The 1950s was a decade that would ultimately change the face of European Football. In 1955-56 UEFA hosted the inaugural European Cup consisting of sixteen teams from around Europe selected by French football magazine L’Equipe.
In Northern Ireland 1951-52 was the first team the Irish Football League title went outside Belfast for the trophy was taken home by Lurgan side Glenavon, led by the legendary goal scoring record holder Jimmy Jones. Glenavon repeating that feat in 1956-57 to earn qualification to the following season’s European Cup as invitations were extended to Northern Ireland for the first time. Glenavon travelled to Danish club AGF for the Preliminary Round and earned a creditable scoreless draw. The return leg was played at Windsor Park, home of Linfield FC, due to UEFA restrictions on Stadia rendering Mourneview Park unusable for European Competition. Unfortunately Glenavon could not hold strong and lost the tie 3-0 allowing AGF to progress to the First Round. 3-0 aggregate loss.
In 1957-58 the Irish Football League trophy left Belfast for the second year running as it travelled back to Co. Down with Ards FC. Ards were perhaps unlucky to draw the former European Cup runners up Stade Reims in the preliminary round. Stade Reims gained a 4-1 victory in the first leg in Windsor Park before then securing their progression with a 6-2 victory in Reims. The famous Just Fontaine scored six of the ten goals across the tie. It was no great shame for Ards as Stade Reims again went on to reach the final this season. 10-3 aggregate loss.
1958-59 saw the League return to Belfast for Linfield’s 24th title. Linfield were rewarded with a European Cup Preliminary Round match up in the 1959-60 season against Swedish capital side IFK Göteborg. Linfield shocked the Swedes by recording a 2-1 victory in the first leg at home, the charge led by two goals from former Newcastle and England forward Jackie Milburn. The 2nd leg was more routine for Göteborg as they struck up a 6-1 victory. 7-3 aggregate loss.
Glenavon were the first NI side to compete in the European Cup, Ards the first to score a goal and Linfield to first to record a victory but none of them could progress beyond the preliminary rounds. All three matches were played at Linfield’s Windsor Park and it’s interesting to note the impressive attendance figures: 33,000 for Glenavon in 1957, 20,000 for Ards in 1958 and an incredible 40,000 for Linfield in 1959.
The 1960s began a more successful time for Northern Irish clubs in Europe along with the nation’s first participation in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup…