Glentoran FC and Portadown AFC are hoping to end barren spells in Europe after 2-2 first-leg draws.
By Kenny Archer
A draw in the home leg of a UEFA Cup tie is not generally regarded as a great result, but Northern Irish contenders Glentoran FC and Portadown FC are hoping that they can break long, barren runs in Europe after holding their opponents to 2-2 draws in the first leg of their first qualifying round ties.
A late equaliser from Darren Lockhart saw Glentoran draw 2-2 against Finland's AC Allianssi, inspiring hope of winning a first European tie since they overcame Luxembourg's FC Progrès Niedercorn 5-1 on aggregate in the 1981/82 European Champion Clubs' Cup.
That victory set up a tie with Bulgarian giants PFC CSKA Sofia, which the Belfast side were unlucky to lose 3-2 on aggregate after taking the tie into extra time in the second leg at home. A mark of CSKA's calibre was that they would go on to knock reigning European champions Liverpool FC out of the competition in the quarter-finals.
However, such memories have barely kept Glentoran warm in the 23 years since they last tasted triumph in Europe, and Portadown have been waiting even longer. Their last European win came in 1974/75 when they beat Valur Reykjavík of Iceland 2-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup first round only to lose 6-1 to FK Partizan of the former Yugoslavia in the second round.
Portadown, league runners-up last season, might have hoped for a better result in the first leg of their game against Lithuania's FK Žalgiris Vilnius, having taken a two-goal lead through two strikes from Peter McCann, but midfield player Michael Collins says his side were not in the least downhearted after being hauled back to 2-2.
'We have a chance'
"I wasn't at the first leg but everyone thinks we have a chance," said Collins, who was serving the last game of a European suspension picked up while playing for a previous side, Cliftonville FC. "I am just looking forward to playing in Europe again and if we win that will be a bonus for me."
'We can take them'
If anything, Glentoran - who reached the UEFA Cup after winning last season's Irish Cup - are even more confident. Paul Leeman, the captain of the 2002/03 champions was looking forward to taking on Allianssi in Helsinki, saying: "We can take them if we go into the game in the right frame of mind.
"We have to be positive and play our own game - if we do that then we are in with a great chance," he added. "They were a decent side but we have played better teams in Europe. We have probably seen the best of them and I don't think they have much more to offer than what they showed at the Oval."
Such confidence is an admirable feature of Roy Coyle's side, but as the two Northern Irish clubs head towards the Baltic, there is a little comfort for them from history.
The last Irish side to win a European tie was Glenavon FC, back in the preliminary round of the UEFA Cup in 1995/96. Like Glentoran and Portadown, Glenavon drew the home leg of their tie, 0-0 against Iceland's FH Hafnarfjördur, only to win through with an away win.
An away win, or indeed a draw by a score higher than 2-2, would be a godsend for the Northern Irish contingent in their return legs this season. And both sides will be hoping as they head north that they can put their lean seasons behind them.