European football's newest club competition is providing exciting opportunities for some of the continent's less celebrated teams.
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If the aim of the UEFA Europa Conference League is to allow more clubs and their supporters access to the thrills of European football, then the new continent-wide competition already has willing poster boys in the form of Larne FC.
Nestled on the east coast of Northern Ireland, Larne FC would by their own definition be a small but ambitious club – one which has prioritised sustainable growth in recent years, aided by careful and strategic investment.
Now, though, thanks to the introduction of the UEFA Europa Conference League, which kicks off in earnest this week with a 66-club first qualifying round, Larne can take both an exciting leap into the unknown and a huge step forward by appearing on the continental stage.
Tiernan Lynch's team will play Bala Town of Wales in the first qualifying round, beginning with Thursday’s first leg in Oswestry, followed by the return match on 15 July.
Altogether, Larne will be one of 184 teams taking part over the course of the Europa Conference League's debut, 2021/22 campaign, since UEFA’s third men's club competition involves at least one club from each of the 55 European national associations.
A new European adventure
"To see our name in the hat for Europe was phenomenal," said head coach Lynch. "This is something we have to be extremely excited about, including learning about the opposition and how we approach the game. We have to give a good account of ourselves, the team and the town."
It's fair to say Larne are embarking on an adventure nobody would have thought possible a few years ago. Certainly, European football had no place in the Larne lexicon until owner Kenny Bruce and chairman Gareth Clements stepped in, with Lynch tasked with mirroring off-field improvements on it.
As recently as 2017, the club were struggling to win games, attract players or devise a strategy to climb out of the lower half of Northern Ireland's second division. However, Bruce's investment landed in September that year, and subsequent bold plans built a stronger squad and a clear roadmap.
One milestone was reached last December when Larne lifted their first real silverware in 33 years. They beat European regulars Glentoran on penalties to win, for the first time, the Country Antrim Shield. (Incidentally, Glentoran will also participate in the inaugural Europa Conference League.)
Shield success wasn't the ticket to Europe, however. Instead, that was rubber-stamped last month when, overcoming the pain of an Irish Cup final defeat by Linfield just weeks before, Larne won the NIFL Premiership's Europa Conference League play-offs, eliminating Glenavon and Cliftonville on the back of an impressive fourth-placed finish.
"Everyone was singing 'We're all going on a European tour', and Wales for this club is a European journey," said Lynch.
If Larne's 132-year history resembles a rather ordinary tale, the chance to write the club's name in the UEFA annals is a moment that players, staff and supporters will never forget. Euphoria set in among the 400 fans fortunate enough to have attended the 5 June play-off win over Cliftonville at Inver Park, a stadium which meets European standard.
For the club's general manager, Niall Curneen, Europa Conference League qualification marks the culmination of so much hard work: "It's been one of our big aims; one of the big landmarks was to get into Europe. We've been aiming for a number of years but it's still a 'pinch-yourself' moment. Seeing all the correspondence from UEFA and the Irish FA, it's just been amazing.
"There are people who have been involved in the club for much longer than I have, and to see those people with tears in their eyes at the play-off was unbelievable. Many would never have thought of 'Larne' and 'European football' in the same sentence, and here we are."
How is the UEFA Europa Conference League providing new opportunities for clubs across Europe?
With the launch of the Europa Conference League, a minimum of 34 countries will now be represented in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and the new competition, affording increased action, exposure and funding to clubs and national associations throughout Europe.
UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin explained: "We want to make our competitions more inclusive – we have 55 national associations who make up UEFA and it is important to give clubs from as many federations the chance to prolong their European campaigns for as long as possible. This [new] competition is for everybody but especially those clubs who would not normally have a realistic chance of winning the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League."All you need to know about the competition
The road to Tirana
The road upon which Larne are travelling will eventually end up at Albania's 21,690-capacity National Arena (Arena Kombëtare) for the first Europa Conference League final on 25 May 2022. Built with UEFA HatTrick programme funding, the stadium opened in November 2019 with a European Qualifier between Albania and France.
Between the current qualifying phase and the final, there will be eight groups of four teams, followed by two-legged knockout round play-offs, a round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals. The eight group winners automatically advance to the last 16. The additional knockout round play-offs will be played between the eight group runners-up and the third-ranked teams from the UEFA Europa League groups.