Crusaders hit jackpot with Fulham tie
Yesterday’s European draw was very kind to Crusaders, but not so kind to the side who pipped them to the league and cup double last season.
Crusaders hit a European jackpot with a potential Europa League second qualifying round battle with Premier League side Fulham and their two Northern Ireland internationals Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird.
Linfield were left cursing their luck in the second qualifying round of the Champions League as they face a logistical nightmare with a clash against top seeds BATE Borisov, the Belarus Premier League champions.
Glentoran also have a tough encounter against Macedonian outfit Renova in the Europa League, but there was further reason to cheer in north-Belfast when Cliftonville were handed an all-British battle with Welsh side TNS.
But the big winners from the draw are Crusaders — provided the London side overcome NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the first qualifying round.
It would be the first time an Irish League side has come up against English top flight opponents since the Crues lost to Liverpool in the European Cup in 1976 — before the Reds went on to lift the trophy at Wembley the following May.
As well as being a much needed financial shot in the arm for the Shore Road side in financially challenging times, there will be a massive amount of interest in the game.
Thrilled Crues boss Stephen Baxter said: “You can’t really predict anything in football, but assuming that Fulham progress it’s the biggest occasion for the club since the Liverpool games in the 1970s.
“It’s a match that will attract a bumper crowd and hopefully we can pack them all in for what should be a really special occasion for everyone connected with the club.
“It’s a huge thing for an Irish League club to take on an English Premier League side with their new manager Martin Jol keen to get off to a good start and top quality players in whatever side they put out.
“They have two Northern Ireland players in Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird and strikers like Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora and for us to welcome them would be special.
“It’s a competitive clash between two very different sides, that rarely happens in today’s game and I’m so thrilled for the players who will be excited and the supporters who will want to see it.”
Meanwhile, Shamrock Rovers play Flora of Estonia in the Champions League second qualifying round.
Fixtures: Champions League second qualifying round: Linfield v BATE Borisov (Belarus) July 12/13, return leg July 19/20.
Europa League: First qualifying round: TNS (Wales) v Cliftonville June 30, return leg July 7; Renova (Macedonia) v Glentoran June 30, return leg July 7. Second qualifying round: Crusaders v Fulham (England) or NSI Runavik (Faroe Islands) July 14, return leg July 21.