Northern Ireland in Europe: 1990 to the present day

Northern Ireland

The 1990s was the beginning of the end of regular big European nights for Northern Irish clubs due to reforms in European football. In light of that we’ll take a more fleeting look at the European ties from 1990 through to the present day.

In 1990 Portadown entertained FC Porto but came out of the tie with a massive 13-1 defeat. In the same year Glenavon were tied with Bordeaux in the UEFA Cup, Christophe Dugarry led the French side to a 2-0 aggregate win.

Bangor made their first European appearance in 1991 against Sigma Olomouc in the UEFA Cup, they were on the end of a 6-0 aggregate defeat.

In 1992 UEFA changed things up and the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League. Northern Ireland’s first participants were Glentoran who were tied against Marseille in the First Round. Marseille would go on to win the first Champions League, their victory kickstarted by an 8-0 aggregate victory over Glentoran with Abedi Pele and Rudi Voller amongst the goalscorers.

In 1993 Linfield were eliminated from the Preliminary Round of the Champions League after a 3-2 loss to Dinamo Tbilisi but would be reinstated after the Georgian club were expelled over allegations of bribing match officials. Linfield would be eliminated in extra time of the second leg of their First Round tie against Copenhagen. The Blues took a 3-0 lead from the first leg but a last minute equaliser in the second leg forced the tie into a further 30 minutes which Copenhagen would go on to win.

From 1994 to 1996 Northern Irish clubs did not participate in the Champions League as it was restricted to the clubs of the top 24 European countries only. The league winners instead took a place in the UEFA Cup. During this time, Linfield progressed to the First Round after a win over FH of Iceland in 1994 and in 1995 Glenavon repeated that feat against the same team. Linfield and Glenavon were then knocked out by Odense and Werder Bremen respectively.

1996 also saw the first Northern Irish participation in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, sadly Cliftonville finished bottom of their group with only 1 point from four games. Glentoran were the Cup Winners Cup participants and lost out 10-1 to Sparta Prague, their solitary goal coming from cult hero Glen Little during his brief stint at the club.

1998 was the last time the Cup Winners Cup was hosted, Glentoran took a 1 goal deficit away to Maccabi Haifa for the second leg but were unlucky to end up 3-1 losers on aggregate despite a fantastic performance. 1998 was also the year of Omagh Town’s (now defunct) first European foray! Omagh’s 2-2 second leg draw at home was not enough to see them progress after Slovakian side Rimavska Sobota claimed a 1-0 victory in the first leg.

In 1999 Newry Town (also now defunct) managed to overcome a first leg defeat to beat Croatian club Hrvatski Dragovoljac 2-1 to progress to the Second Round of the Intertoto Cup before being beaten 2-1 by MSV Duisburg.

Coleraine managed to progress to the Second Round of the Intertoto Cup in 2002 with a 7-2 aggregate scoreline at the expense of Saint Julia of Andorra – one of the goals came courtesy of current Northern Ireland International Gareth McAuley. The next club to progress in the Intertoto Cup were Cliftonville in 2007 who beat Latvia’s Dinaburg 2-1 in the First Round before losing 6-0 to K.A.A. Gent in the Second Round. The Intertoto Cup was abolished after the 2008 competition in which Lisburn Distillery (formerly Distillery of Belfast) lost 6-3 to TPS Turku.

Since the UEFA Cup format was returned to normal in 1997 (league winners of smaller nations would again qualify for the Champions League), the Irish League only managed to see two clubs progress beyond their entry round: Glentoran with a 4-3 victory over AC Allianssi in 2004 and Linfield with an away goals victory over FK Ventspils in 2005. The UEFA Cup was rebranded as the UEFA Europa League in 2009 and since that point Northern Ireland has had three participants in the competition each season. Notable results in that time were a 7-1 aggregate loss to Fulham for Crusaders in 2011 and a 5-0 aggregate victory for Linfield over ÍF Fuglafjørður in 2013.

Since Northern Irish clubs returned to the Champions League in 1996 there have only been two occasions when a club has qualified for the next round. Linfield’s penalty win over B36 Torshavn of Faroe Islands in 2012 then Crusaders’ away goals victory over Estonian side Levadia Tallinn in 2015. One notable tie during this time was the visit of Glasgow Celtic who were drawn against Cliftonville in 2013, a tie the Scottish side won 5-0 on aggregate.

From this series began you can see how the face of football has changed not just domestically in Northern Ireland but also for their participation in European competitions. Europe, or rather the money that comes with it, can now be a life saver or a game changer for Northern Irish clubs.

Since European participation began for Northern Irish clubs until last season (2015-16) there have been 16 clubs involved across the four competitions. Two of those are no longer in existence (Omagh Town and Newry Town – who were later Newry City) and one now competes in the League of Ireland (Derry City). There has been 506 matches played with 50 wins.

For now, Northern Irish clubs live in hope of a slice of good fortune to see them emulate their Southern counterparts like Dundalk FC and Shamrock Rovers and reach the elusive group stages of European competition!