Belfast Telegraph

Lack of Celts fans at Windsor a real shame, says Fenlon

Hoops faithful should be at match, insists Pat

By Graham Luney

Pat Fenlon says he's disappointed Celtic fans won't be at Windsor Park in big numbers tomorrow to reflect the positive strides Linfield have made in tackling sectarianism.

The former Blues favourite was the first Catholic from Dublin to sign for Linfield in 1994 but he says the Windsor Park side were the best club he played for in his career and the only bigoted comments he heard were in the south.

Nicknamed 'Billy' by the Linfield faithful, his stay at Windsor was short but sweet and in a glorious two-year spell he helped the club win a league title and back-to-back Irish Cups.

Fenlon, who is currently Director of Football at Waterford, is considering returning to his old home for the Champions League second qualifying round clash tomorrow (5pm) but he joked: "There's no Celtic end so I'll sit with the Linfield fans!"

The 49-year-old is delighted the Blues have landed a glamour game against Brendan Rodgers' Invincibles, but Celtic opted not to accept their ticket allocation for the first leg and Linfield said Hoops fans would not gain admission to the stadium.

For Fenlon, who in 2004 as Shelbourne boss became the first manager to reach the third qualifying round of the Champions League with an Irish club, the absence of Celtic fans casts a little shadow over the contest.

"It is unfortunate there won't be many Celtic fans at Windsor Park because Linfield have made huge strides in bringing people together and it's a pity a big travelling support could not have reflected that," said Fenlon, whose goal against Glentoran on the final day of the 1993-94 season sealed the title for Linfield.

"The Celtic fans could have added to the atmosphere but that decision has been taken and I'm sure the game will be a great occasion. I hope it does pass off peacefully and I'm sure it will.

"Linfield are the best club I played for throughout my career in the north and south. They looked after me tremendously well and when I joined them the Troubles were just finishing and the country was making real progress.

"Any difficulties I encountered came from down south, Linfield were a proper football club that looked after their players and I had no worries at all, just good times."

Fenlon, who won five League of Ireland titles as a manager with Shelbourne and Bohemians, has good reason to cheer on the Blues as Celtic twice got the better of his Hibernian side in the 2012 and 2013 Scottish Cup finals.

"I think it's a great draw for Linfield and the Irish League," said Fenlon.

"It's probably the ideal draw for Linfield. There are great financial rewards there for Irish clubs in Europe. I think teams should be ambitious and want to progress because a game like this really does excite the supporters and benefits the club.

"It's the best of both worlds from Linfield's perspective, two exciting games and a huge financial boost.

"It's great for the players who are given a very rare opportunity to play against a team like Celtic in the Champions League. The atmosphere at Celtic Park will be special but as players that's what you want to savour. It's why you play the game and this is probably the biggest occasion they will be involved in."

Fenlon, whose managerial career included a short spell with Derry City, would like to see the Irish League modify its season to improve clubs' chances of European success.

"Summer football has worked in the south and you just have to look at the European results achieved by teams like Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk to support that argument," he added.

"The results in Europe have been quite good but I also know there is a strong tradition of winter football with the Boxing Day games. If there was a way of keeping those and extending the season into the summer, it could prove beneficial.

"The weather would be a bit warmer and hopefully the pitches would be better with less need for floodlights too. Players need to play and train on good surfaces. They might enjoy their football better and perhaps perform better in Europe as well."

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