Europa League: Precedents say an early start won’t derail West Ham

Whoever the next West Ham manager is – and the odds reflect most favourably on Slaven Bilic at [2.22] – will take charge of their first competitive game on July 2 owing to the Irons’ fair play league success earning them a place in the Europa League first qualifying round.

The majority view among pundits and press folk is that this is a disastrous development, with the combination of extra games and shortened summer holidays sure to catch up with them at some stage, possibly even to the point of relegation at [7.0].

To apply a shade more science to the speculation, let’s look at how the Premier League’s other early starters this century were affected by the unusual circumstances…

FULHAM (2011/12)

Competition: Europa League
Start Date: June 30

The last time that the Premier League gained a European berth in appreciation of fair play was four years ago. Mark Hughes walked away a week after confirmation, so successor Martin Jol had no time to settle. It didn’t seem to matter though as they breezed into the group stage – where they would exit – conceding just twice in eight qualifiers. Their Premier League start wasn’t so smooth, winning a mere two of their first 13 fixtures but, contrary to how you would expect a team with a lengthier campaign to perform, they finished energetically, prevailing in five of their final eight games to take ninth with 52 points, three more than the tally which took them to eighth a year earlier.

Verdict: No ill effects

LIVERPOOL (2005/06)

Competition: Champions League
Start Date: July 13

Unlike the other sides in this sample, Liverpool didn’t open by the first week of July. However, they are worthy of inclusion both because their season ended later than most owing to their Champions League triumph and they were only confirmed as preliminaries participants on June 10, campaigning for entry as holders despite coming fifth in the Premier League. Perhaps the three qualifying rounds caused a Euro fatigue, as they were mediocre in their group then lost twice to Benfica in the round-of-16, but it had no adverse impact on domestic progress. They came third in the league, a two-place and 24-point improvement on 2004/05, and were fit enough to go the distance in the FA Cup.

Verdict: No ill effects

FULHAM (2002/03)

Competition: Intertoto Cup
Start Date: July 6

The Intertoto Cup operated to the “if you want some, come get some” principle, with the highest-placed applicants receiving the opportunity, enabling Fulham a hasty return to action after finishing 13th post-promotion in 2001/02. They played seven competitive matches before the start of the Premier League and the momentum built in that unbeaten sequence helped them swiftly gather 10 points from their initial five outings as an early insurance policy against second season syndrome. The Cottagers endured a dreary winter – including a third-round UEFA Cup elimination – but never slid into the relegation zone, ultimately ranking 14th with four more points than the year before.

Verdict: No ill effects

BRADFORD (2000/01)

Competition: Intertoto Cup
Start Date: July 1

Bradford are the trend defiers, suffering in the season that they decided to cut their vacations short. It all began brightly with victories in their first four Intertoto Cup games, but home and away defeats to Zenit St Petersburg saw them out over a fortnight before the Premier League commenced. They wound up rock bottom with 26 points, yet this writer isn’t convinced that Europe was to blame: the Bantams only escaped relegation on the final day the year before, manager Paul Jewell resigned and they picked the wrong replacement in Chris Hutchings, who was gone by November. The fact that their best form arrived at the bitter end indicates that it wasn’t an exhaustion dragging them down.

Verdict: Inconclusive