Linfield v Rosenborg. Champions League exploits with The Bruce in Belfast.
When Russ suggested that I went to the match between the Irish Premier Champions and the Norwegian Champions Rosenborg I realised this would be a night of firsts for me:
First time at Windsor Park and thus completing the 4 Home Nations stadia tour, well, Wembley may have been a concert but I'm still counting it!
First time attending a football match alone.
First taste of live Champions League action.
I arrived about ten minutes before kick off. The music from the tannoy resonated around the surrounding houses adding to the buzz from the fans of all age groups making their way into Windsor Park. Much like the trip to Portadown a few weeks ago it was pay as you go through a shabby turnstile, though that is where the similarity really ended. There were more people milling about the concourse in queues for burgers and programmes than there seemed to be in the entire crowd at the Ports match, however, given the size of the club and it's home city it shouldn’t be a surprise and I mean it as no slight on Portadown.
The club had only opened up one of their three and a half stands and it was probably about 90% full when I arrived. I took my seat up in the gods and other than having to move my head when the stand's pillars got in the way it was a good view. The rest of the seats had filled up by kick off and there was a very good atmosphere. A few vuvuzelas played intermittently but the crowds chants and songs were conducted by a rather large man with an equally large drum.
I don’t want this to turn into a piece on sectarianism however it must be mentioned that Rule Britannia had played several times before kick-off and when the usual chant of “oh when the X go marching in”, with X being your teams colours, I was expecting “blues” to be the variable, but no, in this instance it was “Brits”. That aside I have to say the atmosphere wasn’t as aggressive as I had expected, maybe I should go back when they play certain other league teams.
As I sat down the teams were lining up and I got chatting to the lads next to me. John and Rigsby (I assume real name and not a Rising Damp fan) were telling me about this week's big talking point. The club has just agreed a deal with the Northern Irish FA (who pay around 15% of all International gate and TV monies to the club) to expand the capacity of Windsor Park from 14,000 to 20,000. If Linfield's current league success continues then you'd imagine the revenue from these 6000 extra fans will only help drive the club up the European ladder.
A few minutes into the game around 25 lads in blue tracksuits walked the length of the stand looking for seats. They were plenty of chants of “who are you?!”, well that was a good question. As they split up to take up all the remaining single seats I caught site of their badge and managed to remember it was HNK C-something and the name of the trackie sponsor. A Google search this morning has provided me the answer; it was HNK Cibalia of Croatia who were in town to play Cliftonville in Europa League qualifier the next night.
So on to the football, both teams have a winning pedigree. Rosenborg have won the Norwegian Premier League 16 times in the last 20 years and Linfield 6 Irish League titles in the last 10 years. However as manager David Jeffrey pointed out before the game the Troillongan (Troll Kids) have made the group stages of the CL 12 times in recent years and are currently leading their league midway through the season. Linfield by contrast had only played one pre-season friendly. Also it is worth noting that according to the UEFA coefficient the Norwegian league at 25th is ranked 24 places higher than the N.Irish one. All of this makes you realise how good a performance the Northern Irishmen (and the squad is all home grown) really put in.
As far as goal mouth action went the game was very quiet with not a single foray into either box in the 1st half. In what was to become a recurring theme in the match Rosenborg had success driving through the middle of the park but passed to many times when a shot would have been the better option. However don’t read this as one-way traffic, Linfield were by far the pacier team and the wingers were able to race past their markers on numerous occasions. Perhaps it was just pre-season rust which meant that no-one was able to be on the receiving end of a cross.
Speaking of wingers I had been smiling to myself all game about Brian McCaul’s bright pink boots but that in the second half that turned into a laugh when he was replaced by Michael Carvill who was also wearing identical pink boots. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but wearing boots like that is just asking for you to be man-marked and stomped on as you would expect only the team’s flair-players to wear them and on this occasion they failed to deliver what their boots seemed to promise.
Not that the game was dull, in-fact it was one of the better 0-0 I had been to but after 25 mins of the second half the game really got going. Henricksen had worked himself into a great position and finally remembered to shoot, Blayney got down very well and made a great save. This seemed to spark both teams into realising that someone could win the game and the last 20 minutes was great end to end stuff. Linfield didn't have too many shots on target but their wide men were doing a great job in getting forward, club captain Bailie earned his money with a goal-line clearance. A draw was the right result with perhaps Rosenborg left wondering where the gulf in talent that was supposed to be there had gone.
As for the next leg, it’s hard to say. Linfield have the template required to succeed, they just need people in the box to make good on their winger's efforts. The question is what happens if and more than likely when Rosenborg step their game up. Here’s hoping the “Blues” do go marching on.