I may be putting the cart before the horse a bit here, but there seems to be some worry about the extremely early start our squad will have to endure if we make it to the Europa League. Yet upon further examination, I wonder how many of the First XI, if not XVIII, will even be needed until August.
This year the First Qualifying Round, where we enter if we earn the Fair Play spot, starts June 30. Second leg is July 7. If we advance, the Second Qualifying Round starts July 14 and ends July 21. Third Qualifying Round starts July 28 and finishes August 4.
So let’s look at who won the Fair Play the past two seasons and chart who they faced and how they fared for the first two rounds. I’ll stop at the Third Qualifying Round as its where we entered the competition two years ago, and its when things start to take shape per se heading in to the Group stage.
Last year’s winners were MYPA of Finland, Randers of Denmark, and Gefle of Sweden. They faced Narva Trans of Estonia, F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, and NSÍ Runavík of the Faroe Islands respectively. MYPA won 7-0 on aggregate, Randers 7-3, and Gefle 4-1.
In the Second Qualifying Round, MYPA faced UE Sant Julià of Andorra, Gefle faced Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia and Randers were drawn with Gorica of Slovenia. MYPA advanced with an 8-0 aggregate, and Randers on a 4-1 aggregate. Gefle ended up losing by a 4-2 aggregate to the Georgian side.
Two years ago, the Fair Play Winners were Motherwell, Rosenborg, and Randers (again — those polite Danes!). In the First Qualifying Round Motherwell faced Llanelli of Wales (of the Welsh Premier League), Rosenborg took on NSÍ Runavík, and Randers played Linfield of the IFA Premiership. Motherwell advanced 3-1 on aggregate, Rosenborg 6-1, and Randers 7-0.
In the Second Qualifying Round, Motherwell spanked Flamurtari Vlorë of Albania 8-2 on aggregate, Rosenborg lost 1-0 to FK Qarabağ of Azerbaijan, and Randers beat FK Sūduva Marijampolė of Lithuania 2-1.
I’m not going to spend the time researching whether or not each Fair Play team fielded their First XI, something we probably won’t, but the Scandinavian clubs were probably buoyed by the fact that the beginning Europa stages are in the middle of their season.
So in summary, the nations from which clubs were drawn against Fair Play opponents are: Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Estonia, Andorra, Georgia, Slovenia, Wales, Northern Ireland, Albania, Azerbaijan, and Lithuania.
Now, a lot of this depends on who you draw. Two years ago Galatasaray and our Group-Mates Basel were in the in Second Qualifying Round. Last year, it was Olympiacos. This year, FC Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova — champions 10 straight years until now — start off in the first round.
But I think my point about the depth of competition, or the lack thereof, remains even if the club’s summer vacation is non-existent. That’s not to insult any future opponents, but just a statement of fact. And I’m pretty sure Hughes’ et al are aware of that.
So we may just get to see the likes of Lauri Dalla Valle in a Fulham shirt after all.