Belfast Telegraph

'Bring it on': Linfield won't fear Qarabag in search of Europa League group dream, roars Healy

 

Linfield players, including Mark Stafford (top), rush to congratulate scorer Shayne Lavery during the third qualifying round win over FK Sutjeska
Linfield players, including Mark Stafford (top), rush to congratulate scorer Shayne Lavery during the third qualifying round win over FK Sutjeska
Class act: Bastien Hery goes close for Linfield in the big Europa League victory over Sutjeska at Windsor Park
Linfield manager David Healy

By Steven Beacom

David Healy could see tears in the eyes of some of his Linfield players. They had just beaten FK Sutjeska 3-2 at Windsor Park, earning a 5-3 aggregate success and creating history in the process.

On Tuesday night, the Blues became the first Irish League side to reach the Europa League play-off round and the first Linfield team since 1966 to win back-to-back ties in Europe.

Next up they face Qarabag from Azerbaijan for a place in the group stages.

It's a tough task but, after the tears of joy, Healy insists there will be no fears about the challenge ahead.

"Bring it on. As with the game with Sutjeska, we have zero to fear," said Healy, whose team selections and tactics during this European run have been extremely clever.

"The shackles should be off. It's a tie I'm certainly looking forward to.

"We will be underdogs but football can work in mysterious ways.

"Shocks can happen and it is a challenge the players will meet head on.

"We will probably need to ride our luck a little bit over both legs but our players are more than capable of producing something special again.

"The way they are feeling within themselves and within their group and the feelings of the staff on top of that, we can't wait.

"Some of the players had tears in their eyes after the Sutjeska game.

"That is a pleasing thing for me to see. Some people ask if players go home disappointed after a defeat. Absolutely they do. I know how much these players care.

"This is a special group and I was so pleased for them to get through to the play-off round.

"I'm here to manage the football club and I was bursting with pride after the win at Windsor just as I was last week - a Linfield team going to a country like Montenegro in unfamiliar circumstances and for us to produce that performance was something else.

"I burst with pride when we win any game, be it Sutjeska, Glentoran or PSNI in the County Antrim Shield, I burst with pride because this job means a lot to me, and so do all of the players.

"I wouldn't say I'm their friend, and I'm sure they would say that themselves even though I enjoy a joke and banter.

"When it comes to it, the players jump when the boss says jump but I've either signed the players, re-signed them or brought some of the younger ones in, so I hope I have a close relationship with them."

A memorable night on Tuesday, the atmosphere inside Windsor Park for a club game was as electric as it has been for years.

Goals from Mark Stafford, Shayne Lavery and Matthew Clarke were greeted with mighty roars from the home fans.

Facing a team from Azerbaijan will bring back happy memories for Healy given that was the nation he scored his 36th and final international goal against - an injury-time equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Windsor.

"That was basically my last kick of a ball in a Northern Ireland shirt," he recalled.

"I know I played a cap after that but I don't think I touched the ball in the Israel game."

Healy and his staff already have detailed information about their next European opponents.

To top it up, the Linfield boss admitted he may touch base with Dundalk, who lost to Qarabag in the Champions League last month.

What is evident, as it has been in Europe all season, is that the Blues will be well prepared for the play-off clash.

"We had the training camp in Spain in the summer, which cost the club a few quid, but with the fitness levels we have you can see it was worth it," added boss Healy.

"From day one, the players have been great. Last year wasn't easy but they are battle hardened. I know I have to be mentally tough to manage Linfield too, and if you're seen to be weak, you will fail."

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