Written by: Mark Donnelly 05 Jul 2022
© Presseye Mark Stafford and Shayne Lavery celebrate for Linfield

Ahead of the start of another European adventure for our four Irish League representatives tonight, we look back on five memorable European nights from recent years.

Linfield vs Qarabag
2019/2020 UEFA Europa League

Linfield’s European run at the beginning of the 2019/20 season was arguably one of the best an Irish League team has ever put together, with the Blues narrowly missing out on a place in the UEFA Europa League Group Stages, being denied by away goals. Having been eliminated from the UEFA Champions League Qualifiers by Norwegian champions Rosenborg, Linfield entered the second tier of European club football in its Second Qualifying round.

They advanced past HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands and Montenegrin side Sutjeska Nikšić to earn themselves a spot in the Play-Off round where they would come up against Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan. Qarabag’s experience in European competitions made them heavy favourites for the tie, having come up against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Roma and Atletico Madrid in the previous two years.

In what was expected to be a routine win for the away side, the first-leg of the tie produced one of the biggest European nights in history for both Linfield and the Irish League, as the Blues ran out 3-2 winners at Windsor Park. Two goals from an inspired Shayne Lavery as well as a trademark header from Mark Stafford gave Linfield a massive chance at becoming the first ever Northern Irish side to feature in the Europa League group stages.

It was a night that will live long in the memory of fans and players alike, with this being the pick of a number of impressive European runs put together by Irish League clubs in recent years. Unfortunately a 2-1 away defeat meant that Linfield missed out on qualifying for the group stages in heart-breaking fashion.

© David Cavan Coleraine celebrate their penalty wins

Coleraine vs Maribor
2020/2021 UEFA Europa League

Having faced the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Feyenoord and Eintracht Frankfurt in their earlier years, Coleraine are no strangers to facing strong European opposition, which was exactly the position they found themselves in at the start of the 2020/21 season. Having gotten past San Marino side La Fiorita in the preliminary round of Europa League qualifying, the Bannsiders found themselves up against NK Maribor of Slovenia.

Being the only Slovenian side to have qualified for the Champions League and Europa League, Maribor have recently faced the likes of Sevilla, Chelsea, and Lazio, while they were placed in the same Champions league group as European giants Liverpool just three years prior to facing Coleraine. As the tie took place during the mist of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was reduced to a single game instead of UEFA’s usual two-leg format, with Maribor being drawn as the home side.

The Bannsiders took a surprising second half lead courtesy of a James McLaughlin volley, however the celebrations were short-lived as the hosts came up with an equaliser just three minutes later. There would be no further goals through normal time or extra time as the game made its way to penalties after a heroic performance from Coleraine.

It was the underdogs who came out on top with a 5-4 shoot-out win to secure one of the greatest results in the club’s history, as well as a Second Round tie with Scottish side Motherwell. They would unfortunately be on the other end of penalty shoot-out drama in the following tie, however their performance was another example of how Irish League teams have the ability to punch above their weight and compete against quality competition in Europe.

© Pacemaker Ole Gunnar Solskjear manager of Molde

Glenavon vs Molde
2017/2018 UEFA Europa League

After finishing third in the 2017/18 NIFL Premiership season, Glenavon booked their place in the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League for the fourth time in five seasons. With ambitions of reaching the Second round for the first time in the clubs history, the Lurgan Blues could not have asked for a tougher draw as they were matched up against four times champions of Norway, Molde FK.

The Norwegian side, who had recently reached the round of 32 of the same competition just two years prior, were strong favourites to win the tie but with the first-leg being played at Mourneview, Gary Hamilton’s men were determined to overcome the odds and progress to the next round. On the night Hamilton shared the touchline with European Cup winner Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who took over from Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager just five months later.

It was Molde who opened the scoring in Lurgan as Eirik Hestad gave the visitors the lead, however their goal advantage was only a minute old when Rhys Marshall headed home from an Andrew Hall corner just before half time. Glenavon started the second half on the front foot and soon found themselves in the lead as Josh Daniels rounded off a delightful counter attack.

Despite winning a penalty and creating a number of chances from set-pieces Molde were kept to just the one goal as Glenavon secured their first win in Europe since 1995. What made the win even more impressive was that a certain Erling Haaland played over 80 minutes at Mourneview and was kept off the scoresheet.

© Pacemaker Press Davy McDaid leads the charge following his opener for Larne

Larne vs Aarhus
2021/2022 UEFA Europa Conference League

At the beginning of last season Larne made their European debut with a Europa Conference League First round tie against Welsh side Bala Town, winning both legs 1-0. Their second round opponents were AGF Aarhus of Denmark, who had faced Northern Irish opponents twice in their history playing Glenavon in 1957 and 1988.

Larne wasted no time in getting the tie started as they went a goal in front after just three minutes courtesy of Davy McDaid. The home side then doubled their lead after 30 minutes as Dean Jarvis got on the end of a John Herron cross as the Inver men continued to dominate, much to the Dane’s surprise. A freak error from goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson cut Larne’s lead in half in the final ten minutes however they were able to hold out to secure a historic win and give themselves the upper hand going into the second-leg in Denmark.

Their fairytale European looked set to continue as Aarhus went down to ten men just 26 minutes into the first half of the second-leg with Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson being shown a second yellow card for simulation. Ronan Hale then gave Larne a shock lead on the stroke of half time, giving his side a two goal aggregate lead and a vital away goal. Hale’s goal was cancelled out by a late Aarhus penalty but Tiernan Lynch’s side battled hard to earn a deserved 1-1 draw to pull off a huge upset and reach the third round.

In what was their first season competing in Europe, Larne were only the third team since 1966 to win consecutive European ties after Coleraine and Linfield’s triumphs the previous year. They would face off against Pacos De Ferreira in the third round where the Portuguese side turned out to have too much for Larne to handle. They did however win the

© Presseye Ciaran Caldwell

Cliftonville vs Cibalia
2010/2011 UEFA Europa League

Having put together just one European win in history, Cliftonville were eager to improve on their record as they made their Europa League debut in July 2010. The Reds narrowly missed out on the title the season prior, finishing five points behind champions Linfield and were rewarded with a second round tie against HNK Cibalia of Croatia.

The Croatian side were also making their competition debut but were deemed as strong favourites leading up to the tie. With a new artificial pitch being installed at Solitude, Cliftonville were forced to play their home leg elsewhere, making the short trip to east Belfast to play at Windsor Park.

With the odds against them, the Reds produced a performance to remember as a 82-minute goal courtesy of Ciaran Caldwell gave them their first ever home win in Europe. It was a heroic display from the north Belfast side which was inspired by goalkeeper John Connolly, who became only the second ever Cliftonville ‘keeper to record a clean sheet in Europe.

They made the journey out to Croatia for the second-leg with the hopes of progressing into the third round, knowing that a draw would be enough. It was another extremely strong defensive display that helped Cliftonville into the next round as the score remained at 0-0 for the duration of the 90 minutes. This was the first time in their history that they had conceded no goals across a two-legged European tie, a feat that had only been achieved once by an Irish League team in the past with Glenavon winning their tie against FH of Iceland 1-0 on aggregate.