After the incredible success of Dundalk in Europe last season, it was mainly a disappointing few days for clubs from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as many sides got off to the worst possible start in their respective Champions League and Europa League qualifying campaigns.
Irish Premiership Champions Linfield did however get the ball rolling on Wednesday night with a dramatic yet unflattering win over San Marino minnows La Fiorita. Substitute Jordan Stewart scored a last-minute winner at Windsor Park to give the Blues a 1-0 victory, yet the home side also missed a penalty in what could be a huge moment for the Belfast club. Linfield now travel to San Marino for the Champions League first-round qualifier second leg on July 4th, and progression into the next round would set up a mouthwatering tie with Scottish Champions Celtic.
Yet while there was Champions League success, there wasn’t much Europa League joy, where several teams both north and south of the border came home empty handed. Linfield’s league compatriots Coleraine and Ballymena both suffered defeats away from home, with the former on the receiving end of a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Norwegian side Haugesund, while the latter also lost out to Norwegian opponents, falling 3-0 to Odds Ballklubb. Belfast side Crusaders did however earn a tremendous 3-1 victory at home to Latvian side Liepāja, and now face an exciting yet tricky second leg on July 6th.
Elsewhere in Europa League qualification, Derry City, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers were representing the Republic of Ireland, with Cork and Shamrock earning fantastic away victories to keep them in the driving seat as they arrive home for the return meeting next week. High flyers in the League of Ireland, Cork picked up a 2-0 win at the hands of Estonian opposition Levadia Tallinn, while Shamrock defeated Icelandic cult heroes FC Stjarnan 1-0. Derry City arguably had the toughest competition of the night as they travelled to Denmark to take on FC Midtjylland, and the occasion simply proved too much for The Candystripes as they head home from a heavy 6-1 defeat.
There is of course always hope for the sides on the receiving end of some rather unfortunate results, while all credit must be given to those who picked up fantastic and well-deserved victories, especially those who travelled thousands of miles and defeated stern opposition. Credit is also due to the loyal fans who travelled in their numbers to support their little team through thick and thin, with Coleraine hitting around the 150 mark as other sets of supporters did their team proud.
It was never going to be an easy task as sides from this little island set off on this truly amazing experience, especially for the likes of Derry City and Coleraine – who, on the back of fantastic league campaigns – invest in the youth of the area and field often inexperienced yet passionate local talent. The players and indeed the managers certainly have bright futures, and the fans of all of these tremendous clubs both sides of the border will be ecstatic at what their clubs have already achieved and will continue achieving in the near future, regardless of whether or not this is their only European test of the season. Expect packed stadiums up and down both the north and south next week as these players face the biggest test of their lives in their fight for a future in European football.