As Britain basks in a glorious summer heat wave, grown men with physiques in no way cut out for wearing tight-fitting modern replica football shirts are getting said tight-fitting replica shirts washed and ready for action once more.
“I bet they play in a five-a-side league pathetically pretending to be their heroes,” I hear you cry, and some of them may well do so – however the reason many of them are preparing themselves to perspire for hours in clothing designed to absorb and retain moisture is because today is the start of the 2015/16 Europa League campaign.
By Rob Boulton – Football Writer
That’s right people, a mere 39 days since the final balls were kicked in the Premier League season, West Ham are just one of an incredible 102 sides who will begin their latest campaign whilst the kids are still at school.
After topping the Premier League Fair Play Table last season, they embark on their first European campaign in a decade – a fitting way to depart their historic Boleyn Ground, as they prepare to leave at the end of the season after 112 years as their footballing home. And it seems the lure of European football has captured the Hammers support as the match against Andorran minnows FC Lusitans is a sell-out. It’s just unusual that Slaven Bilic won’t be in the dugout for it as academy manager Terry Westley dealt with preparations to kick the season off so early.
North of the border supporters of Aberdeen and St Johnstone are possibly more excited to be able to watch a match in short sleeves for a change – rather than harbouring any realistic hopes of a lengthy European campaign, whilst Wales has three sides looking to progress in Bala Town, Airbus UK Broughton and Newtown. Northern Ireland also has three representatives, with Glentoran, Linfield and Glenavon all ready to welcome some continental opposition – and Ireland shall be cheering on St Patrick’s Athletic, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers.
The final of the competition in St. Jakob-Park in Basel on May 18th 2016 must feel a lifetime away, and if any of the sides playing tomorrow make it there they’ll have played another half a season which seems ludicrous for a cup competition. I guess for the sides starting off now they’ll just enjoy the ride and see where it takes them, for there are two more qualifying rounds and a play-off round before you even reach the group stage!
The competition is further devalued as sides knocked out of the Champions League drop in for the play-off round, with even more joining the group stage and even the knockout phase – making the once revered UEFA Cup now an absolute shambles of a competition.
It’s no wonder managers have no option but to field weakened sides, or many of the games are mind-numbingly dull chess matches – as it simply isn’t feasible to take such a circus of a competition seriously if you harbour any hopes of a decent finish in your domestic league.
It didn’t need to be this way, and the straight knockout competition worked fantastically well for years – but now thanks to the cretins at UEFA we’re left with a situation where for the vast majority of clubs involved the Europa League feels much more like a curse than a gift.