Bodø/Glimt goalkeeper Nikita Haikin admits he hadn’t heard of Linfield before last week’s Champions League clash at Windsor Park. The Russian knows who the Blues are now and respects them, but believes that his team can have the final say in this intriguing second qualifying round tie.
David Healy’s men take a 1-0 lead to the return in Norway tomorrow night knowing that if they avoid defeat, they will have made history.
Success over Bodø/Glimt will see them become the first Irish League side to qualify for the group stages in Europe. Regardless of what would happen next in the Champions League or the Europa League, at the very least Linfield would enter the Europa Conference League group phase, which would bring in a minimum of £3 million to the club in the progress.
Russian Haikin knows all about UEFA’s newest competition. The 27-year-old helped the Norwegians reach the Quarter-Finals last season, beating Jose Mourinho’s Roma 6-1 in the group and Celtic home and away in the knockouts.
Bodø/Glimt were the shock outfit and fairytale story on the continent before Roma avenged their earlier humiliation in the last-eight on their way to winning the tournament outright.
The rich experience of last season has given Haikin and his team-mates a hunger to create a stir in the Champions League this time around, though they didn’t reckon on the resilient Blues being so hard to break down at Windsor Park or Kirk Millar’s sublime late winner, chipping the ball over the Russian after dispossessing a defender.
“We dominated the whole game, however at this level in qualification there is no room for mistakes,” said Haikin.
“You can be punished right away and that’s what happened. I didn’t feel that Linfield troubled us even though they are a hard-working team. We had full control throughout but one mistake cost us. That’s what happens. There is no mercy. It was a brilliant finish.
“It was a beautiful stadium with fantastic grass. I really enjoyed being there and definitely the fans were decent and quite loud despite the stadium not being fully-occupied. You can see they have a fanbase.”
On having to come from behind tomorrow, Haikin added: “We have been in these situations before. We don’t really focus on results. We are focusing on performance and what we can improve on. We will definitely give our absolute best. We are going to be playing at home with our home fans so I’m really looking forward to the second leg.”
So can Bodø/Glimt draw on the positive experiences of last year in Europe?
“Yes, I believe so. Those were really tough games. It is a fantastic experience to have in your bag,” states their No.1.
“It was great for our team and the whole region. We achieved something special and we could have gone a bit further but it is what it is. It was a phenomenal experience to grow as an individual and an organisation and it was really fun.”
Born in Israel, Haikin’s family moved to Moscow when he was a little boy. As a teenager he was in Chelsea’s system.
“That was great. For any kid of my age then to be at Chelsea’s academy was quite big. You got everything you ever wanted as a kid growing up,” he says.
“You have all the facilities and it was something really unique. I was only there for two years and sadly I didn’t have the right documents to be registered, so I had to be released.
“I had to be granted clearance from the FA to be officially registered in the system, however I wasn’t granted it due to not being an EU resident, so I went to Portsmouth and Reading and the same problem occurred. I was hoping it could be finally solved but at that stage it was not possible.”
From England he tried to join clubs in Portugal and Spain, encountering similar issues before playing in Israel and Russia and then eventually landing at Bodø/Glimt in 2019. He has impressed so much there that Celtic and Wolves have been linked with signing him.
“It shows hard work pays off, however it is only interest and nothing official as far as I am concerned,” says Haikin, who grew up idolising Chelsea legend Petr Cech.
“It is very important to draw the line between interest and something concrete because it could really play with your head, so I prefer to stay grounded and be present. I don’t know what the future holds and that’s the exciting part. I’m willing to give everything I have until my contract runs out regardless.”
Called up to the Russian senior squad for the first time earlier this year, Haikin hopes to win his first cap sooner rather than later, although Russian sports stars have been under scrutiny since their country’s invasion of Ukraine.
He says: “It is not easy. The situation is very difficult and very hard to observe on a daily basis. I just wish and really hope this could come to an end with peace in the near future. I just want peace.”