August comes to an end on Monday, and this year it will have outlived Aston Villa’s time in the 2008/09 Europa League by four days. Villa beat Rapid Vienna 2-1 at Villa Park last night, drawing 2-2 over the two legs and exiting the competition on away goals. One suspects that the inquest into the defeat is unlikely to be a very long one. The claret and blue quartier of Birmingham don’t seem to have been terribly enthused by the match, for one thing. Just over 22,000 people were all that the club could summon to turn out to watch the match.
Aston Villa’s relationship with European football is certainly a peculiar one. Martin O’Neill’s decision to send a virtual reserve team into their quarter-final match in last year’s UEFA Cup against CSKA Moscow resulted in their elimination from the competition, the start of a slump in the Premier League that would go on to cost them dearly in the Premier League and cause some to wonder about his managerial abilities. Of course, one could argue that earning a place in the Champions League was his priority at the time but that particular decision can’t really be concluded to have had the desired result, considering that Arsenal ended up easing into the fourth Champions League place at a canter, although, of course, hindsight has twenty/twenty vision.
Villa’s early elimination from the competition and their supporters’ apparently lukewarm attitude towards it does raise questions over the priorities of the clubs that take part in the competition. From the supporters’ point of view, there is a mitigating circumstance. The recession has hit the West Midlands harder than any other part of the country. Times are hard, purse strings have tightened and Europa League matches wouldn’t ordinarily be included in the cost of a season ticket. People are likely to be more selective about the non-Premier League matches that they attend this season.
From the point of view of the club, however, early elimination from the competition raises the question of why they entered into it in the first place. European football is still considered by most that don’t play in it to be the holy grail, but the reality seems to be that it is considerably less romantic than one might assume when the chips are down, and that Rapid Vienna on a Thursday night at the end of August doesn’t set the pulse racing in the same way that UEFA might wish that it did. No-one forces Aston Villa to enter into the competition – might it not be an idea for them, in the future, to decline to enter it and give the place in it to someone that will care a little more about it?