Irish League champions Linfield will tonight, in the Norwegian seaport of Trondheim, oppose the top Scandinavian club Rosenborg in a Champions League tie.
The Blues are no strangers to this Nordic land, nor the expectancy, excitement, triumph and tragedy of European football. Their history is dotted with famous occasions and equally famous clubs.
Fantastic memories remain of that era in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties when it was an open draw and Irish clubs had the possibility of meeting the crème de la crème of Europe.
Linfield, however, didn’t make their Euro debut until the 1959/60 season when they met Kamraterna of Sweden who defeated Belfast Celtic |3-0 at the Triborough Stadium in the last match of their historic 1949 US tour.
Appropriately, Linfield, inspired by Jackie Milburn, greatest import ever in Irish football, triumphed 2-1, but crashed 6-1 (aggregate 7-3) in Gothenberg, where centre-forward Owe Ohllson hit four of the goals.
Milburn, suffering from neck fibrositis, should not have played in the game for he winced in agony throughout the 90 minutes.
For Linfield and Irish football generally the result was a learning curve showing the standard required to compete in Europe.
Then came the dramatic 1961/62 season and from the moment the Blues were drawn against the East German army side Vorwerts, scepticism arose they would be unable to leave East Berlin by the Allied Military Control Commission for the second leg.
East Berlin bore the scars of war, a desolate, almost deserted city compared with the West. Linfield sought a guarantee they would travel to Belfast but they couldn’t give an answer. Remember, this was at the height of the Cold War and the infamous Wall had been erected only a few days before.
The Linfield party arrived at Tempelhof Airport, travelled by coach to “Checkpoint Charlie” at the Freidrichstrasse.
There was a wrangle for an hour over documentation, passengers had to disembark and walk across No Man’s Land to East Berlin where Vorwerts officials, all wearing uniforms, waited.
The interpreter, so often used as an informer on foreigners, occupied the room next to me in the Johanneshof Hotel, obviously monitoring copy being telephoned to the West. This was not primarily a sports story but a team caught up in the centre of an international dispute.
Linfield lost 3-0, the Germans didn’t return and it was not until six years later that Linfield, thanks to the perseverance of their then secretary Harry Wallace, received compensation of £1,100, a considerable amount in that era, but a mere tip for some current megastars.
Linfield have played in virtually every part of Europe, yet perhaps their greatest ever performance was in 1970/71 when they met Manchester City in the Cup Winners Cup.
The Blues, managed by Billy Bingham, became within an ace of eliminating the then holders. City could not break down Linfield’s defence, inspired by goalkeeper Derek Humphreys, who was tragically killed in a car crash on his way to another European game a year later.
They held out until seven minutes from the end when centre-half Ivan McAllister lost a ball in the glare of the floodlights and in stepped Colin Bell to score. More than 25,000 packed Windsor Park for the second leg where Linfield won 2-1 but Manchester City went through on the away goal. The gangling Billy Millen, a defensive midfielder in the first match, but now an orthodox striker, scored the two goals as Linfield put 100 per cent plus commitment into the game. City were only saved from a humiliating exit by Francis Lee’s late goal.
This was Linfield maintaining the great traditions of the club and a major boost to their finances. Glory in defeat.
l Memory Lane over the next few months will recall some of the other great Linfield European moments, those of Glentoran, Distillery and all local clubs who have qualified over the decades