Having been left out of the starting line-up for last season’s Irish Cup final Jamie Mulgrew is well aware that nothing is ever guaranteed when you’re a Linfield player.
But if the battle for a place in the team this season becomes a survival of the fittest, then it’s one the midfielder is confident he will win.
There was a period over the summer when Linfield fans were becoming concerned over how strong their squad would be when the new season kicked off.
Mulgrew and his fellow midfielder Robert Garrett — who were so instrumental in helping the Blues lift their 50th league title — had both turned down new contracts, while there is still uncertainty about Peter Thompson’s on-going health problems.
Things changed very quickly, however, when Garrett re-signed, swiftly followed by Mulgrew putting pen to paper on a new three-year contract.
Just days later Rory Patterson joined on-loan, providing proven cover if Thompson is laid off for a lengthy period by surgery.
Mulgrew came off the bench with less than half an hour of the Irish Cup final to go and with Linfield a goal behind he inspired a comeback to win his fourth league and cup double.
What might have been the perfect way to bow out has turned into a great launching pad for the 25-year-old to what he intends to be a trophy-laden three years with the Blues.
“It wasn’t about me wanting to leave Linfield. It was more to do with me wanting to continue being a full-time player and wanting to advance my career,” said Mulgrew of a summer spent in the USA where he had trials with two MLS clubs, Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew, as well as Orlando City in the USL.
“I wouldn’t change anything that happened in the summer.
“I was in America for two months and I learned a lot of things and I experienced a lot of things.
“I had the chance to go and do something and I am glad that I took it.
“When I came back I signed the new contract at Linfield straightaway, because I’d always said if things didn’t work out then there wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to play.
“I was open and honest with the club about what I wanted to do and they were very patient with me.
“Hopefully now I can repay them for that patience by winning trophies this season.”
Mulgrew was able to enjoy that two-month stay in the USA due to his previous full-time status at Linfield, but with that now being phased out by the club — who found full-time football just isn’t sustainable in the Irish League — by the time next summer comes around he’ll most likely be working instead.
“I feel fitter and sharper than I have done in a long time,” said Mulgrew, who will be hoping to follow up last week’s opening day goal against Glenavon with another against Donegal Celtic at Windsor Park tomorrow.
“I don’t know if I have come back a better player, that’s for other people to judge, but I’ve definitely come back a fitter player.
“I was training every day and sometimes the temperatures were up to 100 degrees.
“Those conditions are very demanding, but hopefully in the long term I will feel the benefits of it.
“There will be a bit of added pressure on the likes of myself who are no longer full-time to maintain a high level of performance, but I know that I’ll be working hard to keep my fitness level up.
“When I see how sharp I feel I don’t want to let that drop off, but I know now that as I’m no longer full-time at Linfield I’ll need to get a job sometime to pay the bills.”
With an already strong Linfield squad now strengthened even further, the potential is there for David Jeffrey’s men to emulate the Grand Slam success of the 2005-06 season.
Mulgrew came into the team late that season and doesn’t have any medals to show for his efforts in that particular campaign — although there’s been a lot since.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t start in the Irish Cup final, but the manager made a decision and I respected it,” said Mulgrew.
“Nobody is guaranteed a starting place at Linfield. There is pressure to perform every week and with the players that we have at the club the competition is fierce.
“We have a lot of quality players and with the players that have come in, as well as the players that have stayed, it’s as strong a squad as we’ve had in a while.
“When I look around the dressing room it’s a special squad and hopefully we can have a special season.”