worrying.
Phil Foden is sometimes too honest at Manchester City, but is he creating the right reputation?
Unless, of course, there is a cunning plan. You know how players like Luis Suarez acquire a reputation for fooling referees and then find they cannot get a decision, no matter how bad the foul?
Maybe Foden is working on reverse psychology. If he is known for always staying on his feet, perhaps referees will begin to doubt even the fair challenges, and give him a free-kick or penalty anyway.
Maybe Foden’s honesty is evil genius; or maybe he’s just dead straight and referees need to start helping him stay that way. Probably the latter.
WHY IS OWNER INVESTMENT SUDDENLY SEEN AS A CRIME?
Stockport County of the National League paid League One Fleetwood Town £250,000 for Republic of Ireland international striker Paddy Madden. He was given a contract until 2024, when he will be 34, and a salary of roughly £3,500 a week.
Mark Stott, a local businessman, is funding Stockport’s push for a return to the Football League and has also renovated ramshackle Edgeley Park, which faced demolition in 2015.
It has new seats at the Railway End and a capacity of 10,900. Play-off rivals are surprised by this extravagance and, as we know, owner investment is increasingly frowned upon.
Watch them try to find a way to stop Stott and Stockport. If he was bleeding the club dry and dooming it to oblivion, no problem.
AJ’S TIME TO SHOP LOCAL… IN SAUDI
‘Listen up UK, it’s time to show local business some love,’ says Anthony Joshua, in a commercial encouraging us all to shop local. And do you know what is excellent for local businesses? A big event.
Brings custom into the area, increases revenue everywhere from bars and restaurants to the corner-shop trading in cigarettes, crisps or newspapers.
So where is it likely Joshua’s fight with Tyson Fury will be held? Saudi Arabia. The small businessmen of Jeddah will no doubt be eternally grateful.
Anthony Joshua has encouraged people to shop local but will be taking his big fight overseas
JONES’ BREAK CLAUSE IS HUGE
News that Eddie Jones has a break clause in his contract is a game-changer.
It at least gives the RFU the power to consider alternatives.
Rob Baxter, at Exeter Chiefs, should expect a discreet telephone call, if nothing else.
JACK’S LITERALLY THE DIFFERENCE
Aston Villa win 50 per cent of their matches when Jack Grealish is playing, and just 17 per cent without him.
How does this equate to points? Well, even if Villa lost the other 50 per cent of their matches they would still have 57 points at the end of the season which, last year, would have taken them to eighth, above Arsenal.
Jack Grealish is literally the difference between Aston Villa winning and losing this season
A win total of 17 per cent, meanwhile, is slightly less than 20 points, leaving another 16 to be collected in draws to stay up, probably.
So Grealish is quite literally the difference between success and failure for Villa — and should be priced accordingly if sold in the summer.
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER
Jose Mourinho’s position is said to be under threat at Tottenham and one potential successor is Julian Nagelsmann, who has done a fine job at RB Leipzig.
Of course, had a Mourinho team performed as dismally as Leipzig did across two legs against Liverpool — or gone down 5-0 at Manchester United, where Mourinho won 6-1 earlier in the season — he would have been rubbished.
There is a lot of green grass on the other side of football’s fences.
Jose Mourinho is under pressure at Tottenham and now faces being removed from his position
BOWEN ISN’T RONALDO…
West Ham manager David Moyes was furious at Arsenal’s second goal on Sunday. His player, Jarrod Bowen, felt he had been fouled and stopped the ball with his hands to take a free-kick.
Jon Moss disagreed and gave Arsenal a free-kick for handball instead, which they took quickly and scored from the move.
There are lessons here. Firstly — you’re not the referee. You wouldn’t want his job and certainly not his salary.
Secondly, you’re not Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo tells the referee what to think and gets away with it. Lionel Messi has that influence, too. Bowen does not and never will.
So play to the whistle. It’s not fair but neither is life.
MOORE NEEDS TIME
Darren Moore is a good manager. His first win at Sheffield Wednesday may have come at the fifth time of asking, but Barnsley are in the play-off places and last lost a league game on January 19.
They were on a run of nine wins and a draw in 10 matches going into Saturday, so victory at Oakwell was arguably the result of the weekend.
What Moore now needs is time. Little about the present Sheffield Wednesday regime, however, suggests he gets it.
After taking on a difficult job Darren Moore now needs both time and patience
ROTATION POLICY HAS GONE AWRY
As Eoin Morgan said, if England win the T20 World Cup and Ashes, everyone will forget the rotation controversy.
However, given that England were convincingly beaten in a T20 series by India, who will host the World Cup and had great success experimenting with their team make-up, this memory wipe is unlikely to happen soon.
Not least because Moeen Ali missed two Tests against India in which he was needed, to prepare for a role as waiter in five T20 internationals.
How can the strategic communication between two teams under the same umbrella go so awry?