Belfast Telegraph

Miracle of Baku is within Linfield's grasp: Blues believe ahead of Europa League second leg against Qarabag


Linfield go to Baku with a 3-2 lead from the first leg.
Linfield go to Baku with a 3-2 lead from the first leg.
Pat Fenlon

By Graham Luney

Pat Fenlon says Linfield's first leg triumph over Qarabag ranks as one of the best performances by an Irish side in Europe and he believes David Healy and his men can make history by becoming the first Irish League side to make the Europa League group stages.

The Danske Bank Premiership champions still face a daunting challenge in Baku's sweltering heat tonight (5pm), but Blues general manager Fenlon says a European miracle is possible.

A brilliant 3-2 victory at Windsor Park has ensured Linfield embarked on the long trip with belief and confidence, and if they can produce one more magical performance, an estimated £4m will be their reward for making the group stages.

It could be the biggest night in the club's history and the tie is still very much alive after a Shayne Lavery double and Mark Stafford header secured a memorable first leg win.

Fenlon, who won a league championship and two Irish Cups with Linfield in the 1990s, has travelled to Azerbaijan with the squad, hoping to witness the club's finest hour.

There have been stunning tales of Irish success in Europe, including Michael O'Neill's Shamrock Rovers and Stephen Kenny's Dundalk making the Europa League group stages in 2011 and 2016.

And Fenlon was the first manager to reach the third qualifying round of the Champions League with an Irish club. In 2004, his Shelbourne side marched past Hajduk Split and KR Reykjavik before losing 3-0 at Deportivo la Coruna after recording a famous 0-0 draw with the Spanish heavyweights at Lansdowne Road. But the midfield genius in Trevor Anderson's mid-Nineties Linfield side says the Blues' first leg victory over Qarabag was as special as the other Irish success stories in Europe and he's hoping the fairytale run isn't over yet.

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"It was a brilliant night and result," said the former Hibernian and Derry City boss. "It ranks up there with all the wins Irish teams have had in Europe when you consider where we are in our season as a part-time team.

"It's a fantastic achievement by the players, the manager and his staff. If we don't have belief now we will never have it.

"We've won four European ties on the spin and beaten a top side in Qarabag. We are scoring goals and can prove we can score away from home too. It's going to be very difficult, everyone understands that, but we have come this far and, in light of what the manager and the players have achieved so far, we are in Azerbaijan full of confidence.

"They are a good side with good players, but we have shown we aren't a bad side either. We've something to hang onto now and that's what you need away from home in the second leg. We are definitely still in this tie."

The Blues have already swept aside HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska in a European run which has seen them win back-to-back ties for the first time since 1966, and four consecutive games for the first time in the club’s history.

The Azerbaijan champions came to Windsor Park with a big reputation but tenacious little terrier Shayne Lavery seized the opportunity to grab the spotlight.

His two impressive finishes, the second a brilliant individual effort, had the Blues faithful in fine voice, though Magaye Gueye’s injury-time penalty was a real sting in the tail.

“It’s making history for the club in terms of wins in European football,” added 50-year-old Dubliner Fenlon.

Pat Fenlon

“You are normally coming up against stronger opposition every time so everyone deserves huge credit for going on this superb run.

“It’s difficult to win games in Europe, never mind four in a row. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

“We have got very good players and a very good squad. The lads are strong and there’s good young, promising talent there. David also has good cover in key positions.

“When you go into games like this you just want to still be in the tie going into the second leg and that’s what we’ve done against really good opposition.

“I was fortunate to cover both of Qarabag’s games against Dundalk for television down south and they were very good in both games. So we’ve kept the tie alive, which was our goal, and coming out with the victory gives us all great hope and belief for the away leg.”

The pot of gold at the end of the Europa League rainbow for Linfield is worth around £4m, but Fenlon, who sees his job as raising the club’s profile, isn’t seeing dollar signs.

“I don’t think this is about finances, it’s about raising the profile of the club and that has been my job since I’ve come here,” added Fenlon, whose European highlights include a stunning 2-0 win for Shels over Hajduk Split at Tolka Park.

“By winning football matches at this level it certainly lifts the profile and it should only be about that. The money from group stage action is welcome but from being in a dressing room myself I know what these performances mean to the players and the pride they feel at helping the club make history. It shows what can be achieved through hard work.

“We’ve got a plan to go full-time and that was always going to remain in place whatever happened with our European campaign.

“We will plan it properly and see it out. There’s a strategic plan in place and it has to be right for the club in the long term.

“There was doom and gloom when we found out about our lost European place but all the clubs performed really well this summer and that’s a big help to the Uefa co-efficient.

“It’s great for the Irish League as a whole and I love being part of this club, I’m busy but it’s a great football club to work for. I’m committed to seeing it move forward.”

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