By Bill Farnham
“I want to get [to the Europa League] through the right means, through our performance level, and if we have to have a year where we are not in Europe it is going to give us an opportunity to push on.”
There are lots of potential responses to this statement from Brendan Rodgers, however I’d like to offer perhaps the simplest one as a starting point: Rodgers is dead wrong.
After all the negative publicity related to Luis Suarez’s antics on the field this season and last, Liverpool should be doing everything it can, as a club (and, however much I don’t like to admit it, as a brand), to promote association with sportsmanship and fair play. Surely a chance to play in Europe based solely on the club’s on field sportsmanship and good conduct is a means to achieve that end. What sort of message would a refusal to play in the Europa League on this basis send? The obvious implication would be that Liverpool doesn’t value fair play, an absurd statement, but what other interpretation can I take from Rodgers’ words? He is unequivocally stating that the Respect Fair Play route is not the “right means” to get into Europe.
Furthermore, the minimum expectation for Liverpool this year and every year, should be European qualification of one sort or another. A year without European football should be an anathema to all Liverpool fans. If Liverpool is going to continue to claim that the club has Champions League aspirations, what justification is there for not accepting a chance to play in Europe? Whatever strains playing the Europa League puts on the team are more than outweighed by the exposure it will get across Europe. I agree that there are many practical reasons why a spot in the Europa League is not ideal. The season is extended significantly, there is a conflict with the preseason tour schedule, increased player fatigue and the potential negative league performance impact are all reasons that spring readily to mind. Participation in the Europa League will certainly bring with it a resource drain on the club financially and physically on the players, however it represents a chance to compete for a trophy and an opportunity to demonstrate the true character and values embodied by Liverpool to a broad European audience, opportunities that as a fan, I value far more than preseason tour revenue or the oft-repeated promise that next year Liverpool will challenge for the a spot in the top four.
There must be some reason why Rodgers doesn’t fancy the Europa League. Perhaps he is worried that the squad is too thin or that it is one competition too many for the club as they enter a critical (how many critical seasons have there been in the last three years?) season with expectations weighing heavily on his mind. Perhaps, but at the end of the day his job is to manage to the circumstances of the club, whether they are ideal or otherwise, and it is the job of the players to play matches and try to the best of their abilities. Refusing an invitation to play in the Europa League for any reason would be an abdication of his responsibilities as a manager and clearly against the spirit of Liverpool Football Club. If he doesn’t think he can manage playing in the Premier League and Europa League next season how does he intend to manage playing in the Premier League and the Champions League should he ever get the chance?
Note: Respect Fair Play Qualification Criteria included below, emphasis added.
“As defined in the club competition regulations, the three extra places in the UEFA Europa League will go automatically to the three best-placed national associations in the Respect Fair Play standings, provided they attained an average of 8.0 points or more. The Respect Fair Play assessments are made by the official UEFA delegates, based on criteria such as positive play, respect for the opponent, respect for the referee, behaviour of the crowd and team officials, as well as cautions and dismissals.
Each of the three associations allocated an additional place in the first qualifying round of the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League will be entitled to enter the club that wins its domestic top-division fair play competition. If this club has already qualified for a UEFA competition, the second-placed team in the domestic fair play table may be entered, and so on. It is even possible for a side that has been relegated to the second highest division to qualify for the UEFA Europa League as a result of exemplary conduct during the domestic championship.