Dreaming of the Europa League

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Jordi Gomez gets the ball on the edge of the box and puts through an exquisite pass for Callum McManaman. The young winger dribbles past the Millwall goalkeeper and slides the ball into the net. It is the middle of April and Wigan Athletic supporters are already starting to dream of their club playing in European competition.

Tomorrow that dream will come true as Latics play their first Europa League match against Zulte Waregem in Bruges.

It would have happened earlier if Latics had not gone on to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup Final. Had they lost they would have had to go through the qualifying rounds in order to reach the group stage.

If Latics had figured in the qualifying rounds they would have received €100,000 per round from UEFA . However, being in a qualifying round offers a minimum of two matches – but the group stage offers at least six.

The group stage also brings more financial incentives from UEFA. Through simply being there Latics will receive around €1.3m. Moreover they will receive €200,000 for every win and €100,000 for every draw. Winning the group would bring in a further €400,000, and being runners-up €200,000.

So if  Latics were to finish in the top two in their group they would receive well over €2 m in prize money, let alone their share of gate receipts.

Is it likely that a club now in the second tier of English football can finish in the top two of a Europa League group? Moreover what kinds of attendances can they expect compared for the group stage games compared with those of the Championship?

The past experience of Birmingham City provides food for thought.

In the 2011-12 season Birmingham competed in the Europa League after being relegated from the Premier League.

In February 2011 Birmingham qualified for the Europa League by winning the League Cup, beating Arsenal 2-1 at Wembley. Three months later they were to lose their final Premier League fixture at Tottenham, condemning them to relegation.

Despite their descent into the second tier of English football Birmingham were to perform well in the Europa League. After beating Nacional of Portugal in the play-off round they faced strong opposition in the group stage. The group was won by Club Brugge, on goal difference ahead of Braga, who qualified in second place. Birmingham were unlucky to finish a point behind in third place, after winning 3, drawing 1 and losing  2 matches. Maribor were the disappointing team in the group with only one point from their six games played.

Birmingham’s gates averaged 24,431 in the four Europa League games played at St Andrews, compared with 16,451 in the Championship division (where they were to finish in fourth place).

Birmingham’s experience suggests that Latics have a pretty decent chance of going beyond the group stage, into the round of 32. Moreover the attendances for the home matches should significantly exceed their average in the Championship, which currently stands at 14,969.

Some fans say that Wigan Athletic should focus on promotion from the Championship, that the Europa League should take a back seat. However, most cannot wait to see the games.

The Europa League offers Latics not only prestige, but also significant financial rewards.

It is another challenge for a club that has come so far. Who would bet against them going a stage further?

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