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Larne’s Euro fairytale still sinking in, says Albert Watson



Larne players celebrate Ronan Hale’s goal which helped seal progress in the Europa Conference League. Credit: INPHO/Bo Amstrup

Larne players celebrate Ronan Hale’s goal which helped seal progress in the Europa Conference League. Credit: INPHO/Bo Amstrup

©INPHO/Bo Amstrup

Larne players celebrate Ronan Hale’s goal which helped seal progress in the Europa Conference League. Credit: INPHO/Bo Amstrup

Larne will join the likes of Roma and Spurs in Monday’s Europa Conference League final qualifying round draw – something veteran defender Albert Watson admits is hard to take in.

The Invermen – in European football for the first time in their 132-year history – continue to defy the odds.

At the start of the month, they overcame Welsh side Bala Town with 1-0 wins secured both home away.

While Bala came into the competition as a seeded team, the victory over two legs in the second round against Danish side AGF Aarhus was an upset on a major scale.

A 1-1 draw in Aarhus on Thursday was enough to see Larne through 3-2 on aggregate, with the reward a tie against Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira in the third round.

Both sides will go into next week’s draw for a place in the final qualifying stage – potentially against one of Europe’s big hitters – awaiting the winners.

“It’s hard to sum it up,” Watson said after Thursday’s Danish trip.

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“If someone had told people who have been with this club for a long time what we would do this summer, you would have struggled to believe them.

“If they had told you we would beat a team like Aarhus, who are a top four side in the Danish Superliga, and that we would be going to play a quality Portuguese side next it is hard to believe.

“It means a huge amount to this club and I’m delighted for everyone here – including those who are working away behind the scenes.”

The result takes Larne’s overall European prize money for the season to €850,000 (£724,884).

Tiernan Lynch’s side took a 2-1 lead to Denmark, after a memorable victory at Inver Park. Many expected the Superliga side to turn the tie around at Ceres Park however, especially after getting the boost of a late goal in the first tie. However, Larne once again ripped up the script. Icelandic international winger Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson was sent off midway through the first half to leave the Danes with an uphill task on the night.

That became a mountain to climb as Ronan Hale scored on the cusp of half-time to further increase Larne’s lead.

Patrick Olsen, once of Inter Milan, gave the home side hope with a 76th minute penalty, in front of a 5,000 strong crowd.

Larne bravely held on in the closing stages, literally putting their bodies on the line in the face of a late onslaught.

“The boys were outstanding, with the shift they put in,” Watson added.

“We knew coming here, in front of their home crowd, that they would be smarting from the first leg.

“They got some criticism after the first game and we knew it would spur them on.

“If you look at it, we limited them to very few chances and we did so well.

“We didn’t keep the ball all that well, but sometimes away from home you have to dig in, against a very good side.

“You could see the boys throwing their bodies in front of everything and giving everything for each other. That’s what we’re built on.”

Pacos de Ferreira finished fifth in last season’s Primeira Liga.

That earned only Pacos de Ferreira’s fourth ever season in UEFA competition, having gone straight into the Europa League group stage in 2013-14 by finishing third in their domestic division. They even earned a 0-0 draw with Italian giants Fiorentina but haven’t been in Europe since that season.

“We’re playing at a totally different level now,” said Lynch.

“This is a good team with a lot of very good players and we had to come here with a little bit different mindset but I thought the mindset was absolutely superb.”

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