Belfast Telegraph

Linfield can unlock Irish League's greatest ever achievement by reaching Europa League group stage: Doherty

 

Lee Doherty
Lee Doherty
Firing home: Linfield striker Martin McGaughey beats the Panathinaikos goalkeeper for the first of the three goals in the second leg of the European Cup clash in 1984

By Graham Luney

Former Linfield favourite Lee Doherty says the Blues' progression to the Europa League play-off is a fantastic story for the domestic game, and he believes if they make it to the group stages it will be the greatest achievement by any club in this country.

The Blues take on Azerbaijan champions Qarabag in the first leg at Windsor Park tonight, knowing if they can win this tie they will hit a European jackpot.

No Irish League side has managed to reach the group stages of a major European competition and if David Healy and his men can mastermind a miracle they will see their prize money shoot up from just over £1.3m to a bumper £4m windfall.

Doherty, who wrestled for the Blues in major European battles against opponents like Copenhagen, Panathinaikos and Benfica, believes his former side are on the brink of something special.

"It would be the greatest achievement of any Irish League side if they were to make the group stages," said ex-Blues skipper Doherty who won 20 trophies, including eight league titles, in 14 years at the club.

"Teams have had great successes in Europe but reaching the group stages in the modern game is the pinnacle. Any European game is very tough because we are going into the games in our off-season. David Healy and his boys are to be applauded for what they've achieved so far.

"It's a great Irish League story. We should want all our teams to do really well in Europe because it will enable more of our teams to come in through the door. Hopefully, more European places will be up for grabs."

Former Northern Ireland international Doherty has mixed emotions as he reflects on his European journey with the Windsor Park side.

"I've had good and bad European memories," he added. "The one that sticks out is the Copenhagen game when we went out there with a 3-0 lead. In the 96th minute I gave a free-kick away on the edge of the box which I still don't think was a free-kick. They scored, the game went into extra-time and it slipped away.

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Firing home: Linfield striker Martin McGaughey beats the Panathinaikos goalkeeper for the first of the three goals in the second leg of the European Cup clash in 1984

"I remember my dad phoning me the next day and asking had I heard the draw. I asked if it was Manchester United as I was a big United fan but he said, 'No, it's AC Milan in the San Siro'. No wonder a disappointment like that sticks in your mind.

"The only goal I scored in Europe was against Benfica but it was an own goal when it was 0-0 with about 14 minutes to go. I scored at the Stadium of Light and they went on to beat us 3-0."

Doherty has been impressed with Linfield's displays.

"I've watched Linfield a few times this season and I've been very impressed," he added. "The new boys Bastien Hery and Shayne Lavery have added energy and quality. Andy Waterworth had been leading the line on his own and David (Healy) has obviously found the solution in the young lad, Lavery.

"They are facing a big test as this team have a strong European pedigree. League of Ireland sides have managed to progress to the group stages in Europe but it would be a fantastic achievement for an Irish league side.

"It's going to be very difficult but the financial rewards would be significant. There is the possibility of Linfield becoming stronger but I think there are gaps in the league anyway. We have a top six and bottom six and you could probably predict five of the top six.

"Linfield could earn the sort of money which covers an Irish League budget for 10 years. They should be next to go full-time here. It's the way to go."

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