Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Angry Linfield can win back title

Back with a bang: Glenn Ferguson expects Linfield boss David Jeffrey to mastermind a revival

Glenn Ferguson doesn't have £1m tucked away in a secret Swiss bank account but if he did and he had to put it on one side to finish top of the Danske Bank Premiership, he would lean towards his old employers.

The Linfield legend knows a thing or two about winning league championships – one of the greatest players to grace the Irish League stage celebrated six titles at Windsor Park.

His astonishing record leaves him well qualified to give an expert opinion on whether Cliftonville can retain the Gibson Cup for the first time in their history.

Former Northern Ireland international Ferguson is gearing Ballymena United up for their Danske Bank Premiership assault, a division now under the direction of the new Northern Ireland Football League.

But 'Spike' also keeps a close eye on how his old comrades are conducting their affairs in south Belfast.

Cliftonville's astonishing form surprised quite a few supporters last season but Linfield's demise was perhaps even more unfathomable.

David Jeffrey's side may have basked in the glory of netting six doubles in seven seasons but their last campaign was one of the worst in the club's history and finished with the trophy cabinet remaining unlocked.

The champions handed the Gibson Cup over without a fight and in the end trailed the pace-setting Reds by a massive 29 points!

But Ferguson can see a few blue shoots of recovery at the international venue.

A combination of factors has led him to the conclusion that his old club could be celebrating again come May.

Firstly, Jeffrey has added genuine quality to his panel. Secondly, Linfield rarely fail over two consecutive seasons and, thirdly, Cliftonville are going to find the going much tougher as they defend the crown they won with a swagger and style.

"It's certainly hard to look past the big three," said the Sky Blues supremo.

"Cliftonville were superb and Crusaders were on their tails.

"Linfield dropped off a bit but we all know from experience that the Blues don't have two bad seasons.

"They will definitely be up there. They have signed quality that will make a difference and the players will be hungry to put things right from last year.

"Cliftonville's problem will be that everyone wants to beat the league champions and it will be interesting to see whether they can stand up to that.

"Can they do it week-in, week-out over the course of a season?

"Crusaders are a big strong side too and it's a tough one to call but if I have to pick one side to put my money on at this point it would be Linfield.

"The Blues are the only team to defend a championship in modern times so if you had to back anyone it would be them."

While Ferguson was astounded by Linfield's crisis last season, he was also left scratching his head at his own side's fall from grace.

United, who kick off their season at home to Glenavon today, ended their trophy drought by landing the County Antrim Shield last year – overcoming Linfield in a penalty shoot-out at the Oval.

You would have thought the feel-good factor and confidence flowing from that achievement would have catapulted the Braidmen to even greater heights but a failure to make the top six underlined a woeful second half of the season.

Ferguson refers to his side's fall from grace as a "real brain-buster".

He's tried to sit down and analyse where it all went wrong for his men but there's no doubt that budget restraints have kept his hands tied.

"What happened last season is a real brain-buster," said Ferguson. "You would think that winning a trophy would give clubs confidence in future games but maybe there was a little complacency and it was too late to recover, but we have learned from it and we'll carry those lessons into next season."

Former Lisburn Distillery and Glentoran frontman Neal Gawley has joined the Sky Blues as well as full-back Stephen McBride from Crusaders.

"Unfortunately, Richard Vauls broke his ankle in training but we hope we don't pick up more injuries because we have a small enough squad," added Ferguson.

"I want to have a good settled team because I believe they are fit enough and good enough to put in a challenge for a top-six spot.

"The players we wanted to keep we had tied up pretty quickly but we knew there wasn't a lot of money in the budget but we needed some defensive cover so we snapped up Stephen McBride when he became available and we have Marc McCullough in there who can play right-back or centre-half."

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