Uncomfortable Champions League (European competition) truth emerges for Newcastle United fans

It’s weird how the return of the football season fires up your interest. Having largely ignored the kickabouts, sponsor twerks and general non-matches that make up pre-season, I now find myself, like many Newcastle United fans, scouting around midweek to schedules and checking results at random throughout the working day.

It was during one of these perusals that I noticed a couple of results that jumped out in themselves but also made me realise there’s an implication this season for Newcastle United. And, to be honest, it’s an implication that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

The results on question were from over the border, where I noticed both Hearts and Hibs had made it through their respective European qualifiers.

Back in the days when United were perennial European competitors, I found it a bit annoying that the Scottish teams would regularly fail to qualify even as far as the first round proper. The prospect of a midweek jaunt to Edinburgh or Glasgow, that would be so much easier than the majority of Premier League away journeys was appealing in itself, before you even consider the fact that most ties would be relatively winnable.

This year, our return to the Champions League could open the prospect of a tie with Rangers, who need to navigate a daunting qualifier with PSV, but not Celtic, who will be seeded in the same pot as us.

Taking it down a couple of notches though, and there will already be a Battle of Britain in the Conference League. The Hibs progress to the final qualifying round will see them face Aston Villa for a place in the group stage, with the first leg tonight (Wednesday).

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Now, my immediate reaction to finding this out was probably a similar one to most Mags, or anyone who has only discovered this while reading this right now. Basically “Wouldn’t it be brilliant/hilarious if Hibs won?”

If I do end up in front of a TV showing this match, I will feel naturally drawn towards wanting the Hibees to score, but unfortunately, this is the wrong reaction altogether, for reasons you might be semi-aware of.

I’m sure many people will be aware that the Champions League is set for a revamp next season, with 36 teams entering instead of the usual 32. Instead of groups being drawn, the entire group will be in one giant League, with the employment of a “Swiss-system” used in chess tournaments to determine the opponents for a guaranteed 8 group stage games. Probably for the best we qualified for the existing, slightly less taxing version this time around as further beef will surely be needed in the squad should we make our way into this competition next year.

However, that’s the other point, our chances of making our way in should be slightly higher than in previous campaigns.

In order to fill those extra four slots, UEFA have set some additional criteria, one of which reserves places for “two countries with the highest coefficient score in the current season”. Now, many will be familiar with the concept of coefficients, which basically aggregate European performance over the past decade to give you a ranking that determines seeding in European tournaments.

Our aversion to such competition under Ashley has left us with a paltry coefficient which is why we find ourselves in seeding pot 4 for next week’s draw. However, this wasn’t an absolute guarantee, as we were carried higher than other newcomers due to the stunningly high coefficient the Premier League has on the whole, thanks to the strong performances of our peers over the years. This is what will be used to judge who gets those extra spots, but instead of being gauged over a period of ten years, it will be based entirely on the results of the forthcoming campaign, across all three UEFA competitions.

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Broadly speaking, this is good news. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who will be so supremely confident of Newcastle’s chances that they’d say fifth place isn’t at least a highly feasible option come the end of the season. England has a strong presence across all competitions, with West Ham’s conference league win (coupled with a less than impressive league finish) meaning we have eight teams instead of the allocated seven. Looking at recent history provides a boost as well, as English teams would have qualified for this extra place in four out of the past five seasons.

Now for the bad news.

This means that as Newcastle United fans, we need to be behind all of the other English clubs in any of the European competitions. If Man Utd are level with FC Copenhagen in their final group game and need a goal to get through, you need to want them to get that goal. If Liverpool lose the first leg of a Europa tie away to Slovan Bratislava, you’d better hope they turn it around at Anfield. And yes, we all need Aston Villa to knock out Hibernian and start earning some coefficient points in the Conference group stage.

To be honest, it makes sense to want your rivals to go as far into a draining, distracting European campaign as possible when you’re fighting with them for space at the top of the table… but we aren’t particularly used to to end of the table stuff, so all this needs a bit of getting used to.

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When you’re fighting relegation you can laugh away at the sight of someone like Tottenham have a massive nightmare against some Eastern European minnows, while the commentators gleefully tell you how the goalscorer is the village bootmaker by day and travelled to the match tonight on goatback.

However, this pleasure is removed as we need the cold icy stare of a United Premier League front when any upstarts threaten to claim precious coefficient points at the expense of one of our brethren*. The bad news is that this rule is here to stay, so this approach needs to be maintained at least until there’s a Man City degree of cast iron confidence that fifth place could only possibly occur in the event of a calamitous season.

So, if you’re reading this on Wednesday and looking to watch a bit of telly in the evening, I feel incredibly grubby saying this but… Up the Villa.

*Not Tottenham though, they haven’t qualified. Like, for anything.

You can follow the author on Twitter @Mr_Dolf