It’s fair to say that a Southampton fan’s assertion that he would support Leicester against his own team caused a bit of controversy.
Branded every name under the sun, the fan explained that because Saints didn’t have a lot to play for, and that Leicester had rather a lot in their quest to go from their great escape to champions in a league where money is king, that he wanted his own team to lose.
Whilst he was being totally honest in his opinion, despite the suggestion that he was doing it for clicks or for a wind-up, it obviously was something that plenty of Southampton fans, certainly on Twitter anyway, disagreed with.
His reasoning was partly based on the Europa League, and not wanting to be in the competition to consolidate a top-half finish. Yet the idea that Saints are not playing for much even with continental football up for grabs is something that I respectfully disagree with, the same as wanting Leicester to win.
Europe’s second competition is given a bit of a hard time. It’s not just one person who thinks that it can be a waste of time; you only have to hear comments from the likes of Swansea captain Ashley Williams, or look at the team that Slaven Bilic put out when West Ham crashed out of the Europa League qualifying stages to Romanian side Astra Giurgu.
Hammers fans can arguably justify their early exit by pointing to the fact that their Dimitri Payet inspired Champions League push is looking rather healthy. But if they were to just fall short, they’d be back in the Europa League, albeit without starting their season in July.
Saints haven’t got that. Barring a Leicester-esque run, the iconic orchestral music of UEFA’s premier competition won’t be echoing round St Mary’s next season, but that doesn’t mean that the Europa League should be sniffed at.
The prize money doesn’t match what a few places higher in the league table can do; the thought of Jose Fonte lifting the cup in Stockholm is nice but probably unrealistic, after all.
It is understandable that after the rather damp squib that was the qualifying round exit to FC Midtjylland has left a sour taste, but let’s be honest; Saints fans were plotting.
Whether scrabbling down flight details following a hunt on Skyscanner for the best way to get to Bordeaux or Bucharest, or praying that a trip to Cyprus was in order, it was arguably the most excitable time to be a Southampton fan since promotion. Make no mistake, if the fans were excited, imagine what someone like Jose Fonte was feeling like leading the team out of the tunnel.
Saints are more equipped for the Europa League now. Banana skins like Midtjylland mean that the St Mary’s faithful will be rather less assuming that progression is for certain, and that applies to the players too.
It makes Southampton as a destination more attractive for potential signings too. If you’re an ambitious player looking to climb the ladder, you want to make sure the shop window you’re putting yourself is as wide as possible. Making it Europe-wide is a good start.
But even if players aren’t necessarily looking for a stepping stone, the added prestige still plays a part. For someone like Fonte, wanting to make a place in the Portugal squad a certainty, European football on the CV is a big step towards making that a reality.
The Premier League may market itself as the best league in the world, but as soon as Europe comes around it is pretty clear that teams that come from so-called lesser leagues are pretty handy themselves.
Southampton as a club needs European football. Getting from League One to the Premier League is one thing, but to suddenly jump to Champions League standard is a much larger leap.
It’s easy to point to Leicester as a reason why a run for the Champions League is one that can be done, but the reason why so many neutrals are rooting for them is the exact same one why fourth place and higher is rather beyond Saints.
So if the Champions League is a dream, then why not aim for the rung just below? The logic of avoiding the Europa League to then have a better chance of qualifying for it is rather flawed.
After all, Leicester fans will find out themselves the joys of European tours. If the Foxes can have trips to Benfica or Turin, why can’t Saints enjoy trips to Sporting or Florence, too?