The Europa League Group Stage Fantasy Game

It is no exaggeration to say I really don’t care how Watford qualify for European competition just as long as it happens before I shuffle through the great turnstile in the sky.

Back-to-back victories over Everton and West Brom have moved Watford away from the relegation zone and have revived slim hopes of qualifying for the Europa League. As I understand it, seventh place in the Premier League will be enough as long as one of the big three left in the FA Cup – Manchester United, Tottenham or Chelsea – wins that competition in May.

Watford are now four points behind seventh-placed Burnley and with winnable home games to come it is not out of the question that they could catch the Clarets and finish ahead of them, Leicester, Everton, Bournemouth and anyone else who fancies a two-legged preliminary tie against a team from the former Communist bloc in late July.

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I hear, and dismiss, all the concerns about the thought of a club Watford’s size trying to compete in Europe and survive in the Premier League. Having missed the club’s only previous European adventure in 1983 because I was too young I just want to see the Hornets play a competitive away game or three in the Europa League before we find ourselves back in the Championship.

When I think back to the 1980s, the disappointment of losing the FA Cup final to Everton was compounded by the realisation that it would be them not us taking part in the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Then English clubs were kicked out of Europe after Liverpool fans rioted at Heysel and by the time the ban was lifted Watford were back in the Second Division.

In 1993 I went to an Anglo-Italian Cup tie at Southend United (lost 3-0) in the hope that we might reach the phase of the competition that would give us a trip to Ascoli or Brescia. On our brief returns to the Premier League under Graham Taylor and Aidy Boothroyd I scoured the rules to see what might get us an entry to the preliminary round of the Intertoto Cup and cursed every time a booking cost us a place in the Fair Play League.

So you can see that I’m really not fussy. I just want to see Vicarage Road host European football again but, more importantly than that, I want to go on a few away trips.

And so, since Saturday evening, I’ve been indulging in something I call The Europa League Group Stage Fantasy Game.

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To play, simply cherry-pick your three ideal group stage opponents. Each time I play the game I come up with a different answer but if Watford were to make it I have a few preferences.

I’d like one side from behind the old Iron Curtain, requiring a trip deep into eastern Europe that takes a plane, a train and an automobile to get to. An austere stadium with a huge running track around the pitch would be a bonus.

I’d like an Italian giant that has fallen on relatively hard times and is forced to slum it in Europe’s second tier club competition – perhaps Inter or Milan.

And I’d like a city break-style destination – Club Brugge, FC København, Sparta Prague (for old times’ sake), Sevilla, Ajax or even Edinburgh (Hearts or Hibernian) – for a dash of culture.
Clubs with new grounds built on the outskirts of town need not apply. LB

The photos on this page are of Watford's team lining up before their first ever European game, against Kaiserslautern in September 1983, and captain Steve Sims with the West German team's captain Hans-Peter Briegel.

  Gold & Black have T-shirts inspired by Watford's first and only foray into Europe. Choose from our Levski 83, Jumping Men, Kaiserslautern 3-0 designs.

Gold & Black have T-shirts inspired by Watford's first and only foray into Europe. Choose from our Levski 83, Jumping Men, Kaiserslautern 3-0 designs.