Once upon a time English football fans generally enjoyed seeing other clubs from their league be successful in Europe. The dominance of the Big Four has changed that in recent years

“England are out of Europe,” wailed Peter Drury when Manchester United were eliminated from the Champions League on away goals to Bayern Munich, a day after Arsenal had be thrashed by Barcelona. Like many others, Drury was overlooking the Europa League where Fulham and Champions League flops Liverpool have reached the semi finals. Nonetheless, his dismay will have accurately summed up the outlook of all those who work at ITV Sport for whom those successive nights at the Nou Camp and Old Trafford must have felt like Armageddon.

For the first time in seven years there are no English clubs in the last four. Even allowing for the fact TV audience is more knowledgeable about overseas game than ever before, audience figures for the semi finals and final will plummet and advertising revenues with them. What a shame.

Among the various theories offered for the collapse in the Premier League’s Euro supremacy, the most plausible is that for once the big four didn’t spend much money last summer; the relative parsimony of Liverpool and Man Utd being an effect of the accumulated debt mountains that have been the subject of concerted fan protests this season. The big spenders were Man City whose owners’ scattergun largesse may yet pay off with a place in the Champions League for next season, even though they are yet to look like a cohesive team.

Drury’s cry of anguish carried with it the assumption that the TV audience always wants to see English clubs do well. He’s not the only commentator to take this jingoistic line, which makes you wonder how disconnected from reality he and his colleagues are. There was a time when it was generally the case that English football supporters were happy, local rivalries notwithstanding, to see teams from their league makes progress. Even if was partly for selfish reasons.

In the days when England would be represented by one team each in the European Cup and Cup Winners Cup and up to four, the maximum permitted, in the UEFA Cup, a good run for a couple of clubs would keep up the Football League’s coefficient and ensure that at least six of its clubs would be involved (or even more if, as often happened in the 1970s and 80s, the holders of a trophy were also English). It wasn’t just selfishness. There was a general sense among supporters that if a medium-sized but well-managed clubs like Ipswich or Forest could succeed in Europe then so could they. Forest were European champions just over two years after playing a Division Two fixture against Hereford; Wimbledon, Luton and Oxford are among the teams who would have played in Europe during the years of the Heysel ban.

But now there is no longer a sense that this success can be shared. The money the big four have made in the Champions League has helped to perpetuate their monopoly on the qualifying places. The don’t represent the league any more, just themselves. The ludicrous Game 39 plan put forward two years ago hinged on the notion that the rest of the world loves the Premier League. But only four clubs shift merchandise in significant numbers in Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Shanghai.

The other 16 fulfill the role assigned to the group of college basketball players who went on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters and were bamboozled in every match. There are plenty of statistics to explain why only four clubs have global appeal, some of which are quite stunning. Only six club have won the FA Cup in the past nineteen years, a period during which Man Utd have never finished lower than third in the League, an unprecedented run; Everton have been the best of the rest for the past half-decade but in eight seasons in charge David Moyes has yet to win away against the big four.

Fulham, then, are a throwback to earlier times and not just because of Roy Hodgson’s engagingly peculiar way of talking. Like Middlesbrough in 2005-06, a representative from the middling group of clubs have played above themselves in Europe. Although Fulham may not match Boro in reaching the final their run has arguably been more impressive in knocking out succesively, the holders, then Juventus, then the reigning Bundesliga champions.

Both clubs might take note, however, of the fact that four seasons after stirring comebacks against Basel and Steaua Bucharest earned them a place in the UEFA Cup final, Middlesbrough are struggling to make the Championship play-offs. The Champions League may perpetuate the hegemony of the European giants, it’s lower equivalent has no such power.

From WSC 279 May 2010

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