Linfield manager David Jeffrey has opened his heart about the most ‘difficult, demanding and horrible season’ he has experienced since taking charge of the club.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Jeffrey admitted that, at his lowest point during the campaign, he offered his resignation, but insists now he is more fired up than ever to get the Blues back on track for next season.
Jeffrey took over as boss of Linfield in 1997 and has won a staggering NINE league titles since. From 2006 to 2012 his team claimed SIX doubles and on one occasion a domestic clean sweep of trophies.
The 50-year-old's managerial record is magnificent, making him a Linfield and Irish League legend.
In the season just finished, though, he and his team endured a nightmare from start to finish. They put no trophies on the table and finished in third place in the Danske Bank Premiership, well adrift of champions Cliftonville and runners-up Crusaders.
“The last season has been the most challenging, demanding, testing and difficult and on occasion the most horrible I've ever experienced as a manager,” said Jeffrey, never one to mince his words.
In typically candid and thought provoking mood, he added: “It wasn't so much not winning the league or not winning the Irish Cup because no team in the world could keep doing what we did over the past six years and win all the big trophies.
“It was the fact that in previous years, when we didn't win the title we would have challenged right to the last game and certainly would not have had the points deficit that we had at the end of this campaign. By the finish we were 29 points behind Cliftonville and 21 points behind Crusaders.
“I felt we surrendered the fight that we put up in previous years. It was the manner of our demise this year that hurt me so much. There were some bright spots but we were consistently inconsistent.”
So, what in Jeffrey's opinion, were the reasons for that?
“Injuries to our squad, poor refereeing decisions going against us and more suspensions than previously were all influencing factors, but we also made mistakes at both ends of the pitch at critical times,” he added.
“We bossed some games against Crusaders and Cliftonville but errors cost us and we lost those matches. We weren't clinical enough in front of goal and we were punished when we made mistakes at the back. The reality is that we didn't step up to the mark.”
As is always the case at Linfield, when results go wrong the manager's future is questioned. Rumours were rife earlier in the season that Jeffrey offered his resignation after a draw with Lisburn Distillery. I ask him if that was true. “Yes, I can confirm that,” says Jeffrey.
“We lost to Ballymena in the County Antrim Shield final in November and I was asking myself why the players were unable to perform. Our next match was a 1-1 draw against Distillery. After the game I remember thinking that's me finished.
“I had become so down on myself that I offered my resignation. I was told to take the weekend to think about it and in that time I had an incredible amount of support from players and staff.
“It was then after asking questions of myself and realising that I was working harder than ever and being more meticulous than ever that I thought I would not be walking away from any battle.
“And now I am looking forward to the future with Linfield.” The board appear behind him, though grapevine gossip has it that Jeffrey met with Linfield President Peter Lunn and Treasurer Paul Weir as recently as March where he was advised that the board had discussed his position.
I put this to the Linfield boss. “Yes, that is correct,” came the reply.
He's still there though after ‘a testing but supportive AGM’ and preparing for another season. He's watched Tommy Breslin's Cliftonville win the title and Glentoran, under Eddie Patterson, lift the Irish Cup and is fiercely determined to hit back stronger than ever.
“I'll enter the new season under as much pressure as I've always had. Any additional pressure will come from myself,” he says.
“As a football manager, unless you are Sir Alex Ferguson, you can be sure of the sack at some stage. It's like death and taxes. I have no fear about that, it's a reality of the job. What I detest more than anything is the fear of failure and that's why we aim to come back all guns blazing.”
Linfield's targets for next season? “Everything that is available for us to win,” he concludes. With Jeffrey at the helm, you wouldn't put it past them.