When UEFA announced the formation of the Europa Conference League in December 2018 it presented the smaller nations an opportunity.
Footballing minnows like Armenia, Estonia and Kazakhstan all stood a legitimate chance of having one of their sides represent them on the European stage.
For Gibraltar qualification remained realistically out of reach.
No team from The Rock had ever qualified for a European Group stage before prior to this season.
Gibraltarian club sides only became eligible for continental competitions in 2014 and the confederation is the fifth worst ranked in UEFA’s coefficients.
In spite of those significant obstacles the British Oversees Territory, which is home to just 35,000 people, will be represented in the inaugural Conference League by perennial champions Lincoln Red Imps.
FTF spoke with director of operations Christian Fortuna and Lincoln player and Gibraltar international Kian Ronan to learn more about the history makers.
Who are Lincoln Red Imps?
The club were first formed under the name Blue Baton in 1976 by two police officers Charles Polson and Charles Head after the pair had been asked to set up a junior football team.
The name Lincoln Red Imps came when Reg Brearley, a friend of Polson, and a native of Lincoln in England set up a company in Gibraltar and decided to sponsor a local team.
Lincoln played their first season in the Gibraltar Premier Division in 1984-85. They went on to become joint champions, alongside Glacis United.
It would be their first of seven titles between 1984 and 1994.
Lincoln are known by many across Europe for the incredible records they hold.
They enjoyed an unbeaten league run that span across 1,959-days between May 2009 and September 2014, making it the longest chronological league unbeaten run in Europe.
Lincoln also hold the joint longest consecutive national championship wins in Europe. Between 2003 and 2016 they finished atop the Gibraltar Premier Division 14 times in a row.
Before this years qualification Lincoln’s finest moment came in 2016. They handed a 1-0 defeat to Celtic in Brendan Rodgers first game in charge of The Bhoys.
Journey to the Conference League
As the champions of Gibraltar, Lincoln journey to the Europa Conference League began in the first qualification round of the Champions League.
A win over Luxembourg champions Fola Esch would increase Lincoln’s chances of European qualification. They would be guaranteed a spot in the Conference League playoffs at minimum.
Christian Fortuna realised just how crucial it was to pick up a win in the opening round: “We knew that with this new format UEFA have implemented with a Conference League that if we got through the first round of Champions League qualification, we would be guaranteed a Conference League play off.
“We got drawn with Fola Esch, and although no team is an easy draw for a team like us, it was a nice draw.
Having dropped a two-goal advantage in Luxembourg during the first leg Lincoln roared back in home tie. They dismantled Fola 5-0 at Victoria Stadium to advance 7-2 on aggregate.
“Winning in European competition is never easy for us,” Fortuna admits. “We knew we had to put up a good fight against Fola.
“It was tough to lose our two-goal lead in the first leg but we knew we would have home advantage in the next game. Playing at home is massive for us in European competition.
“That 5-0 win was kind of the moment where we realised ‘ok we have a chance of doing well in qualification if we match this level every game.’”
Romanian champions CFR Cluj proved to be too much in the second round as did Slovan Bratislava in Europa League qualifying.
But thanks to their victory over Fola they still had a Europa Conference League play off to play.
Topping the champions of Latvia
Lincoln Red Imps received another favourable draw in their Europa Conference League play off. In drawing Riga, they avoided some big hitters like Union Berlin, Rosengord, Trabzonspor and Vitesse.
“I think we got a good draw again because we could have drawn a massive team who would have put us out of the competition straight away,” Fortuna tells FTF.
Sknoto Stadium in Riga was the venue for the first leg. Former Ukraine youth international Yuriy Vakulko put Riga in front before Fernando Carralero rescued a draw for Lincoln.
In the second leg Lincoln would once again make the most of their home advantage.
With the game locked at 1-1 after 90 minutes it headed into extra time.
“The UEFA crew asked us how nervous we were going into extra time,” Fortuna recalls.
“It was exciting but at the same time we were very nervous because we knew what it meant for the club.
A goal from captain Roy Chipolina and another in the last minute from Kian Ronan sealed a 3-1 victory on the night and made history in Gibraltar.
“I think we used the squad really well in the game,” Ronan tells FTF. ” We made a few changes that really helped us. Roy [Chipolina] came off the bench to score an important goal to put us in front.
“I also managed to get on the end of a chance in the last kick of the game. It was excellent to get on the score sheet and help the team.”
Impact on football in Gibraltar
The impact of qualification will be felt at Lincoln for years to come. The club have netted a minimum of €3,000,000 by reaching the group stage, a monumental figure for a club of their stature.
“I think the players live a little bit more in the moment, but for us behind the scenes we saw the bigger picture. We knew what it meant for the club financially. But we also realised that sporting wise, to be in a European group stage for the first time is massive.
“Financially it’s the biggest thing that has ever happened to us as a club. Just from qualifying we’ve received the most money we’ve ever had.
The size of the achievement isn’t lost on the people of Gibraltar. Many have already hailed it as the greatest achievement in Gibraltarian football history.
The scenes at full-time against Riga showed just that.
Fortuna is amongst that camp: “It’s the biggest achievement in club football history here in Gibraltar. I would even go further to say it beats any international achievement too.
“The national team have played in some big games over the years but to actually qualify for a European group stage for the first time was special.”
The club have received massive support from the people on The Rock. Fans of other clubs flocked to the Victoria Stadium to cheer on their rivals as they looked to make history.
“We’ve received an overwhelming response from the whole of Gibraltar”, notes Fortuna. “There aren’t many people in Gibraltar and many of them support other teams.
“I was so happy to see people that support Europa, Lions or Manchester 62 supporting Lincoln. It’s rare that you would see that anywhere else in the world.”
Looking to make more history
Lincoln Red Imps are certainly not just there to make up the numbers in the Europa Conference League.
They certainly have an uphill battle. Lincoln have been dealt a tough group which will see them face 2018-19 Greek champions PAOK, 13-time Danish champions FC København and a rematch with Slovan Bratislava.
The sheer size of their missmatch will be felt the most when they travel to København’s Parken Stadium.
The ground can host a capacity crowd of 38,065 fans, over 3,000 more people than the entire population of Gibraltar.
It’s PAOK who they face first in the opening group stage game at Victoria Stadium.
Ronan knows just how tough it is going to be to topple the Greek side: “On paper it is pretty obvious that we are massive underdogs.
“We are going into the game with our game plan of how we’re looking to expose their weaknesses and how we can win the game.
“We’ve been the underdogs every time we’ve played this summer, and we’ve still managed to get this far. Home advantage will be huge for us.
“It difficult to adjust to the surface if you’ve never played on that pitch before. That will be an advantage for us when we play PAOK at Victoria Stadium.
Fortuna is in agreement that Lincoln will make the most of this unlikely opportunity.
“All of our games in the group stage are going to be the biggest thing that has ever happened at club level here in Gibraltar. We know who we are and the level that we are at.
“We’ve got here now and we are going to compete and we are going to try and make more history in the group stage.”