A Lincoln Red Imps fan and the scorer of the Conference League’s first ever goal explain why European football’s newest competition has hit the target.
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Kevin Parody helped build Lincoln Red Imps FC. Literally. So when the club became the first Gibraltarian side to reach a UEFA competition group stage in the first-ever UEFA Europa Conference League season, it was always going to mean more to him than most.
"It was an amazing journey for us. Starting in the Champions League qualifying rounds, then beating Riga here to reach the group stage. It was an historic achievement," says Parody, a former Lincoln player who — as a mason’s apprentice — helped build the club’s facilities from the ground up in the early 1980s. "No team from Gibraltar had ever managed to do that before. We went wild here, and to be going into the very first Europa Conference League, to be there at the birth of the competition, it was incredible. I don’t have the words to describe it."
After eight games that bounced them from UEFA Champions League qualifying to the Europa Conference League play-off round via UEFA Europa League qualifying, it was a 3-1 extra-time defeat of Riga that saw the 24-time Gibraltar champions join Tottenham, Roma, Basel and a host of other names well used to dining at European club football’s top tables in the competition’s maiden group stage.
"It was magical when we got the third goal against Riga," says Parody, 57, whose playing career at centre-back was ended by a knee injury aged 24. "We were seven, eight former players in the stands. We were in tears that day when we won that game and knew we had qualified. We were like little boys, all jumping up and down and hugging each other."
Exciting more fans throughout Europe
Bringing delighted delirium to clubs and their fans a little further down the European football pyramid was UEFA’s ambition when the Executive Committee approved the birth of the new competition at its meeting in Dublin in 2018.
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin:
"The UEFA Europa Conference League is destined to make our men’s club competitions more open while offering clubs from all our member associations enduring representation in UEFA club competitions. For example, I was especially pleased to see NŠ Mura, champions of my home nation, Slovenia, compete on the European stage and secure their financial future by qualifying for the group stage. It gave them the chance to compete on a par with some of Europe’s most illustrious clubs."
"We feel that people are with us when they are sitting in the stands, and you also hear a lot of people talk about it," says Filip Bundgaard, Randers’ 17-year-old forward who is part of the squad that reached the knockout round play-offs before falling to Leicester City. "It was the first time we were in a European group stage – and that we also progressed from the group is something that I think the whole city is proud of."
If Randers made club history, Stipe Perica made competition history when he found the net 13 minutes into Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Group A win against Alashkert.
Memory for a lifetime
"That was my first match in European competition; that means a lot to me and I’ll remember that match for the rest of my life," says the Croatian forward, whose strike — the first ever in the Europa Conference League — means he will be remembered too. "It means a lot because nobody will ever be able to repeat this. Nobody will ever be able to take me off that throne."
Parody too has indelible memories after watching Lincoln in top-level European action for the first time. Just like his father Albert before him, he now does not miss a Red Imps game. He made the trip to Greece on Matchday 6 to see Lincoln take on PAOK. That match ended in defeat, just as the other five in the group had. Parody saw his team score two goals, concede 17, and finish bottom of the section. But that didn’t really matter: playing the games themselves was the magic.
"We had our historic achievement by just getting there, and it was now time to enjoy it," he explains. "We knew the lads would give everything they could and if we were lucky enough, anything can happen in football. We knew who we were playing but our job was already done, even if we would have been happy to have had more," says Parody, who witnessed Lincoln icon Roy Chipolina net the only goal the team scored at the club’s Victoria Stadium in the 4-1 loss to Slovan on Matchday 4.
Living a football dream
"You only had to see Roy, how ecstatic he was. That joy, that feeling, was shared by everyone there. It was wild, crazy. We were living incredible football moments.
"Before I would follow England, Liverpool, Barcelona – other clubs. Now, it’s all about Lincoln, the team I helped start. We are in Europe, competing with top teams. I don’t care about anyone else now."
Experience leads to progress
With Lincoln having retained their domestic title, winning it for the 26th time, Parody could well have yet more European football to look forward to in the 2022/23 campaign. However, even if it doesn’t happen, the memories and the impact of taking part in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League will live on.
"We’re very thankful and grateful for the chance to play in European competition. We really appreciate it. This competition gives us a greater opportunity to get involved and grow the club, get better, achieve things," says Parody. "We know we’re a very small club compared to 99 per cent of those we are competing with, but for the short time we were in Europe I think we gave a good account of ourselves.
"We’re strengthening, building for the competitions that are coming up. We’re slowly getting ready for what we hope will be a return to European competition – and maybe we’ll be luckier next time.
A full version of this article appears in the official UEFA Europa Conference League final programme, available to buy online now.