Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Love them or loathe them, Linfield's Europa League run has commanded respect and inspired the Irish league

Goal kings: Mark Stafford and Shayne Lavery scored last week
Goal kings: Mark Stafford and Shayne Lavery scored last week

Graham Luney

Linfield Football Club - you either love them or loathe them.

A siege mentality has helped make it the most successful club on this island.

The old chant 'no-one likes us, we don't care' will always be sung with great enthusiasm by those with a love for the club but even the Linfield haters will tip their hat to what they have achieved on the European stage this summer.

Histoslubs have been given a reminder of what can be achieved when you dream big and prepare right.

Any lingering disappointment felt after the defeat on away goals against Qarabag should be booted into touch without hesitation.

A sixth-minute goal from Jaime Romero didn't even disrupt the Blues' composure.

Abdellah Zoubir's late goal didn't even finish them off.

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Shayne Lavery made it 4-4 on aggregate and you could hear the sigh of relief from the Qarabag players more than 3,000 miles away when they squeezed through on away goals.

From the moment manager David Healy took his men to Marbella for a pre-season training camp, it was clear the club meant business in Europe this year but not even Northern Ireland's record goalscorer could have imagined where the journey would lead.

A 6-0 aggregate loss to Rosenborg in the Champions League might have shattered the confidence of many teams but, since then, the club won four consecutive European games for the first time.

A 3-2 aggregate win over HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands saw the Blues reach the Europa League third qualifying round for the first time in half a century and the fairytale continued when a 5-3 victory over Montenegrin champions Sutjeska sealed a play-off date with the Azerbaijani giants.

The astonishing European adventure brought them to the Tofig Bahranov Republican Stadium in Baku last night, defending a 3-2 lead from that unforgettable first leg at Windsor Park.

The opportunity to make Irish League history was always going to weigh heavily on their shoulders but, whatever the outcome, the squad's pride at what they had achieved couldn't be shattered.

This summer the league has been stunned by the news of a lost European place but all the clubs tasted victory on the continent and Linfield raised the bar higher than it's ever been.

The last hurdle to the group stages proved to be impassable but the Blues are well compensated with just under £1.3m banked from their Euro heroics.

In the last 10 seasons only Cliftonville, twice, have managed to wrestle the Gibson Cup from either Linfield or Crusaders.

That trend is unlikely to change any time soon with the flow of European money into those two clubs but Linfield are on the verge of moving into a different financial stratosphere.

Had they secured around £4m from Europa League group stage action, they would have been in danger of disappearing over the horizon.

Love them or loathe them, they have commanded everyone's respect and encouraged the Irish League family to dream bigger, work harder and aim higher.

After coming so close to this particular carrot, the players will want to reach for it again and they will take some stopping when they resume their title defence.

The squad will return to Belfast hungry to go one step further in Europe next time. Their domestic rivals will soon find that out.

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