Belfast Telegraph

Irish League sides can progress to win back Europa League spot, says Linfield chairman

 

Get in: Jordan Stewart slots in his Champions League winner against La Fiorita at Windsor Park in 2017
Get in: Jordan Stewart slots in his Champions League winner against La Fiorita at Windsor Park in 2017

By Graham Luney

There's a quiet confidence among Irish League clubs they can reverse the depressing trend of disappointing performances in Europe this summer.

Yesterday's draws in Nyon have given Danske Bank Premiership giants a real shot at claiming crucial Uefa coefficient points as the battle rages to win back a lost European place.

Northern Ireland's Uefa coefficient ranking for 2020 has slumped to 53rd, with only Andorra and San Marino below them.

A European place for next season has been lost, injecting fresh urgency into this summer's preparations.

But there is fresh hope of our domestic teams hitting back in anger with both Crusaders and Ballymena United facing sides from the Faroe Islands in the Europa League, while Cliftonville will fancy their chances against Welsh side Barry Town United.

Crusaders have been drawn against B36 Torshavn in the first qualifying round, with the prize a tie against Premier League side Wolves, while the Sky Blues face NSI Runavik.

David Jeffrey’s side will take on Malmo (Sweden), while Cliftonville will face FK Haugesund (Norway) if they win their preliminary round matches.

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In the first round of the Champions League, Linfield will face Norwegian side Rosenborg, but even if they lose to the Trondheim-based club, David Healy's men will progress to the 'champions' path of the Europa League, securing another two outings at least, likely against faroe Islands side HB Torshavn.

For Linfield it marks a return to European competition for the first time since the summer of 2017 when Jordan Stewart's debut goal secured a 1-0 win over S.P. La Fiorita, before the Blues lost 6-0 on aggregate to Celtic.

It's now the third time the Blues have tackled Rosenborg in the Champions League and Linfield fans will be hoping it is third time lucky after tasting defeat in first round fixtures in 1986 and 2010.

Linfield lost 1-0 in Trondheim and drew 1-1 in Belfast at the start of the 1986-87 season, while in 2010 they drew 0-0 in Belfast and lost 2-0 in Norway.

The classy Norwegians also defeated Crusaders in Europa League qualifying clashes in both 2012 and 2013.

The games are scheduled for July 9/10 at Windsor Park and the away leg on July 16/17.

While the Blues are hoping to land a few surprise blows on the continent this summer, Eirik Horneland's side will set their sights on progressing through three qualifying matches as well as a crucial play-off round to reach the group stage of the Champions League.

They have participated in the group stage of the Champions League 11 times, reaching the quarter-finals in 1996-97, and they are the last Norwegian side to make it that far in the 2007-08 season.

Linfield chairman Roy McGivern attended yesterday's draw in Nyon, with the club's manager Pat Fenlon attending today's second round draw.

McGivern said: "It's a tough draw, and obviously we have played them before and lost. Perhaps they aren't the dominant team they once were and we did manage to avoid the top seeds in BATE Borisov.

"I'm sure David will have the players fired up and they will play in a nice stadium in Trondheim which will be a good experience for the players.

"I know they have a proud European history and are seeded above us for a reason, but the games have been tight between us and the consolation for us is we will go into the Europa League qualifiers too."

Clubs will naturally have travel costs, possibly including a charter flight as well as accommodation, but the European funding is still substantial.

"Looking at the four ties, I would be hopeful of a few of our clubs progressing at least one round. This is an opportunity for us to get coefficient points and vital funding," added McGivern.

"It would be fantastic to see more money coming into our league and that's why clubs are looking at full-time models and perhaps changing the timing of the season. The ambition of all the clubs is to give ourselves the best chance of progressing in Europe."

Irish Cup winners Crusaders will host B36 Torshavn in the first leg at Seaview on July 11 (3pm), before travelling for the second leg a week later on July 18. B36 made it through two rounds of the competition last season by seeing off St Joseph's from Gibraltar and OFK Titograd from Montenegro. They were eventually beaten 8-0 on aggregate by Besiktas.

Torshavn are currently in the middle of the Faroese season, which runs from March to October.

Meanwhile, Newry City have signed former Glenavon midfielder Adam Foley.

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