Linfield's Europa League run could fast-track full-time plans, admits chairman
Chairman Roy McGivern admits Linfield's Europa League achievements could well help accelerate the club's ambitions to revert to full-time football.
The Blues narrowly missed out on qualification to the group stages of the tournament, losing on the away goal rule to Azerbaijani Champions Qarabag.
But it was a financially rewarding experience for the Danske Bank Premiership title holders as they pocketed a cool £1.2m for reaching the play-off round.
McGivern had previously indicated the club had a five-year plan which would see the development of full-time football.
Having defeated the Champions of the Faroe Islands, HB Torshavn, and Montenegro, Sutjeska and just missing out against the kingpins of Azerbaijan, that full-time dream may come sooner rather than later.
"We do have a five-year plan for the football club, but this campaign whetted all our appetites - it showed what can be achieved," said McGivern.
"With the second Europa League being developed in 2021, there is no reason why Irish League teams can't enter the group stages sooner rather than later, that has to be our aim.
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"Yes, we have ambitions of going full-time, but it has to be a transition process.
"We have players on contracts that full-time football doesn't suit because they have good working careers away from football. We'll certainly be looking at others to see if they would fit into a full-time set up. That's still to be discussed in the weeks and months ahead. It could be a two or three year transition period before the club could be classed as full-time model."
The Blues created a little piece of history by reaching the play-off round and, although the bank balance was boosted considerably, McGivern prefers to focus on the club's achievement.
He adds: "For me, it's more about the prestige and pride of getting through to the group stage play-off round - putting Linfield on the European map, rather than the money we've pulled in.
"It's around 1.3m Euro gross. I do emphasise the word gross because we have charter flights, hotels and other expenses to pay for.
"But we also had four well attended home games to add into that, so it's all been very, very positive. We all know finance is important to every football club, but the players and the management team must take the plaudits for their professional approach.
"People can relate to the 1966/67 season when we got through to the quarter finals of the European Cup, well these players will fall into that same category - this campaign has been right up there with that achievement.
"There was no disgrace in being knocked out of the Champions League by a team like Rosenborg.
"The big pressure tie was against HB Torshavn in the Europa League because that was a game we were probably expected to win - they are similar co-efficient to ourselves.
"Once we got through that, everything else was a bonus. To beat the Champions of Montenegro, who are higher ranked than we are, home and away, was a fantastic achievement.
"Then, to compete with Qarabag over two legs really topped the lot.
"This is a club that competes regularly in the group stages of not only the Europa League, but also the Champions League.
"We are all very proud of what the team has achieved. I was pitch-side on the final whistle and, as I congratulated our players on their efforts, most of them had tears in their eyes. The knew they did the club and the Irish League proud."
McGivern admits the decision to invest in new players - and also to fund a pre-season training camp in Spain - paid a huge dividend in terms of their European success.
"We took a conscious decision to add two real quality players to the group - we stretched the budget to do that," admits the Blues chief.
"Shayne Lavery and Bastien Hery have proved their worth and that extra bit of quality certainly played a part in the European run.
"Shayne's goals in particular, have been crucial. Although most of our players are part time, we decided to focus a lot on pre-season which prompted the decision to set up a training camp in Marbella.
"It's the first time we ever done that and the club invested a lot of money in the venture, but it was worth it because the players' level of fitness have improved.
"I think it proved if you invest in the team and give them the platform, they can compete at this level."