Larne captain Cian Bolger admits reaching European group stages is 'ultimate aim'

Cian Bolger lifted the Premiership title as Larne captain last season. PIC: INPHO/Presseye/Stephen HamiltonCian Bolger lifted the Premiership title as Larne captain last season. PIC: INPHO/Presseye/Stephen Hamilton
Cian Bolger lifted the Premiership title as Larne captain last season. PIC: INPHO/Presseye/Stephen Hamilton
Cian Bolger admits it’s an honour to captain Larne in what is only the club’s second-ever Champions League tie and while acknowledging taking on opposition that are already deep into a league season provides certain challenges, the former Fleetwood Town defender doesn’t believe it should be a defining issue.

Having been beaten in extra-time by Finnish champions HJK Helsinki 12 months ago, the Inver Reds are back competing in Europe’s premier competition after successfully retaining their Premiership crown last term.

They’ve been pitted against Latvia’s top side RFS, who have played 22 matches of their league campaign and opened up a seven-point advantage at the top – in contrast, Larne’s Charity Shield triumph over Cliftonville on Friday was just the third game of their pre-season schedule which was geared towards tonight’s first leg in Riga.

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The summer football debate is one that has rumbled on for years within Irish League circles with match fitness and sharpness heading into Europe an obvious benefit to a calendar switch, but Bolger is hoping it doesn’t have a major impact on his side’s hopes over the coming weeks.

"It probably is a challenge to an extent,” he said. “They are 22 games into their season so they're match fit and we don't have that luxury.

"It probably let us down last season in going to extra-time (against HJK), but we've been in for four or five weeks and with the sessions we've done and matches we've played, the lads are starting to feel fit now so hopefully that shouldn't be too big an issue.

"We fell a bit short last year but we can take great confidence from it that we can compete at that level. We'll be going in with the same confidence this year."

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Irish League clubs entering European competitions – Linfield and Crusaders will be in UEFA Conference League qualifying action tomorrow evening while Cliftonville enter in the second round – all harbour the same dream of reaching the group stage promised land, which is a feat that brings significant financial rewards with it.

Successfully qualifying for the Conference League, Europe’s third-tier competition, banks clubs a minimum of £2,483,873 while each group stage victory is worth another £422,427 and a draw equates to £140,261.

Of all four Irish League clubs embarking on European adventures this summer, Larne are best placed to secure qualification with victory over RFS ensuring at least a Conference League play-off, and Bolger admits it’s the “ultimate aim” for the County Antrim club.

"I think that's the ultimate aim,” he added. “Last year we fell just shy and we probably let ourselves down the year before.

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"We can take confidence away from how we fared against Helsinki last year. And we can take inspiration with how close Linfield went a couple of years ago as well. Progressing through in Europe is something we're striving to do.”

Another landmark moment for Larne this summer is hosting Champions League football at Inver Park – something which they were denied last season after their pitch failed to pass the required tests – with next week’s reverse tie being held in East Antrim.

"I think it will be massive being able to play at home this year,” said Bolger. “Having our home support at Inver this time around will hopefully make a big difference as they get behind us.”

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