|Venue: Skonto Stadium, Riga Date: Thursday, August 18 Kick-off:18:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live text commentary and match report on the BBC Sport website|
Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew believes that reaching the group stage of the Europa Conference League would be a “life-changing” experience for the players and coaching staff.
The Blues are away to RFS of Latvia on Thursday night in the first of a two-legged play-off as they aim to become the first Irish Premiership team to reach the group stage of a European competition.
It would bring huge financial rewards for the club and, as Mulgrew explained, be a “dream” for the players.
“It would be incredible, really,” the 36-year-old midfielder said when asked to assess just how important getting through this play-off and into the group stage would be.
“Obviously we came close in the Qarabag game [in 2019, when they lost narrowly in a Europa League play-off] and certainly got a taste for it.
“It’s a dream, really. Having been at Linfield for so long, to play for the club in the group stage of a European competition would be unbelievable.
“Financially for the club it would obviously be fantastic, we could possibly go to the next level which is what the club strives to do. And, for the players, the experience and the memories that we would get would be brilliant.”
He added: “It would be life-changing for all of us in the sense of traveling to these different countries and playing these top quality teams.
“We will then have to manage playing our league games on a Sunday so it is life-changing. But is it worth it? Of course it is. Playing more games on a Sunday would be fine. When you are successful that is what happens , these things come along and you have to adapt.”
Europa Conference League ‘always Linfield’s target’
As well as the life-changing impact qualification would have on the Linfield squad, the financial rewards for playing in the group stage would also be a hugely significant boost to Northern Ireland’s most successful club.
A place in the group stage would earn the Irish Premiership champions in the region of €2.9m, with €500,000 per win and €166,000 per draw on offer in each of the six games David Healy’s side would play if they qualify.
Having started off their European campaign by beating TNS in the Champions League first qualifying round in July, a heavy defeat over two legs by Bodo/Glimt saw Linfield drop into the Europa League when a loss against FC Zurich led them to this Europa Conference League play -off.
“The Europa Conference League was always our target and if we are being honest it is the most realistic opportunity for us,” continued Mulgrew, whose team began their defense of their Irish Premiership title with a 4-0 win over Portadown on Sunday.
“We knew what could happen in the other games and we wanted to give a good account of ourselves, but we now have this opportunity and it is up to us whether we take it or not.”
‘I want to achieve whatever is on the table’
The Linfield squad left Belfast for Riga on Wednesday and Mulgrew says they will be well prepared to face a side that won the Latvian top-flight title last season and are currently third in the table, eight points off the top.
He also acknowledged that the Blues could have faced tougher opposition in the play-off and that, while fully aware of the need to be cautious, both sides will see this draw as a great opportunity to progress.
“They are a big, physical side who have had some positive results in Europe, like ourselves, and I am sure they will fancy their chances,” said Mulgrew, who agrees with his manager that being away in the first leg is a positive.
“I suppose you could maybe class it as similar to the TNS tie where it was a real opportunity for both clubs to go through.
“I am not saying that we are favorites or anything like that, but we could have got the likes of Poznan or Cluj, teams that regularly reach the group stages and who are in the same bracket as Zurich or Bodo.
“We are always very well prepared by the manager and the coaching staff about the opposition in Europe but sometimes you are a little cautious because you are not really sure what to expect.
“We’ve watched videos of them and done analysis on their strengths and weaknesses, and where we can hurt them.
“We just have to be confident in the squad that we have and that we can go out and get after them, and really see where they are at. They are 24 games into their season so they are fit and will be on top form I I’m sure.”
Having joined Linfield in 2005, Mulgrew has won every domestic trophy possible and has played for Northern Ireland – but this play-off presents him with the opportunity of doing something he has never done before.
“I may have achieved a lot but that hasn’t made me any less hungry. I want to achieve whatever is on the table and want to win. Thursday gives me and everyone a chance to achieve a first in reaching a group stage.”