Belfast Telegraph

Linfield's Ryan McGivern can prove he's the man for the big occasion again - just ask Ronaldo

Battle ready: Ryan McGivern is ready to help Linfield take another giant stride in Europe tonight
Battle ready: Ryan McGivern is ready to help Linfield take another giant stride in Europe tonight
Ryan McGivern against Portugal

By Steven Beacom

Linfield's Ryan McGivern knows all about playing on big occasions when the stakes are high. Porto 2012 in a World Cup qualifier immediately springs to mind.

Back then, McGivern was in Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland team taking on a classy Portugal side. To make a tough test even more challenging, the great Cristiano Ronaldo was winning his 100th cap and determined to mark the milestone in style.

The former Manchester United and Real Madrid star, now with Juventus, thought Northern Ireland would be lambs to the slaughter. Instead, McGivern and co played like lions.

Time and time again, Ronaldo was frustrated in his attempts to score, with more often than not McGivern shutting him out. It was the game of his life and helped O'Neill's men earn a 1-1 draw.

McGivern was playing his club football for Hibernian, on loan from Manchester City, having been brought to Edinburgh by then Easter Road boss Pat Fenlon, currently doing an impressive job as Linfield's general manager.

McGivern also played for City, Leicester and Crystal Palace, among others, in a decade across the water, winning 25 international caps in the process.

"That was a fantastic performance from all the boys," recalled the 29-year-old, reflecting on that night in Portugal.

"Ronaldo is one of the best players of all time, and with it being his 100th cap everyone thought he would be the star of the show, but we battled really hard and got a draw which was a brilliant result.

"It was a great night, though I don't tend to look back. It will be something to reflect on when I finish playing. I like to focus on the present."

For Linfield and McGivern, that means a monumental Europa League clash against Sutjeska at Windsor Park tonight. The Blues lead the third qualifying round tie 2-1 from the first leg in Montenegro, where McGivern shone in his first game of the season. In his second on Saturday, he scored in a 3-1 league victory over Institute.

It's a far cry to the frustrations of last season when he missed most of the campaign through injury having signed for former international team-mate David Healy in 2018.

"I'm glad to be back involved. It's been quite a frustrating time. I was injured the week before last season started almost exactly a year to playing in Montenegro," explained McGivern.

"It's been a long 12 months. I missed so much football and it's like playing catch up, but to come back into a game of that magnitude and get a result, it helps make up for all the long sessions in the gym and time spent with the physios who have been great with me.

"Before the game out there, the manager (Healy) had said that he felt we could get a result and we had the belief to go and do that.

"It's only half-time though, and we have to finish the job with another big performance."

Already this season, Linfield's summer signings Rohan Ferguson, Bastien Hery and Shayne Lavery have had a major impact. McGivern is almost like a new recruit himself after his misfortune last season.

"When you come to a new club, you want to hit the ground running and impress and you want to pay back the faith that the manager has shown in you," says McGivern.

"Last season was tough because I would be sitting behind the dug-out not able to help the team. Injuries are part and parcel of football and you just have to keep your head knowing you will be back at some stage.

"I only had a handful of games when I got fit towards the end of last season and that was only right as there was no way the manager was going to change the back four because they were unbelievable.

"The competition is fierce at Linfield. When you look at the depth we have, it will be a job to keep your place this season. I believe we have the best squad in the league. We have experience, youth, pace and character. When you have the shirt you have to do everything you can to keep hold of it and that's what I aim to do."

The Blues have already banked £1m for their run in Europe. Make it through versus Sutjeska tonight and they will face either Apoel (Cyprus) or Qarabag (Azerbaijan) in the play-off round with a place in the group stages and at least another £2.69m on the line.

McGivern says: "People upstairs may be looking at the financial aspects and what it means for the club but players can't be thinking about that. We have to concentrate on putting in a strong performance.

"We know the magnitude of the game for the club. To still be in European football at this stage is great for Linfield and we want to stay in it.

"We are under no illusions though. We may have earned a result out there but we are expecting a very tough game against them at Windsor Park tonight."

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