Straight-talking Chris Shields admits he still has eyes on the big prize of Europa League group stage qualification — despite their midweek defeat to FC Zurich.
Goals from Aiyegun Tosin and Wilfred Gnonto mean David Healy’s troops face a daunting challenge when they travel for the second leg of their Europa League third qualifying round tie on Thursday night.
The Swiss side are now favourites to meet Hearts in a Play-Off for the group stages, while the Blues will face either RFS of Latvia or Maltese outfit Hibernians in a Europa Conference League Play-Off, with the winners reaping the benefits of group action.
Shields knows a thing or two about appearing in European group stages, having been a member of the Dundalk team that reached that juncture of the Europa League in 2016.
And he repeated the feat in 2020, scoring from the penalty spot in the Lilywhites’ 3-1 defeat to Austrian giants Rapid Vienna at the Aviva Stadium during a Group B campaign that also took in memorable contests with Arsenal and Molde.
Although the Conference League is more of a realistic goal for the Blues, Shields certainly hasn’t thrown in the towel for the return leg against the Swiss Champions.
“We must try to put the Conference League to the back of our mind,” he says.
“We can’t go in against Zurich with an attitude of, ‘We have the safety net of the Conference League to fall back on’.
“We knew there would be a big prize if we got past the Champions League round one tie against TNS.
“We should have got more out of the game based on how well we played against Zurich. We gave away two sloppy goals and it’s the old cliché, you can’t afford to do that at that level.
“We restricted them to the two chances they scored. That’s what good teams do, they punish individual errors and silly mistakes.
“The first goal was like a hot knife through butter. Somehow the boy came right through the middle of us. It was a bit disheartening because I thought we started well.
“We kept them penned in, they didn’t see too much of the ball.
“A sucker punch so early in the game was quite frustrating. They are a classy team. They play in a more established League and their budget is much greater than what we are used to.
“But I’m not big on moral victories. It’s no real use to us if people say we put it up to a better team. Personally, I thought we should have come away from the game with at least a draw.”
Zurich brought an estimated 400 fans to Windsor Park and they made a deafening noise over the 90 minutes.
Shields insists he’ll be well prepared for the return leg.
“I’ve experienced plenty of noisy fans, given my time in European football,” he adds.
“I’ve had 30,000 Polish fans shouting at me in a warm-up.
“I think I’ll be able to handle 20,000 Swiss fans shouting at me for 90 minutes, it’s all background noise at the end of the day. It was good to see a partisan away support, it all added to the atmosphere.
“As a player, you don’t know how many European games you are going to play over the course of your career. They are added bonuses and everyone should relish them.”
After their first defeat at Windsor Park for 12 months — since they lost to Fola Esch in the Europa League qualifiers last year — Shields believes Linfield can again make the international venue a fortress.
“We pride ourselves on our home record, especially domestically,” he says. “Coming into the domestic season, we want to keep that going.
“Our League season starts next Sunday, so we’ll be looking to extend the record. We are harsh on ourselves to a certain extent, but not really harsh at the same time of our result (against Zurich)
“This is the level of football we want to be playing, so we have to take some positives out of it. We’ll give it a crack next week. If we can get an early goal, you never know what can happen.
“We’ve seen many historical comebacks in Europe before, so why can’t we be on the end of one?”