Tuesday, April 28, 2009
When losers are actually winners
Scottish football is often derided for its quality, but this season the detractors have even more fuel to add to the fire as the worst team in the SPL will represent the country in next season's Europa League.
Falkirk, currently sitting four points adrift at the bottom of the league and having won just six games all season, look set to become yet another Scottish First Division side to represent the country in Europe next season after they beat rivals Dunfermline to reach the Scottish Cup final against Rangers as they prepare for the possibility of relegation.
With the Gers having already sealed their progression to the Champions League for 2009-10, the Cup final runners-up spot becomes an automatic entry into Europe, and few will be surprised should Falkirk follow in the footsteps of Queen of the South, Dunfermline and Gretna in confirming their relegation in the same season as claiming a place in Europe, and fail to advance beyond their first tie.
The precedents are not good. This season, NordsjŠlland put paid to last year's Cup losers Queen of the South, while in 2007-08, Dunfermline went out to BK Hńcken at the first attempt too. Three years ago Gretna, surely the worst of the lot given that they have now suffered the ignominy of dissolution, started off the whole debate when they lost to Hearts on penalties in the Cup, and were then thrashed 7-3 on aggregate by Northern Irish side Derry City when they made their bow in Europe.
With one of the Old Firm sides involved in the Scottish Cup final in 15 of the last 17 years (usually winning it) the losing side are virtually guaranteed their European place before they step foot on the pitch. And while history suggests that an early exit for the defeated is certainly on the cards, the question has to be raised whether the likes of Falkirk should be there in the first place. Surely Cup winners, not Cup losers, should be granted the right to represent their league in Europe the following season?
The SFA, who have the power to alter the qualification criteria within their own league, have attempted to get the rules changed in the past, but without any luck. They have shown a preference for the 4th placed league side getting in ahead of the cup losers, but were told by UEFA that the positions must stay as those allocated at the start of the season. Quite why they have let the situation occur for the past four years remains a mystery.
In England, the pattern has been similar as for two consecutive years the losers in the FA Cup final were smaller clubs. 2002-03 saw Arsenal beat Southampton to the trophy and the Saints couldn't make it past the first round of their European adventure the following season after losing 2-1 on aggregate to Steaua Bucharest. Then Millwall reached the final in 2003-04 and lost to Manchester United, before ending their involvement with the UEFA Cup to Hungarian outfit Ferencvßros TC, who have not been a force in European football since losing the Cup Winners' Cup final to Dynamo Kiev in 1975, 4-1 - again in the first round.
While UEFA may claim that it allows smaller clubs a bite at the European cherry, the re-branding of the UEFA Cup as the 'Europa League' from the 'UEFA Cup' in 2009-10 was the perfect opportunity to change the qualification process along with all the format and organisational changes that were already being rolled out.
The group stage may have changed, but despite some reports, UEFA and the associations have not changed the fact that the losing finalists can qualify. In the event of both finalists having qualified via another route (as seems certain to be the case with Everton and Chelsea in this year's FA Cup), then, and only then, will the European place transfer to the domestic league. If Everton finish no lower than 6th and lose, for example, they'll be entered into the 3rd qualifying round and the 7th placed team in the Premier League will enter in the final Play-off round.
Given that Falkirk have made the Cup final already and stand no chance whatsoever of reaching the European places in the league, they will enter in the 2nd qualifying round of the Europa League automatically, while the 3rd placed team in the SPL will enter in the final Play-off round and the 4th placed team will enter in the 3rd qualifying round.
The fact that a club who are not yet guaranteed a place in their own top flight are readying themselves for Europe is not a usual situation in most countries and it has raised some concerns from players and fans alike.
Former Celtic stalwart, Scotland international and most importantly a current member of the Falkirk squad, Jackie McNamara, told the BBC: "Personally, I think it's wrong that we go there [the Europa League]. League status should count for Europe, although maybe, if we win the cup, we should qualify.''
McNamara is not the only dissenting voice, as many fans of Scottish football have raised their objections to having their league represented by such a poorly performing club. Scottish football is not blessed with many great teams and the prospect of a side who have won just four games (against Queen of the South, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dunfermline) reaching a competition just one rung below the Champions League, does not ring true.
This is not to play down the achievements of the club. Falkirk, given their precarious league position, have done exceptionally well to reach the final of a cup competition. It will be their first final since losing 1-0 to Kilmarnock in 1997 and could yet save manager John Hughes' job, even if they lose. But they should have to win the Cup to get into Europe.
Bairns fans won't be complaining either way. If they win: they get a trophy, if they lose: they still get into Europe. But it also could affect the number of European places available to the SPL in the future - as the performance of Scottish clubs is counted in the rankings co-efficient.
Imagine the situation if Dunfermline had won their semi-final. Despite their history of regular European football over the past few decades, the Pars currently sit near the bottom of the second tier of Scottish football and calls for change would have been even louder if it were they facing Rangers next month.
With the fears of another SPL side embarrassing itself among a collection of Europe's elite next season, the Europa League could prove to be no more rewarding for Scottish football than the UEFA Cup.