Belfast Telegraph

Why Linfield must get greedy to claim Europa League history, explains Healy

Linfield v Qarabag, Europa League Play-Off First Leg, Windsor Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

Rousing applause: David Healy leads his Linfield players in celebrating their win against Sutjeska in the previous round
Rousing applause: David Healy leads his Linfield players in celebrating their win against Sutjeska in the previous round
David Healy's last Northern Ireland goal was against Azerbaijan in 2012

By Graham Luney

David Healy has reassured Linfield fans that domestic dominance will always be the club's premier goal… but not until these next two matches are over.

The Europa League play-off battles with Azerbaijan champions Qarabag are dominating thoughts at Windsor Park and while it's a formidable challenge for the Premiership champions, they will fight for the prize of reaching the group stages with every fibre of their being.

If they become the first Irish League club to net that glittering prize, the financial rewards are mind-boggling and will leave the club well placed to blow away rivals in the domestic game.

The Blues have won two consecutive European ties for the first time in more than 50 years, bagging close to £1.3m - but progression to the group stages will see their prize money soar to £4m.

It's an opportunity that has never before landed at the feet of Irish League players and this game has always been about seizing the moment and delivering on the big stage.

The Linfield players, who have conquered HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska, have more history on their minds and Healy has encouraged them to reach for the stars.

"Other people can talk about the finances but we ask the players to make history and they have done that," said the Blues boss.

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"We won the League Cup last season for the first time in 11 years, they ticked that off, we won two European ties in a row, they ticked that off. The tradition of the football club is dictated by the players, whether it's the clean sweep team or double winners.

"I believe that this group of players are capable of going on and creating their own bit of history. It's a difficult test but I have every faith in them going into the game."

Some supporters, while enjoying this European ride, are wondering how it will impact on the pursuit of league titles and cups.

Healy made several changes to his team for the league game at home to Coleraine on Saturday and the Bannsiders, catching a scent of blood, went in for the kill.

Linfield's fixture programme has been disrupted and should they make the group stages of the Europa League, it may prove virtually impossible to sustain a title challenge if their rivals can take advantage.

Healy understands the fans' fears, but a Linfield team has never been this close to a promised land of European riches. They simply have to give it everything they have.

"The bread and butter for us is always the league and that will be our priority because without that you don't earn the right to be in the position we find ourselves," said the 40-year-old.

"We don't have a league game for a few weeks so this is the priority as it's the here and now.

"We will give everything over the two legs and we just hope the little bit of luck we need comes our way.

"Any time we get to a cup final or are involved in big games I always say to the players, 'You never know when you will get this opportunity again'. You have to enjoy the experience and be excited by the challenge.

"You hope the qualities of the players, individually and collectively as a squad, with the faith the management have in them, they can deliver. We have come this far and as difficult as the challenge is, we don't want to look back with regrets.

"If we go out of the Europa League I will be gutted and disappointed because I want more of it and the players need to want more, they need to be greedy. That's the mentality I want to see here, once you win you need to taste that feeling again. That gives the team confidence they can keep turning teams over."

You get the feeling Linfield players will start in fifth gear tonight and they will need an impressive performance to give them hope going into the tough test in humid conditions next week. Qarabag, with all their European experience, shouldn't be easily rattled but they would much rather be competing in the Champions League than seeing off determined opponents on a wet and windy night at Windsor.

"In the back of their minds they won't relish coming to Belfast and will probably think they should be playing Ajax in the Champions League," added Healy, whose last Northern Ireland goal was against Azerbaijan in 2012. "Our approach will not change, we will go out and maybe surprise them a little bit.

"I don't want to give the players any negative thoughts going into the game.

"They are a good side, they have a good blend of youth and experience and their wide players can hurt you. They have Spanish and Brazilian players playing for them while we have a lad from out in the country, living on the planet he does!

"But what we do have is a tight knit group of players who are looking forward to it. They have earned the right to be in this round with top players and we'll relish this challenge."

No one, including Healy, expected the Blues to be in this position when they embarked on their European campaign but fortune has favoured the brave.

"There's always big games at Linfield but five or six weeks ago I probably didn't think we would be in this position, while always having hope," he added. "The players have shown what is possible.

"There have been dangerous opponents and teams we have faced and the players have dealt with it. I can't sit here and say we will be on the back foot, we will be an attacking side whatever formation we play.

"We've made changes but they've been attacking changes and we've benefited from that. This team are a step up in class but I don't see why we should change our attacking mindset."

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