Belfast Telegraph

Mark Haughey says Hamilton's troops can keep firing

By Graham Luney

Mark Haughey believes his former club Glenavon have the quality to sustain a title challenge.

The Lurgan Blues are reluctant to set ambitious targets in the Premiership – even after their fairytale Irish Cup success in May – but the Linfield ace says the Mourneview Park faithful are allowed to dream.

Gary Hamilton's side sit joint top of the league with the Blues ahead of their meeting at Windsor Park tomorrow and with Portadown and Ballymena United also sitting on 14 points it's tight and tense at the top.

Even back-to-back champions Cliftonville have struggled to find consistency, fuelling the belief this could be a wide open title race.

Linfield, who have a game in hand against Crusaders, can be proud of their start to the campaign as their first six tests were on the road against opponents as formidable as Glentoran, Cliftonville and Portadown.

Haughey made history last Saturday when he became the first player to score on the new Windsor Park pitch, complete with undersoil heating, in the Blues' 1-0 win over Warrenpoint Town.

Tomorrow the defender, who donned the captain's armband against Town, will be reunited with a few old pals, but Glenavon, still hurting from their derby defeat to Portadown, will be keen to wipe the smile off Haughey's face.

The Newry man, who agreed a two-year deal in April last year, is confident he can land a league winner's medal at Linfield, but he also feels his former club can hit the big time.

"I was at Glenavon for almost seven years so I know many of the boys and how determined they will be to turn us over," he said.

"I know there is a question mark over the fitness of Eoin Bradley and Guy Bates is a big loss to them but Gary Hamilton can still hurt teams and Kevin Braniff is a class act. When those guys perform they are among the best attacking sides in the league.

"I have said a few times that four or five teams could challenge for the title and while Glenavon are focused firstly on establishing a top-six place there is no reason why they can't have bigger targets.

"With a good run of form and luck on the injury front several sides can put in a big challenge.

"Any team can beat anyone else on their day, including Glenavon, and the challenge from mid-Ulster this season will be strong.

"Knowing Gary Hamilton I know how ambitious he is and hungry to rebuild the club.

"When I was there they had to fight off relegation, but they are a revitalised force now and looking up after their remarkable Irish Cup win.

"There is no reason why they can't make a push for the title like the other clubs in the top six. They are joint top of the league on merit at the moment and only Crusaders have scored more goals than them."

The Gibson Cup is still very much in Linfield's sights, despite this being a transitional year for the club. Long serving legendary boss David Jeffrey has handed the baton to Warren Feeney and despite an early loss at Portadown and a disappointing League Cup exit, many of the performances – particularly the thrilling comeback at Glentoran – have generated fresh excitement among supporters.

Haughey added: "The gaffer has said this is a new group of players and the reality is we have had to play our first six matches away from home.

"The Irish League is a very demanding league and points are hard to come by regardless of whether you are home or away.

"I played with Glenavon for a long time and it's a fact that players raise their games on the big occasions and that usually means a game against Linfield.

"Everyone wants to get the better of a team of the stature of Linfield. That makes it difficult for us, but to our credit we have made a solid start.

"We are joint top of the league with a game in hand and only just played our first game at Windsor Park so we have to be content with our position and optimistic about the season ahead.

"It takes a while for new players to gel and develop an understanding. We know there is much more to come from this team and we will improve.

"As time goes on I believe we will click through the gears and get stronger.

"The new boys have settled in well, but while a few of them might not have Irish League experience they have played the game at a very good level in Scotland and they are young, exciting talents. I think once they familiarise themselves with the Irish League and get adjusted to life here they will show what they can do.

"But it's a long hard season for everyone and you can't allow yourself to get carried away with a period of good form. There are many more tough obstacles to come."

As for the new Windsor Park pitch, players will be thrilled to learn it's a joy to play on.

"The Windsor surface is one of the best pitches I have ever played on – it's like a snooker table," added Haughey.

"We are a team that wants to get the ball down and play so it is going to be a huge help to us." Northern Ireland may get back to playing like Brazil again, but don't be too depressed when that happens!

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