Security will be a major issue if Linfield earn the right to host Celtic for a July 11 Champions League qualifying encounter at Windsor Park.
The Blues must overcome competition San Marino minnows La Fiorita in an initial qualifier over two legs to set up the glamour tie, but contingency plans are already being made to minimise the potential for public disorder around what could be a powder keg fixture.
It would bring at least 1,800 Celtic fans to Belfast around the same time as many hundreds of Orange Order and loyalist band members travel from Scotland for the Twelfth demonstrations.
It is understood there would be an early afternoon kick-off to avoid a clash with Eleventh Night bonfire celebrations.
Linfield chairman Roy McGivern welcomed the possible Celtic showdown as “fantastic” news for the club, but is wary of complacency.
“Obviously we have a two-legged tie against La Fiorita first and we won’t get ahead of ourselves, but with the second qualifying round so soon after, it is vital be start thinking about arrangements now for a potential blockbuster tie,” he said.
“Celtic are relaxed about it and they seem happy enough to play in Belfast on July 11,” Mr McGivern added.
News of the potential visit from Celtic sparked a flurry of activity on social media with Linfield fans relishing the prospect of taking on the former European Cup winners – while many Celtic supporters are welcoming the chance to inflict a heavy defeat on a club closely associated with their arch rivals Glasgow Rangers.
Linfield’s first game against La Fiorita is scheduled to take place next Wednesday (28th) with the second leg in San Marino on July 4.
Should the Blues progress the club will be obliged, under UEFA’s ticket allocation rules, to make at least 10% of Windsor Park’s 18,000 seats available to the away supporters.
The return leg would take place in Glasgow the following week.
Celtic Park’s 60,000 capacity means 6,000 Linfield fans are guaranteed tickets for the return leg if required.
La Fiorita compete in the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio which is ranked 53rd of the 54 European leagues graded by UEFA (ahead of Gibraltar). The Irish League ranks 33rd in the UEFA coefficient ratings.
The Linfield chairman said that the club was happy to have the first leg of a possible Celtic encounter at home for financial reasons.
“At this stage the first-leg would be on July 11, potentially with an early kick-off but there are discussions going on at home now with the PSNI to see how that would be managed. That is the preferred option at the moment but there have been no discussions about switching the games at all,” Mr McGivern added.
Linfield have never faced Celtic in senior competition and the game would be one of the biggest in the Blues 131-year history, however, Linfield reached the quarter-finals of the 1967 European Cup – the year Celtic went on to lift the famous trophy – narrowly losing out on a semi-final spot to Bulgarian champions CSKA Red Flag.
Speaking ahead of the draw, manager David Healy said Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic was the last team he wanted to face.
“To be honest I would prefer a softer team than Celtic. Celtic are a level far above what we play at. That is just being realistic,” he said.
“If you are playing Celtic these days you’re up against it. I have watched enough Scottish football over the past 12 months to see how good Brendan has them playing. Being realistic, I don’t think there would be any chance of us beating them. It’s all well and good knowing that, it’s a different matter trying to stop it,” he told the Scottish Sun.
Celtic’s Jonny Hayes – a Republic of Ireland international recently signed from Aberdeen – said he has no concerns about the potential clash in Belfast.
“It’s just another football game. I’ve never really thought about stuff like that off the park.”