Champions League first round, second leg. Copenhagen, September 29, 1993. Deep into injury time and Linfield legend Lee Doherty gives away a disputed free-kick 25 yards from goal. The Blues are trailing 2-0 on the night in Denmark but leading 3-2 on aggregate thanks to a stunning first leg display at Windsor Park a fortnight earlier.
Up steps Lars Hojer Nielsen and rockets a right footed shot into the top corner of the net. The roars from the ecstatic home support could be heard all over the Danish capital. It’s the last action before extra-time, in which Copenhagen score again to seal a stunning 4-3 triumph.
With the current Linfield squad set to travel to Bosnia holding a 4-0 first leg lead over Borac in the Europa Conference League, Doherty is reflecting on events in Copenhagen almost three decades ago hoping David Healy’s boys don’t suffer a similar fate.
This is one of the most respected figures in Irish League history, an outstanding midfield general who won 20 trophies at Linfield, including EIGHT league titles, and scored on his debut for Northern Ireland — yet the pain and regret remains when speaking about that crazy night in 1993.
Then there’s the aftermath with Copenhagen drawing mighty AC Milan in the next round. Doherty and the Blues were within seconds of taking on the Italian giants managed by Fabio Capello with superstars in their squad such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Marco van Basten, Marcel Desailly and Jean-Pierre Papin. Milan went on to win the Champions League that season, beating Barcelona 4-0 in the final.
It’s worth pointing out that Linfield were only playing Copenhagen after being reinstated in the competition having lost in the preliminary round to Dinamo Tbilisi, who were later expelled for attempting to bribe an official in the first leg of the tie.
“I don’t remember much about the first leg against Copenhagen. I tend to remember bad things in football rather than good things. That’s the way my mind works,” says Doherty.
Told the Linfield team from the Windsor Park victory, the 58-year-old architect adds: “Having Noel Bailie, Alan Dornan and John Easton at the back obviously helped us because they are three of the best defenders ever at Linfield and, with Garry Haylock and Dessie Gorman up front, we had a pretty strong side.
“Copenhagen had six or seven Danish internationals so they had lots of quality. What I do recall is that we weren’t lucky to win 3-0 and we were very confident going over there knowing at the same time it would be difficult.
“The mindset was ‘do not concede an early goal’ and ‘let’s keep it tight in that crucial opening 15 minute period’ and what happened? We conceded in the first couple of minutes when I should have done better before they scored. That goal gave them a massive lift.
“They scored again after about 25 minutes to make it 2-0. After that, though, we defended well and looked as though we were going to see it out. We couldn’t understand why there was so much injury time but it proved crucial.
“It was me who was penalised for a foul that led to the free-kick they scored from in the 94th minute. That made it 3-0 and the tie went into extra time. It was never a foul but, even so, I tortured myself about it.
“I got my leg around their player and poked the ball clear but the referee gave a foul. The free-kick they scored from was unbelievable. It was one of the best I’ve seen but it shouldn’t have been awarded.
“That was a huge moment. They scored in extra-time and won 4-3 on aggregate and I was devastated and felt a huge responsibility for the result. Everyone was so down in the changing room after that game in Copenhagen.
“We were 3-0 up from the first leg and to lose it from there was so hard to take. In some of my post-match interviews, I found it very difficult to speak. I had many many highs in my career but that loss was right up there with the biggest disappointments I’ve had in football. That was probably the lowest I’ve felt after a game.”
Doherty wasn’t feeling any better the following day when his father called him to commiserate and inform him of the second round draw.
“My dad was on the phone the next day and told me Copenhagen had drawn AC Milan in the next round so that’s who we would have played had we gone through,” says Doherty,
“My dad said to me ‘you’ll not believe who Copenhagen drew’ and I said ‘please don’t tell me it was Manchester United’ because I’ve always been a big United fan and when he said it was AC Milan that felt almost as bad because we had missed out on a chance to play in the magnificent San Siro stadium against a truly great team.
“They then went on to actually win the Champions League that season.
"For us, it was a case of what might have been.”