Having eliminated NSÍ Runavík to reach the second qualifying round, Respect Fair Play winners Fulham FC can expect a warm welcome in north Belfast when they visit Crusaders FC in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
The last time the Northern Irish Premiership runners-up faced English opposition on the continent was 35 years ago, in the shape of Bob Paisley's Liverpool FC in the European Champion Clubs' Cup first round. The part-timers were beaten 2-0 at Anfield on 14 September 1976, before succumbing 5-0 at a packed Seaview two weeks later.
It might be the kind of aggregate score a club would sooner forget, but there was no disgrace for Crues in losing to a side boasting the likes of Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes and Terry McDermott. Liverpool went on to lift the European Cup that season, overcoming VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach in the final.
It was the first of the Reds' five European Cups, and memories of their visit have been flooding back now that Martin Jol's Fulham are heading for Belfast. "To draw an English club in Europe is very special – it really is a dream come true," said Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell, just 12 when Liverpool came to Seaview.
"Those games against Bob Paisley's team hold a very special place in the club's history," Bell added. "I was a boy when Liverpool beat us in Belfast and I remember jumping over a wee fence to sit near the goal at the Railway End. Seaview was packed, there must have been about 1,000 of us sitting two or three deep pitch-side.
"We still have newspaper clippings from the match on our boardroom walls," said Bell, who was elected Crusaders chairman two years ago. "I went on a tour of Anfield a few years back and it was a very proud moment seeing our name on a museum exhibit detailing Liverpool's first European Cup success."
The Seaview that will entertain 2009/10 UEFA Europa League finalists Fulham is a world away from the stadium Liverpool played at. As well as the 4G plastic pitch installed in 2009, new floodlights and changing-room facilities have been built and the Crusaders board recently oversaw the erection of new all-seater stands at either end of the ground.
"Our seating capacity has been increased to just over 3,000 and the ground is looking terrific," said Bell. "We are very proud of the improvement work. We were hoping to attract an English club to Belfast for a glamour friendly to help open the two new stands. Now we don't have to worry. We have a competitive European tie in front of a sell-out crowd to look forward to against Fulham. It will be an occasion to relish. It's such a wonderful boost for the club."
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