Linfield are well prepared for biggest game in club's history, says Mulgrew
Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew has pinpointed the professionalism of pre-season as a key factor behind the club's remarkable run in Europe.
Mulgrew acknowledges Thursday night's second leg in the Europa League play-off round against Qarabag in Azerbaijan is the biggest game in Linfield's history, with so much at stake.
Not only would the Blues bank £4m by reaching the group stages of the competition but the players would go down as Irish League legends and potentially set up glamour fixtures against Manchester United, Arsenal, Roma, Sevilla, Rangers or Celtic.
Inspirational Mulgrew is the longest-serving star at the club and is revelling in the stunning feats being delivered by manager David Healy and the rest of the team.
Today, Linfield set off to Baku on a chartered flight and take a 3-2 first-leg lead with them courtesy of a Mark Stafford goal, a dynamic double from Shayne Lavery and a fantastic team effort.
The Blues are underdogs, but they plan to send Qarabag out the same way as HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska, even though Mulgrew admits the Azeri champions will be stronger at home.
Asked if Thursday's game was potentially the biggest the club has played, Mulgrew replied: "If we are realistic, we all know that. We have known once we reached this stage that we had two massive games ahead of us.
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"I believe in the second leg they will reach another couple of levels and we have to be prepared for that.
"What we wanted as players, and I know the staff wanted this as well, was to have something to fight for in the second leg.
"At 1-0 down at Windsor it wasn't looking that way until we recovered. At 3-1 up we had plenty to hold onto. 3-2 makes it more difficult but, at the end of the day, if someone had said beforehand we would win the first leg 3-2 we'd all have laughed.
"That's where we are and we have shown we are capable of big performances in Europe.
"We have won four games in a row now in Europe, which is unheard of in the Irish League. I think other Irish League teams have performed well in Europe this season, showing standards are increasing and maybe the league deserves more respect. Clubs are becoming more professional and players here are athletes now."
Speaking about the importance of Linfield's summer training camp in Spain, Mulgrew added: "Credit to Linfield for the pre-season we've had to give us a platform to try and go that bit further in Europe. We have repaid that and worked incredibly hard to show what they've done for us can make a difference.
"I thought we had a good chance to beat HB Torshavn but the team from the Faroe Islands gave us a hell of a game over both legs.
"To beat Sutjeska from Montenegro was a fabulous result. As the games have gone on we have got fitter, and going on the pre-season training camp has really benefited us that way.
"This was the best pre-season I've been involved in and the players deserve credit for buying into it.
"The way European football is now, if you are in the Champions League and lose you get another crack at it in the Europa League, and we have taken advantage.
"The fitness levels are obviously good but you also need that hunger and desire to do well for ourselves and Linfield, and we have shown that."
Mulgrew, as honest off the pitch as he is committed on it, pointed to the quality of set-pieces produced by Linfield in the Windsor Park first leg which led to two goals.
"Probably like everyone else when we went 1-0 down at Windsor early on we feared the worst," said the Blues skipper.
"But we recovered well and used one of our main strengths which is set-pieces. We score a lot of goals from set-pieces and have players who can deliver a good ball and guys who make good runs. We practice that and it seems to work for us.
"We have guys who can deliver good balls from all over the park, Chris Casement at right-back, Andy Mitchell, Kirk Millar, Niall Quinn, I could go on, and that's why we are dangerous from set-pieces. It was an area we wanted to target because they weren't a big, physical side."
The only concern surrounding Linfield's incredible European adventure is how it will impact their domestic form having lost 4-2 at home to Coleraine in the middle of it.
"We have a big enough squad and enough quality in our squad to deal with that," said Mulgrew.
"At Linfield we don't make excuses. Not having the Larne league game next Monday, having come back from a long trip to Azerbaijan, gives us an opportunity to refocus, recover and get ready for the bread and butter which is the league for us."
Asked what happens if the Blues reach the Europa group stages, a smiling Mulgrew added: "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it."