After winning the NIFL Premiership four years on the trot, Linfield find themselves in a precarious situation. The 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 champions from Co. Antrim sat more than three points behind the leaders after losing to the Crusaders.
While any local-supporting Co. Armagh fan can’t say that Linfield are having a bad season, with Portadown, Dungannon, Glenavon, and Newry City in the bottom half, it’s certainly a position that the continual champions haven’t often found themselves in.
Importantly, as champions of the NIFL Premiership, teams get very lucrative payouts from UEFA for participation in their European competitions – even if you don’t qualify for the group stages. For Linfield, if they can keep the running close with 36 games left, two Armagh clubs might be the difference between €1.1 million and nothing.
Getting paid for European competition
Linfield have been a regular in European qualifiers, as is always the case with Premiership champions. In 2017, they even drew a relatively local tie against Celtic as their qualifier for the Champions League. Now, however, there’s a third tier of European football, and Linfield came so close to getting into the group stage this season.
Last season, Linfield bowed out in the third round of UEFA Europa Conference League qualifying, losing 2-1 twice to Fola Esch. In 2022, the Northern Irish club went toe-to-toe with FK RFS. Results of 2-2 and 1-1 took the second leg to penalties, which ended 4-2 in favour of the Latvian club.
So, Linfield were just a couple of penalty shots away from playing in Group A with Heart of Midlothian, Fiorentina, and İstanbul Başakşehir. After a strong group showing, the Betway outright winner odds in the football betting have Fiorentina as the fourth-favourites at 11/1, so it would have been a tough group for Linfield.
With İstanbul Başakşehir also in the top ten of the odds at 20/1, all trailing Villarreal at 4/1 and West Ham United at 9/2, Linfield’s conquerors, FK RFS, did well to come away with two points. It may have been a somewhat disappointing way to end a qualification campaign that ran through FC Zürich, The New Saints, and Bodø/Glimt before falling to UECL qualifiers.
Even though Linfield didn’t make it through to the tough group, the UEFA Library editorial paper to member associations, No. 35/2021 from 20 May 2021, writes that any teams that don’t qualify for a group stage of a UEFA competition will get between €150,000 and €750,000.
Furthermore, if the club is a domestic champion, they get another €260,000 on top of their stage-based qualification payout. This season, being the Northern Irish champions and finishing in the UECL pay-offs will have netted Linfield €1.1 million.
Fighting for the top spot in 2022/23
Last season, Linfield came remarkably close to missing out on the title, finishing just one point ahead of Cliftonville but with a goal difference standing ten points better. This season, by the 25-game mark, Linfield had already lost twice as many games as last season (6) with half as many draws (4).
One of the big reasons behind this was the departure of star striker Christy Manzinga. The Parisian-born Congolese forward netted 20 goals in 35 games, along with three assists, last season. In the summer, he departed as a free agent to Hungarian outfit Zalaegerszegi TE, whose kits via ClubFootballShirts sport a superb cityscape pattern.
Unfortunately for the 27-year-old, the eye-catching kits may be the best part about the move. In 13 games, Manzinga has scored three goals and teed up two more, playing an average of 56.8 minutes per game. In his place, Linfield has relied upon newcomers Robbie McDaid, Joel Cooper, and loanee Eetu Vertainen.
The Finn leads the way with 11 goals, while the two Northern Irish newcomers have put up nine goals each. When the last two games of the season come around, other teams in the title race will be hoping that Armagh teams can stop the trio from scoring. Unfortunately, this season’s results don’t make it seem too likely.
On 18 March, Linfield will face the two-county side of Newry City. In their first two meets, Linfield won 3-1 and 2-0 against ten men. The 24 March game with Dungannon may prove pivotal, but Linfield’s record against them is even stronger this season. A 4-0 win against ten men was perhaps not as good as the 1-0 win a player sent off.
Back in the 2014 season, the fixtures released for the Danske Bank Premiership had the team from Belfast face another Armagh team on the final day. That season, it was against Glenavon, which Linfield lost 1-0, but were a long way away from challenging the Crusaders atop the division.
Linfield will need to go on a hot streak to climb into a prime position to win the Premiership this season, and right at the end, two Armagh clubs could stand in their way of €1.1 million.