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Celtic v Linfield: Forget tribalism and salute success of Brendan Rodgers and David Healy

By John Laverty

Brendan Rodgers already has the date in his diary. David Healy can only pencil it into his. The young Linfield manager doesn't take anything for granted. And, while the rest of us can allow ourselves to get excited about Brendan and his Bhoys striding out at Windsor to face the Blues, ex-Rangers forward Healy will be busy plotting the removal of the one obstacle standing in the way of that historic showdown.

There's nothing certain in football, but surely the local game's champions will see off virtual no-hopers from San Marino and turn the dream into a reality.

And then we can talk freely about two Northern Ireland men we can all be proud of.

Both have made their mark in football, but in markedly different ways.

Rodgers was a so-so player, but his prowess as a coach took him heartbreakingly close to ending Liverpool's long wait for a Premier League title. And, if 'anyone' could manage Celtic, how come 'no-one' in the modern game, apart from the Carnlough man, could take them through an entire domestic campaign unbeaten?

Healy is still a novice in the dugout, but the Killyleagh native's record as an international striker is right up there with the world's finest players.

It's no surprise that the two men have great respect and admiration for each other, as well as chest-busting pride in being in charge of the clubs they respectively supported as youngsters.

It would be naive, of course, for us to bill this forthcoming game merely as a tactical battle between compatriots.

Let's not pretend we don't know how tribal football is - and this is as close as you'll ever come to an Old Firm encounter right in the heart of Belfast.

Throw in the date it's arranged for, and the powderkeg potential is there for all to see.

As a former football correspondent, I'm fortunate enough to have covered some of the biggest games in world football.

But one was particularly memorable was for all the wrong reasons - Northern Ireland v the Republic at Windsor in November 1993. It had the nastiest atmosphere I've ever encountered at a football match... an all-time low.

But it came during the darkest days before the dawn of the modern-day peace process.

Things have changed a lot here - and this game could be an apt barometer.

I don't expect the genuine fans from either club to get involved in anything unseemly, even allowing for pre-Twelfth volatility.

Football fans here, both at club and international level, have consigned their often dubious reputations to the dustbin of history over the last two decades.

It's the knuckle-headed blow-ins you fear... all they need to harness their hatred to is a time, a place and a date. The football diary provides just that. So, too, does the marching season; some might argue there's a perfect storm brewing.

Fortunately, we have a police force whose members are vastly experienced and adept at controlling volatile elements on big occasions. They'll be ready; let's hope they're not needed.

Meanwhile, Celtic fans will undoubtedly be cheering Linfield on against SP La Fiorita next week.

In football, there's always irony.

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