Party is over but Linfield's outlook is bright
Published 26/07/2013 | 01:30
For six short minutes it looked as if Michael Gault's magnificent left-footed volley would claim a remarkable European victory for Linfield.
Windsor Park erupted when captain Gault struck the ball into the roof of the Skoda Xanthi net in the 99th minute, to score what looked to be an improbable winner. The goal was of such quality, it would have graced the Europa League final itself, never mind a mere qualifying match.
Sadly, heartbreak was just around the corner. While Linfield had a man advantage for the entire second half, as is so often the case, it was the professional team who scored the final goal of the game.
It's a shame, because Gault's goal and Linfield's performance were more than worthy of a place in the third qualifying round and a crack at Belgian giants Standard Liege.
Over 210 minutes of football Linfield actually drew the match, but the crazy old relic of European football, 'the away goal' saw the Greek side crowned as winners. The rule seems deeply unfair, when you consider Xanthi had an extra half an hour of football, in which to score an away goal. Of course, the Blues had an extra half an hour of home advantage, but try telling your average Linfield fan that it evens out.
While it's Xanthi that progress to the next stage, Linfield can take much heart from their European run. In recent years, bar the odd exception, Irish League sides normally whimper out at the earliest available opportunity, so three victories from four games must go down as an unqualified success for the south Belfast side.
Of course, at Windsor Park the Gibson Cup is always the priority, and come August 10, these European exploits will be a hazy summer memory. But there are signs that David Jeffrey's new-look Linfield are capable of giving champions Cliftonville a real run for their money this season.
Former midfield maestro Gault looks at ease in the centre of defence, while new signings Aaron Burns and former Rangers youngster Matthew Clarke have given the Blues an extra dimension on the left-flank. Sean Ward put in a remarkable performance as a midfield anchor man, while Northern Ireland international Johnny Tuffey made a number super saves.
When you add the likes of Mark Haughey and James Knowles into the mix, it's fair to say David Jeffrey might have the makings of another fine Linfield squad. It's early days but Linfield's European performances suggests that their fans have plenty to be optimistic about.
They showed the strength of character that often seemed to escape them last season. I doubt the late Dr Malcolm Brodie's old line – "they died with their boots on" – has ever been more appropriate.