'Apoel in the knockout stage! I still haven't recovered from the idea'

Former manager Tommy Cassidy is amazed his old Cypriot club, with their ultra-passionate fans, are doing so well. By Steve Tongue

Whether or not Uefa's president, Michel Platini, determined to democratise European football, had a wry smile about the Premier League's top two clubs failing to make the last 16 of this season's Champions League, he must have laughed out loud at the presence there of Apoel Nicosia.

Even the former Newcastle and Northern Ireland international Tommy Cassidy, (right), who knows the club as well as any Briton after six years as player and manager in the 1980s, says: "I can't believe how successful they are. The knockout stage! I still haven't recovered from the idea."

Tonight Apoel, ranked exactly 100th in Champions League standings before the season began and much the smallest club to venture this far, play away to the French side Lyons. It looks to be a step too far but so did just about every game last autumn after they had beaten Wisla Krakow to reach a group containing Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk.

The fans' passion is one constant factor since Cassidy accepted an offer almost 30 years ago to leave Burnley: "The football fanaticism was unreal. We lost about 10 games in five years and after every one I had a police escort home."

After being appointed manager after two years, Cassidy guided Apoel to the championship. However, his downfall was a new chairman who wanted to pick the team and sacked him for not accepting "advice" on who to play at right-back. He left in 1989 and, after coaching in Ireland, he is now manager on Blyth Spartans.

Tonight he will be in front of his television hoping that Apoel can do enough to remain in contention for the second leg in front of those fanatical supporters.

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