Europa Conference League: Can Linfield become European history makers?

RFS equalized deep in injury time in the first leg to go into play on Thursday
RFS equalized deep in injury time in the first leg to go into play on Thursday
Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Thursday 25 August Kicking off: 19:45 CET
Cover: Watch on BBC Two Northern Ireland & iPlayer, live text commentary, match reports and reactions on the BBC Sport website

Everything is set to be one of those unforgettable nights at Windsor Park as Linfield strives to do something no other Irish Premiership team has done before.

Victory over the Latvian team RFS, after a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-offs, would cause ecstasy in the stands and seal Linfield’s place in local football history.

They would become the first Irish League club to reach the group stage of a European competition – and with it a very welcome £2.4million windfall.

But you’ve been here before. Three years ago they went into the second leg of a Europa League play-off against Qarabag with a 3-2 lead but missed out on an away goal from the group stage 2:1 defeat in Azerbaijan.

The history of local teams in Europe began 65 years ago with Glenavon, the league’s first representative, as they played a goalless draw against AGF in Denmark before losing 3-0 in the second leg.

Linfield clinched their first European Cup win against Gothenburg in Sweden in 1959, before Derry City topped it by beating Norway side Lyn in a two-legged game six years later.

With minnows taking on bigger sides on the continent, it was the spraying of stardust delivered by one of the visiting big boys that has often proven to be the most memorable.

Among the most notable were Liverpool’s trip to the packed Seaview in 1976 as the ferocious Reds defeated Crusaders 5-0 en route to their first European Cup victory, as well as Italian giants Juventus, who beat Glentoran 1-0 at The Oval for two seasons later.

Successes have been rare as competitions and formats have come and gone and that is what makes Linfield’s run of 2022 so special as David Healy’s men are eager to continue their European odyssey beyond Thursday’s showdown.

And if they make progress, would that top the list of achievements for local clubs in Europe?

Not quite, as two previous teams (including one of their Windsor predecessors) have reached the quarter-finals of European competition and this Linfield side still have a long way to go to compete.

Blues undone by Bulgarians in European Cup

Linfield got off to the worst possible start to the 1966/67 season when he conceded a first-minute goal against Aris Bonnevoie in Luxembourg.

But they rebounded with goals from Phil Scott, prolific Sammy Pavis and future Northern Ireland player and manager Bryan Hamilton helping them to a 3-3 draw.

A 6-1 win in the second leg in Belfast saw Norway’s Valerenga meet, and an impressive 4-1 first-leg win in Oslo effectively secured their place in the quarter-finals.

Scott, Pavis and Hamilton, along with Arthur Thomas, were on target again as the Blues became the first Irish league side to win away in Europe.

Bryan Hamilton
Bryan Hamilton played for Ipswich Town and Everton in England

Linfield prevailed 5-2 on aggregate and they now broke new ground with their first and only appearance in the last eight.

CSKA Reg Flag of Sofia were their opponents but Tommy Leishman’s side suffered a setback before the tie when goalkeeper Willie McFaul joined Newcastle United.

The Blues hosted the Bulgarians in the first leg and from an early deficit Hamilton and Tommy Shields scored to make it 2-1 before Vasil Romanov completed a brace to equalise.

Everything revolved around the game at the People’s Army Stadium in Bulgaria. Dimitar Yakimov’s goal early in the second half proved crucial as CSKA won 1-0 and reached the semi-finals in a competition won by Celtic that season.

Tragedy strikes as Glens marches into the last eight

Glentoran opened their 1973/74 Cup Winners’ Cup with a trip to Romania where they drew 2-2 with Chimia Ramnicu Valcea.

A 2-0 win at the Oval saw them qualify as the first Irish League team to the second round of the competition.

Norway came next for the East Belfast men and in a crowded pitch where Rab McCreery broke his leg, they fought their way to a 1-1 draw with Brann Bergen when Billy Walker equalised.

With the Oval floodlights not up to the required standards, it was an afternoon second leg and Warren Feeney opened the scoring before two from Johnny Jamison secured a 3-1 win.

Berti Vogts
Germany defender Berti Vogts made 419 appearances for Borussia Mönchengladbach

Now the only British club left in the competition, the George Eastham-managed team faced a daunting task in the quarter-finals against German giants Borussia Mönchengladbach.

With internationals like Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof and Jupp Heynckes – who would help Germany to World Cup success in 1974 – they proved too strong for the Glens.

Heynckes and Horst Koppel scored a 2-0 win for Borussia in front of 12,000 spectators at The Oval, but the game faded after the sudden death of 25-year-old Glens midfielder Roy Stewart just hours later.

Local football mourned his death, with play suspended and a minute’s silence held as a mark of respect in the return leg in Germany.

Borussia, who lost to Liverpool in last season’s UEFA Cup final, won 5-0 but it was a superb season from Glentoran.

Now it’s up to the Linfield class of 2022-23 to up the ante. Anyone for the Blues to reach the Europa Conference League semi-finals?

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