Celtic’s likely Champions League opener against Linfield in Belfast will not be played on 12 July after early discussions involving the two clubs, Uefa and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
At Uefa headquarters in Nyon yesterday, the Scottish champions were drawn against either Linfield or La Fiorita of San Marino in the second qualifying round. It is a tie which Celtic should negotiate comfortably on the pitch but which they would have preferred to avoid because of potential complications off it.
Linfield, whose support is historically drawn from the Unionist community, will be expected to overcome La Fiorita in the first qualifying round.
They would then have home advantage in a first leg against Celtic which is scheduled for either 11 or 12 July, the latter being the day of the traditional Orange Order marches in Northern Ireland.
Due to the already intense pressure on resources for the PSNI on those dates, however, the order of the tie may now be switched with the first leg at Celtic Park.
Both clubs had pencilled in the game at Windsor Park – where Celtic have never played – for 11 July, possibly with an early kick-off time. But it later emerged that the police preference was for the second leg in Belfast the following week.
Linfield chairman Roy McGivern said: “I had lunch with Celtic’s representatives after the draw and we’ve had initial discussions about the games.
“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 we start thinking about arrangements now. We’ve also had a chat with Uefa and we had ruled out 12 July for obvious reasons, purely from a practical point of view.
“Our preference is to play the home leg first. For financial reasons that’s obviously the best thing for us. At this stage the first leg would be on 11 July, 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. Celtic are relaxed about it and they seem happy enough to play in Belfast on 11 July.
“It really is a terrific draw. We have two very important games before a potential tie with Celtic but it is the best draw we could have hoped for.
“They were the top team in the draw, they’ve had a tremendous season and of course there is the Brendan Rodgers factor, too. It’s incredible.”
Linfield, managed by former Rangers striker David Healy, won the Northern Irish Premiership title for the first time in five years last season. They are odds-on favourites to defeat La Fiorita in the first qualifying round. The San Marino minnows have lost all five of their previous European ties, scoring just one goal in the process.
News of Celtic’s draw broke yesterday just as the club’s new signing Jonny Hayes was being presented to the media.
“There’s your headline right there, boys,” said the Republic of Ireland winger who is poised to make his competitive debut for Celtic in the tie next month.
“I played at Windsor Park in the Foyle Cup when I was about 15 years old with a young Irish team and that’s the only time I’ve played there.
“It will be a tough game but, if Linfield go through, it will be a nice atmosphere to play in.
“You always want to play in decent football grounds and atmospheres and, having spoken to Niall McGinn, he talks about the atmosphere there.
“ I’m sure that, if we do have to play there, then we will be clued up on what to expect.
“It’ll be incomparable to what it’s like at Celtic Park for a Champions League match.
“It will be a good game if they do go through and we’ll look forward to it.
“I’d play in the car park tomorrow if I needed to. I know from playing in Europe with Aberdeen over the last few years that there isn’t one easy game.
“I remember playing a team who were a so-called minnow from Luxembourg and we took a 3-1 lead over there and lost the game.
“They hit the post in the final minute and that would have put them through on the away goals if it had gone in. That shows that there are no easy games.
“I’m sure whoever plays against Celtic will always raise their game.”