From the very moment a Linfield versus Glasgow Celtic clash in the 2nd Qualifying Round of this season’s UEFA Champions League competition became a very real possibility (which, let’s be honest, and without wanting to lightly dismiss San Marino champions La Fiorita, was pretty much as soon as the draw was made!), the buzz of excitement and anticipation was almost palpable in South Belfast.
Despite both clubs enjoying very illustrious, trophy-laden histories stretching back to the late 19th century, they have never met in any type of game, competitive or otherwise, before now. The fact that the modern format of the Champions League effectively makes it nigh on impossible for relatively small part-time clubs like Linfield to ever break into the ‘promised land’ of Group Stage football in Europe’s premier club competition means the financial reward for the Blues in overcoming La Fiorita 1-0 on aggregate on 4th July couldn’t be bigger than a clash with a giant club like Celtic. Put simply, the Blues need to maximise the financial windfall made possible by getting paired with Brendan Rodgers’ team, as it will probably be their last European fixtures for another 12 months.
Indeed, it could be argued that the Scottish Champions might consider themselves a bit unfortunate to even have to be competing at this early stage of the competition, given their history and stature in the game, but the standing of football in Scotland is not what it once was, and with that decline comes new realities; when the Celts take to the pitch at Windsor Park in just over a week’s time they will find as hostile a ‘welcome’ as anything they might encounter later in the competition in much bigger stadiums in other cities across Europe.
It must be said that some of the media attention that has been focused on this fixture since the draw was made in mid-June has been utterly ridiculous, albeit most of the, frankly, hysterically vitriolic and inaccurate nonsense (aimed particularly at Linfield and their fans) has predictably originated from non-football sources. The tired, clichéd guff coming from one infamous phone-in talk-show host from Northern Ireland will have surprised no-one, but to see journalistic organs with a much higher ‘standing’ in their coverage of the game indulge in some of the inaccurate myth-peddling has been both saddening and somewhat surprising to this author.
One newspaper in Scotland even printed a story relating to openly sectarian hate-filled experiences supposedly suffered by a former Celtic player at the hands of Linfield fans at Windsor Park during his days with Aberdeen….only to have it later pointed out to them by Linfield that the Blues had NEVER played against an Aberdeen side during any period of the time in question….. In other words, the former player had made up an utter fabrication, which was printed ‘at face value’ without any background checks being made as to the authenticity of his remarks! At best, that is lazy, shoddy journalism.
Of course, the idea of a Celtic side coming to play Linfield in Belfast on 12th July was NEVER even a possibility, and anyone who thought that it was should consult their nearest psychiatrist immediately! After extensive consultation between the two clubs, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and UEFA, it was agreed that a compromise date of 14th July be selected for the 1st leg game; whilst I don’t think anyone from Linfield has any issue with that date, the strict imposition of a 5.00 pm kickoff for the game is a different matter altogether, particularly on foot of the disappointing announcement from Celtic that they would not be selling any tickets to their own supporters for the Belfast game.
Which party in the negotiations stipulated an early kickoff time has not been made clear, but you’d have to think it was the PSNI, and if so that is a damning indictment of that organization’s faith in its own ability to adequately police a football match which now (without away fans ‘officially’ attending the venue) should be more than manageable for any competent police force. No-one can tell me that the revamped, and mostly rebuilt, Windsor Park is not capable of hosting a match for which both sets of fans need segregated from each other… it happens in domestic games, particularly when Cliftonville or Glentoran are the visiting team.
Indeed, if I were on the Linfield Management Committee, I’d be very concerned to make sure that in attempting to maximise the Club’s potential profit from gate receipts, I didn’t ‘open a can of worms’ by offering tickets for sale ‘on the open market’ via outlets such as Ticketmaster, thereby making possible a situation where Celtic fans could end up seated amongst Linfield supporters. Since Celtic have refused to avail of tickets from the host club, they could be deemed free of any responsibility by U.E.F.A. for any trouble caused by their fans who obtained tickets as described above, leaving Linfield to ‘carry the can’ if that happened. I understand that Linfield have recognised this potential problem, and have restricted ticket sales to official club outlets that can be adequately monitored, and underlined the fact that Celtic fans will not be admitted into the ground under any circumstances.
Tickets for the home leg will be on sale from 6th July for £20 to Club Members, Season Ticket holders and those who have proof of attendance at the La Fiorita home game; further tickets, priced at £30 each, will be available to Linfield Supporters Club members via their Clubs on submission of names and addresses to the parent club for approval. Whilst this sounds like a draconian measure, in the circumstances I think genuine Bluemen will recognise the position the Club has been placed in, and will lend their full cooperation to this process.
As to the games themselves, it should be a ‘no contest’. Whilst I have no doubt that both games will be well attended, and the supporters of both sides will, as usual, be cheering their team with unbridled passion, the fact remains that Celtic have to be massive favourites to progress. Brendan Rodgers has transformed this Celtic side to be almost unrecognisable from the outfit he inherited last year; they surpassed 100 league points and finished last season unbeaten domestically as they romped to the Scottish Premier League (SPL) title, and added the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup for good measure. Indeed, if decent quality full-time Scottish Premier League sides like Aberdeen and Rangers struggle to match Celtic, Linfield should be an easy touch for the men from Parkhead.
Of course, the Blues have done tremendously well just to be in this contest at all! Having trailed defending Irish League Champions Crusaders for much of last season, only a fantastically consistent run of good form from David Healy’s boys post-Christmas was enough to see them pip the Crues for the Gibson Cup on an unforgettable afternoon at Cliftonville back in the springtime. The following week’s Irish Cup Final triumph over Coleraine provided the ‘icing on the cake’ to a wonderful season for Belfast’s Blues, with the strong spine of the team coming to the fore.
In Northern Ireland International goalkeeper Roy Carroll, the Champions have the outstanding custodian in the Irish League, a man who continually defies his advancing years. Ahead of him, Mark Stafford, Jimmy Callacher, Mark Haughey and Niall Quinn have proved formidable barriers for opposition attackers to breach, though Callacher will miss the Celtic games with injury.
In the middle of the park, new ‘Ulster Player of the Year’ Jamie Mulgrew has rediscovered the form he showed during his early years at Windsor Park, with stunning displays of gritty determination mixed with no little skill; alongside him, Stevie Lowry has been a revelation, controlling games like a modern-day Bryan Robson. Up top, Andy Waterworth finished last season with two stunning hat-tricks in consecutive weeks to take his tally for the season to 30 goals in all competitions, and again underlined his credentials as a top-level Irish League striker. Wide on the right is Paul Smyth, a teenage sensation with a very bright future in the game, and a player who is sure to give Rodgers a few problems to solve.
That said, the ties with La Fiorita showed that nothing can ever be taken for granted in football. Despite many expecting the Blues to dominate against a team with absolute no pedigree in European competition, and arguably hailing from one of the weakest leagues in Europe, the San Marino players worked tirelessly to make life difficult for Healy’s side. After 180 minutes of football, only Jordan Stewart’s late debut goal at Windsor Park in the 1st leg game separated the sides. Linfield know they will need to be far more ruthless in front of goal if they are to have any hope of hurting Celtic on 14th and 19th July.
Obviously, Celtic have an abundance of stars in their squad. Leigh Griffiths recently demonstrated his prowess from dead-ball situations with a late double salvo against England at Hampden Park in Scotland’s World Cup 2018 qualifying game; striking sensation Moussa Dembele terrorised defences last season, finishing the campaign with an incredible 32 goals, including two strikes against Manchester City in the Champions League Group clash at Parkhead, and has been attracting serious attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs during the summer transfer window. In midfield, the Hoops are led by experienced campaigner Scott Brown, ably assisted by the excellent Stuart Armstrong and former Swansea City star Scott Sinclair. Left-back Kiernan Tierney has been earning rave reviews almost from the first moment he pulled on a Celtic jersey, and Linfield fans will be hoping he has a very quiet evening from an attacking standpoint next Friday evening or else Blues right-back Chris Casement will be in for a torrid time.
If the Blues do manage to create some goalscoring chances, they will have to find a way past rejuvenated Scottish International goalkeeper Craig Gordon, once considered one of the best prospects in Europe when he signed for Sunderland for £9 million in 2007, and a man who won the Scottish Football Writers’ “Player of the Year” award in 2015…. that is the size of the task facing the Irish League Champions.
Given the depth and quality of the squad at his disposal, there is no guarantee that Brendan Rodgers will even ask some of his top stars to make themselves available for selection for this tie, given the gulf in ability between the two sides; he will perhaps feel he can play some of his younger ‘fringe’ squad players, who will be hungry to impress their manager and should still have the ability to pose Linfield problems.
I don’t want to sound too pessimistic ahead of the home leg next week, but I think even the most dyed-in-the wool Blueman would have to concede that our team of part-time players, good as they undoubtedly are at Irish League level, face a monumental task just to be competitive against a side of genuine quality like Celtic. I have no doubt that David Healy will have the lads as well prepared and briefed as they can be, and Brendan will know his side face a Linfield team eager to do as well as they possibly can next Friday evening. Can the Blues make sure the tie is still in the balance as they travel to Parkhead the following week? Well, let’s hope so, and let’s hope that the games are played in front of huge, passionate crowds at both venues. However, most of all, let’s hope that the reputations of both clubs and their fans will emerge enhanced in the eyes of the British football-watching public after the games have been played, with trouble in the stands absent on both occasions.