I can handle heat of title fight, roars Linfield boss David Jeffrey
There's no definitive guage to judge the size of any individual football match.
No measuring tape, no barometer to tell exactly how big a particular battle might be.
In terms of the race for this season’s Carling Premiership title is concerned though, tonight’s crunch encounter between Crusaders and Linfield at Seaview is just about as big as it gets.
And when Blues boss David Jeffrey describes it as ‘a massive game’ you know it’s not far from going off the scale.
Not one to overplay things, if Jeffrey is judging it as massive then there can’t be any doubt that it is.
It’s first v second at Seaview. Locked together at the top of the table on 67 points, Linfield have their noses slightly in front, thanks to a vastly superior goal difference. They also have a game in hand, but there is little or no margin for error in the final lap.
There are two very important reasons why the Crues are now breathing down Linfield’s neck at the summit, having clawed back a 12-point deficit which had many already declaring the Blues as champions.
Jeffrey’s side hit a blip, winning just once in five games, while Crusaders hit top form.
The Shore Road men go into tonight’s game on the back of a 10-match winning run in the league and like the Blues they could still win the double.
“This is a massive game. They are all going to be massive from now until the end of the season,” said Jeffrey.
“We had a strong lead, but some indifferent performances, coupled with Crusaders hitting a consistent run have been significant.”
There have been suggestions that Linfield, believing the talk that the title was already theirs, took their foot off the pedal and rather than powering home and having possession of the Gibson Cup already secured by now, it’s destiny remains hanging in the balance.
Jeffrey, however, claims that there will never be a case of Linfield resting on their laurels — and certainly not before a trophy is lifted.
“There has been no complacency in the squad. None whatsoever,” said Jeffrey.
“I would never allow it to enter the dressing room.
“I said, even when we had a big lead, that it was a long, long way from being over — although it would have been nice to be proved wrong.”
With the Premiership now cut in half, neither the Blues or Crues can say that the other has a tougher run-in. The split means that they have to face the same opposition between now and the end of the season — although Linfield’s game in hand is a Big Two battle with Glentoran, carried over from before the league was divided.
When the going gets tough, invariably Linfield get going. The heat was on when they headed to Portadown 10 days ago, after Crusaders had moved level on points at the top.
The doubters were silenced in no uncertain terms, with Linfield hammering four past the Ports to send out a real statement of intent, as well as getting back on the winning track.
It would have been more worrying, though, had Jeffrey not known where their problems lay.
“We weren’t scoring goals — it was as simple as that,” he said.
“We weren’t creating as many chances as we had been either and when you’re not creating chances it makes it more difficult to win games.
“We did create chances in those games, but we didn’t kill teams off and you’ve got to do that or you find yourself being punished.
“We needed that performance against Portadown and in many ways that game was very similar to this one.
“We were going up against a team who had been playing some good stuff and who had been in excellent form over a period of a few months. The players knew the size of the game and rose to it.
“Looking at that game it was a massive challenge and the players answered a question that night.”
Anyone who thinks that Jeffrey may crack under the pressure, however, is very much mistaken.
“The pressure is always on. Expectation levels see it increase and because of what we have done in the last few seasons it has gone up and up and up,” said Jeffrey.
“The higher you raise the bar the further you are expected to jump. The more you do the more there is expected of you.
“The pressure has never bothered me though. I wouldn’t want a job where there’s no pressure.”