It took 58 minutes of the north London derby – and being 2-0 down – for Arsenal supporters to launch into, “We’re going to Wembley” chants.
Yes, there is precious little else that has gone right for the Gunners this season, but they are in the FA Cup final, and the Spurs have just gone another season without a trophy. But it raised a bigger a question for me: would I rather see Spurs qualify for the UEFA Champions League (UCL) or win the FA Cup? Is trophy in isolation worth more than seeing seasons of continued success without silverware?
This is a familiar conundrum for fans in English football. Winning trophies and making the UCL are of course not mutually exclusive, but when clubs rotate squads and rest their players for cup ties they are prioritising the English Premier League over the cups. I would rather see Spurs qualify for the UCL than win the FA or English Football League cup.
Jose Mourinho and Manchester United will talk up the trophy successes they have had this season, but in truth had they failed to win the Europa League it would have been a dismal season. Given the amount of money they have spent on transfer fees and wages, a sixth-place league finish and an EFL Cup will be seen as a relative failure.
Qualifying for the UCL provides a team with prestige, additional cash flow and, most importantly, helps to keep your best players. Failure to qualify for the UCL means big players are more likely to be poached or jump ship in search of European football.
The case in point this year will be Arsenal and Tottenham. Arsenal are within one win of another FA Cup title but failed to qualify for the UCL. Spurs will not win a trophy but have qualified for the UCL group stage.
I would rather be in the Spurs position because playing in the UCL will help keep their best players. I doubt Kane, Alli and co would all stay on if they did not play on Europe’s biggest stage. Meanwhile, there is a strong chance that the likes of Sanchez and Ozil will leave seeking greener pastures around Europe rather than ply their trade in the second-tier Europa League.
The one caveat in all of this is wage bill. Cashed up clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United can afford a year or two without Champions League football as players are less likely to walk away when on exorbitant weekly wages. This is why UCL qualification is even more important to clubs like Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal – they do not have the unlimited funds to withstand a period out of Europe’s premier continental competition.
For Spurs there is light at the end of the tunnel – the new stadium should help bring match day revenues closer to those of the powerhouse clubs. Maintain UCL qualification during this transition period and it may be just enough to keep their players and break the cycle. This is their only hope because the FIFA fair play regulations probably mean that the days of a wealthy billionaire creating another ‘Manchester City’ are over.
As we enter into another Premier League off-season, I have learnt that success comes in different forms. For many clubs UCL qualification is more important than winning trophies.