Better late than never for Linfield v Glentoran ‘Boxing Day’ battle
David Jeffrey will have his Linfield team ready for another bout of Big Two crash, bang, wallop when they come out of the blue corner at Windsor Park tonight.
The biggest day on the local football calendar — the Boxing Day derby between Glentoran and Linfield, Northern Ireland’s two biggest clubs — has been wiped out by the weather in each of the last two seasons.
Off the pitch the feeling just isn’t the same on a Tuesday evening in January as it is immediately after Christmas.
On the playing area, however, Jeffrey insists that nothing ever changes when the biggest rivals in the whole of Ireland go into combat, no matter when they meet.
“The Boxing Day game is slightly different in that you have people whose interest in the Irish League and their support for their club has maybe waned a bit coming out on that day,” said Jeffrey.
“As far as the occasion and the passion that will be on display in the match, that won’t be diluted in the least because of a three or four week delay.
“There’s three points for beating Glentoran in the same way as there is for beating anyone else.
“There is a bit more to it than that — the bragging rights for the supporters and what it means to them as well as the fact that it is our biggest rivals who we are playing.
“All these things are wrapped up in derby games and it doesn’t matter when we play Glentoran, they are never any less intense.”
A 2-2 draw between the teams at the Oval this time last year put the Glens a point clear at the top of the table. Linfield were lying in third at that time after a terrible run of form during December, just before the big freeze hit fixtures.
At the end of April though it was the Windsor Park men who still marched off with the Gibson Cup, with a final points tally 10 greater than their rivals from east-Belfast, who finished third behind Cliftonville.
This time Linfield have a five-point advantage at the summit. A win for the Blues tonight would leave the Glens eight points adrift and with a lot of work to do and while playing down the significance of victory, Jeffrey does acknowledge that it would be ‘three points nearer to winning the league.’
The Blues will need to perform much better tonight than when the teams last met seven weeks ago.
On that night at Windsor Park the Glens threw off the shackles and despite having the heart of their defence ripped out — with experienced campaigners Colin Nixon and Paul Leeman missing through suspension — they produced one of their best performances of the season, winning 3-1 to claim the County Antrim Shield.
Linfield simply weren’t at the races and Jeffrey told his players that in no uncertain terms after the game.
“Anyone who says that it was ‘only the County Antrim Shield’ has got it all wrong,” said the Linfield boss, now 14 years in charge at Windsor Park.
“For a start it was a final, secondly it was against Glentoran and thirdly we didn’t turn up.
“At Linfield that can’t happen.”
Jeffrey also made sure his men knew how he felt when they lost to Donegal Celtic by the same scoreline on New Year’s Eve, but they have responded by scoring eight goals in their last two outings, conceding only two and those wins — 3-1 against Crusaders in the league and Saturday’s 5-1 demolition of Institute in the Irish Cup — have taken them just a couple of small steps closer to claiming a fifth double in six seasons.
Linfield’s ‘resources’ — basically pointing to their contract with the Irish Football Association which guarantees the Blues 15 per cent cut of the profits from Northern Ireland internationals played at Windsor Park — have been put down as the reason for their success, but there is more to winning trophies than having a hefty bank balance.
“The reality is that no matter what your resources are players have to go out onto the pitch and produce and a huge amount of credit has to go to them for what we have done over the last few years,” said Jeffrey.
“Nobody can argue with four doubles in five seasons, but resources alone never won anything.
“You can’t buy hunger and desire, that is something that comes from within and something we try to instill in our players.
“Also, these players have to handle the level of expectation that there is at Linfield and not everyone can do that.”