Linfield seek to enhance proud European history - by Roy McGivern
Linfield approach this evenings Europa League second leg tie against Skoda Xanthi in confident mood after a highly impressive 1-0 win in Greece last week. A priceless 25th minute goal from Aaron Burns has put the Blues in a strong position but they will face a stiff challenge to finish the job tonight and progress to a third round tie, probably against Standard Liege of Belgium.
The Blues have made a remarkable 96 appearances in European competition since making their debut against Kamraterna of Sweden in the 1959/60 season. The first leg win in Xanthi was the club's 15th win at this level and only the third away from home. European competition may have lost some of its glamour for local clubs as the onset of co-efficients and numerous qualifying rounds have reduced the possibility of draws against the European big guns. It is still, however, the ultimate challenge for Irish League sides as they seek to test themselves at a higher level. Linfield have a proud and distinguished history on the European stage with memorable ties against the likes of CSKA Sofia, Red Star Belgrade, Manchester City, PSV Eindhoven, Benfica and Dinamo Zagreb. There have also been some moments of heartache and few Linfield fans will forget the sickening injury time goal in Copenhagen in 1994 which deprived us of a dream tie against AC Milan in the next round.
The 1966/67 European Cup campaign remains the highlight for Linfield fans of a certain vintage. Wins over Aris of Luxembourg and Valerengen took Linfield to the quarter finals where they faced the mighty CSKA Sofia. The crack Bulgarian military outfit were held to a 2-2 draw in Belfast before Linfield lost by a single goal in Sofia. It was a magnificent effort by a part-time local side in the year in which Celtic became the first British side to win a European competition. Tommy Leishman was player manager of that side and he still has vivid memories of the great European run.
"I suppose in the first two rounds we came up against teams who were at a similar level to ourselves. I remember getting sent off in the game away to Aris although we still managed a 3-3 draw. CSKA Sofia were a very good side and almost knocked out Inter Milan in the semi-final. I remember Phil Scott and Sammy Pavis hitting the woodwork against them so I think we were unlucky to go out. Iam McFall was transferred to Newcastle before the quarter final tie and he was a big loss as he was an excellent goalkeeper. It was a tremendous experience though and I don’t think we realised at the time what an achievement it was for a part-time club.”
Linfield's other big European occasion came in the Cup Winners' Cup against the mighty Manchester City back in 1971. After losing 1-0 in Manchester, Linfield put up a tremendous performance in the second leg in Belfast to win 2-1 but agonisingly went out of the competition on away goals. The Blues under the leadership of Billy Bingham had almost pulled off one of the biggest shocks in the history of the competition and City manager Joe Mercer famously remarked afterwards that "If this is one of the so-called easier draws then give me a difficult one every time."
Tonights Greek opponents will invoke memories of another great European occasion in 1984. Linfield faced Panathinaikos in the European Cup and lost 5-4 on aggregate after two memorable games in Athens and Belfast. Billy Totten put the Blues ahead in the away leg before they eventually lost 2-1. The second leg at Windsor Park produced an incredible night of European football as a Martin McGaughey inspired Linfield raced into a 3-0 first half lead before the Greeks came back to level the game at 3-3. Martin recalls "Everyone always talks about the Panathanikos game and that was probably my best and worst experience in a Linfield shirt, and all in one game. We went three goals up and I scored two and then it all fell apart in the second half. "
Those wonderful European occasions may seem like distant memories for some supporters. The challenge now for Linfield and for other Irish League clubs is to make progress beyond the qualifying rounds to the more lucrative ties where the European elite clubs await. Shamrock Rovers showed the way by making the group stages of the Europa League but it is becoming increasingly difficult for local clubs to make a real impression at such an early stage of the season. Linfield's European exploits so far this season have been a real boost for the local game and hopefully a big Windsor Park crowd will be in attendance this evening to spur them onto even greater heights.
Many would doubt that we will ever see another European run similar to the one experienced in 1967. The players of 2013 should however be inspired by the gallant European efforts of Linfield teams from that era and seek to put themselves firmly in the history books.