David Healy hails 'special' history-makers as Linfield reach Europa League Play-Offs
Linfield manager David Healy has hailed the mental strength of his squad after they made history at Windsor Park.
The boss had challenged his players to 'do something special' in this summer's European run and they have certainly delivered, becoming the first Blues team to win back-to-back European ties in 52 years and the first Irish League team to make it to the Europa League Play-Off round.
Mark Stafford, the outstanding Shayne Lavery and Matthew Clarke were on target to seal a 3-2 win over Montenegrin champions FK Sutjeska and a 5-3 victory on aggregate.
"Special group of players," Healy said. "They did the job.
"We got the early goal from a set-play which was pleasing. I was starting to get frustrated with our set-pieces in pre-season because we didn't look as if we were going to be a threat. That's a big part of our game.
"Thankfully we got one on Saturday and we should be getting people in those areas.
"Mark Stafford more often than not is going to head it because he's brave. He got a big goal for us.
"We conceded a poor goal then. We looked a little bit ragged under four or five of their free-kicks in the first half which was concerning. I'll look at that after and discuss it with the staff to make sure we're better equipped."
Sutjeska managed to fire home a second equaliser after the hour-mark, hauling their 10 men within one goal of turning the tie on its head.
The pressure was ramped up inside Windsor Park but the atmosphere rose to match it.
Just a few minutes later, substitute Joel Cooper responded by producing a brilliant piece of play to cross for Matthew Clarke to put the tie to bed.
"For 15 or 20 minutes of the second half, we looked disjointed, ragged and tired but credit to the players," said Healy.
"From the touchline I'm always trying to make sure we get the word on to remain calm. Going into the game, I wanted them to play calm and remain calm. Different circumstances were going to happen.
"Last year wasn't an easy year and for the players to come through it, they were battle-hardened and mentally stronger. Me as a manager, you have to be mentally strong to manage at Linfield. If you're seen to be under pressure, you'll fail.
"The three changes that we made, Joel Cooper, Andy Waterworth and Jordan Stewart, would play in the majority of teams in, not only Northern Ireland, but on this island.
"To have that in the back of your mind, and that's why I didn't start Joel, if we got to the hour mark and we needed something, they could all give us that. Joel did wonderfully well for that third goal.
"Their fitness levels were phenomenal the way they kept going. The disappointing thing was that it was only 3-2 tonight because we created numerous chances. We did that on Saturday and didn't seem to be as ruthless as we normally are. We've one league game and six European games under our belt, we're still hoping to make improvements going forward."
Linfield will now take on Qarabag in the Play-Offs, first at home next Thursday (August 22) and then away a week later.
Win and Linfield would go through to the group stages. There's more history still to be made.
Belfast Telegraph Digital