Larne have gone from bottom of Northern Ireland’s second tier to a potential European tie against Tottenham in just four years as boss Tiernan Lynch looks to mastermind victory at Pacos de Ferreira in the club’s biggest ever match.
The Invermen are enjoying the most exciting chapter in their 132-year history, having followed promotion in 2019 with last season’s County Antrim Shield – their first trophy in 33 years – and continental qualification.
Larne won June’s Europa Conference League play-offs having finished fourth in the Northern Irish Premiership, setting up what has proved to be an extraordinary debut European campaign.
Having beaten Welsh side Bala Town in the first qualifying round, they rocked AGF Aarhus – who finished fourth in the Danish top flight and have a substantially bigger budget – over two legs.
Now comes another almighty test against Pacos, who were fifth in the Portuguese top division last season and welcome Larne for the first leg of their third qualifying round clash on Thursday.
“We’ve been saying this for about 10 games now, that the next one is the biggest game in our history,” manager Lynch told the PA news agency from Portugal.
“Now Pacos de Ferreira is the biggest game in the club’s history. It’s an adventure that we have to embrace and we have to enjoy.
“We have to go at this and truly believe that we can make a little bit of a dent.
“Somebody just told me they’re expecting a full house. The Aarhus game was a fairly intimidating atmosphere there. Their ultras, casuals, whatever they’re called, were very noisy.
“But, again, that’s exciting. We have to embrace that and enjoy that.
“We’ve nothing to fear. Nobody’s expecting us to win tomorrow night. Nobody was expecting us to beat Aarhus, so it’s kind of nice going in there as the underdogs.”
Larne’s remarkable rise has come under Lynch’s tutelage and the ownership of Kenny Bruce, with chairman Gareth Clements saying this summer has been “‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff” for his boyhood club.
“I’m one of these ones where I try and keep our feet very firmly on the ground,” manager Lynch said.
“I don’t want the players to look at this as ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. I want the players and the people at the club to look at this as this is where we want to be.
“We want to try and get ourselves to this level. The whole reason of going full-time was to try and give ourselves every opportunity to compete.
“Albeit we might not necessarily be there today, but that’s what we have to work towards and that’s where we need to go.”
It has certainly been a fairy-tale few years for the Country Antrim side, who have been drawn against Premier League side Tottenham in the Conference League play-offs should they overcome Pacos.
The focus is rightly on the Portuguese side but the fact Spurs were playing in the Champions League final just 12 weeks after Larne clinched the Championship title in 2019 puts their progress into perspective.
“It’s been a fascinating journey, if I’m honest with you,” Lynch added.
“When I came in the doors of Larne we were in the Championship, the second tier. The club was very much on its knees.
“Kenny Bruce, the owner, came in and got involved and we had a vision that we wanted to try and fulfil as a club.
“There’s a lot of feelgood factors that have gone along the way. Now, the big thing, which is really, really important here, is that nobody rests on their laurels.
“If this is the pinnacle, then it’s not for me. But that’s certainly not the case.
“We now look like we’re getting a club that are hungry for success.
“We’ve had this little taste of European football and we want more of it.”