Belfast Telegraph

We won't let Linfield steal Cliftonville's crown, says Barry Johnston

By Graham Luney

Barry Johnston has warned Linfield the league champions are in good shape to defend the title they won for the first time in 15 years last season.

The league leaders boast a two point lead over the Reds but with both title chasers clashing at Windsor Park later this month, there is very little margin for error on either side.

It's a time when mental strength comes into play and a fear of failure can creep in.

Linfield players have the added incentive of giving their departing boss David Jeffrey an emotional and triumphant farewell while the Solitude aces can enter the history books as the first Cliftonville side to defend the championship.

The stakes and tension levels are high and with only seven matches remaining, nerves of steel are required.

Tommy Breslin's side take on relegation threatened Warrenpoint Town at Stangmore Park tomorrow while Linfield host Dungannon Swifts at Windsor.

Reds' midfield dynamo Barry Johnston is ready for the fireworks to begin.

"The boys are flying and confidence is really high at the moment," said Johnston.

"Fair play to Linfield – they keep winning and are doing what they have to do but I think everyone can see how much we want to defend this title.

"We are not going to give it up easily. The effort the boys are putting in is unbelievable.

"The fact that a Reds team hasn't defended a title is a massive incentive for us.

"A lot of Cliftonville teams have feared relegation after doing well in the league but we have proved what a successful team we are by winning the League Cup again and back to back titles would be a stunning achievement.

"It's tough to win a title and it's even tougher to retain it so it would be something special to look back on.

"We are passing the ball and moving it around quicker. I think the work Ricky McCann has done with us on the strength and conditioning side has been really beneficial.

"He works in sports science at Jordanstown and his knowledge and expertise brings extra professionalism to the set-up and that's a tribute to manager Tommy Breslin and his team in the way they are going about their work.

"We are really seeing the benefits of knowing when to rest and go again."

There is little time for Breslin's men to rest as they are playing catch-up in the title race – a role reversal to last season when they were out in front and in command.

Tomorrow, they face a tricky test at Stangmore Park against a Warrenpoint Town side that is scrapping for its future in the top flight, with games running out.

"Warrenpoint remind me of Ballinamallard United when they got promoted," added Johnston.

"They will battle all day and be very hard to break down.

"That's the challenge that faces us every week but we are confident we can penetrate defences as Joe (Gormley) and Liam (Boyce) have been in great form.

"We don't fear anyone but at the same time we will always give teams respect because we understand how determined teams are to beat us."

Cliftonville may be waving farewell to Northern Ireland international Liam Boyce in the summer but Johnston and his comrades hope their star man can fulfill his full-time dreams.

"I'd like to see Liam stay on with us," he added. "But he has been a great servant to us and if he gets another chance across the water we would all be delighted for him because he deserves that chance.

"He's the main man for us and we are just delighted he's been doing the business for us for a second season.

"Liam is the best player in the league and we wish him well whatever his future holds."

The Reds have snapped up Falkirk defender Johnny Flynn on a pre-contract agreement and Johnston added: "I know Johnny well from Celtic Boys and he's a quality addition to the squad.

"Johnny is the kind of guy you want in the trenches when you're going for a title and hopefully when he arrives we will be going for a third league winner's medal!"

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