Belfast Telegraph

Baxter's Crusaders stumbled but Linfield's never-say-die mentality won prize

By Graham Luney

The Belfast Telegraph headline on December 27, 2016, read: 'Healy: Blame me, I'm not getting it right at Linfield.'

The brutally honest and painful assessment from the Blues manager came after a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Glentoran on Boxing Day.

Crusaders had thumped Cliftonville 4-0 at Solitude to extend their lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership to SEVEN points. It was one of several dark days for the Windsor Park men this season when it seemed that another title dream was destined to end up in the dustbin.

"Big games call for big players and we didn't have enough big players turning up today," blasted Healy. "I take responsibility for the team that is selected and the substitutions. I'm the manager but in the real crunch games like the Cup finals and the Boxing Day games and Crusaders matches, we need our players to turn up and over the past 14 months that I have been here we haven't.

"I pick the team and I pick the players so it's my fault. I continue to pick those players so I'm not getting it right. Until I start getting it right we will fall short."

The players' character and mental toughness had been questioned and five days later they won 2-1 at Seaview only to lose 1-0 in the following league game to Coleraine at Windsor Park.

But in the second half of the campaign they dug incredibly deep to hunt down and over-take the Crues.

After a 1-1 draw at home to Portadown in February, a record of nine straight Premiership wins could not be matched by the north-Belfast side.

After his boys won the title at Solitude on Saturday, Healy was right to point out that people will say the Crues have thrown it away but that's too simple an analysis that doesn't give any credit to the Blues' phenomenal run. Yes, Crusaders did allow a nine points lead at the top to slip but Linfield started to play the best football, showed the greater hunger, scored the most goals and conceded the fewest.

Defences win championships and the Blues rearguard, superbly marshalled by Northern Ireland international Roy Carroll, was simple awesome. In conceding only 24 goals in 38 league matches Linfield were resolute at the back and ruthless up front.

Crusaders, meanwhile, showed defensive weaknesses when the heat was on and the absence of their captain and centre-back Colin Coates was decisive.

The Shore Road men had opportunities to win the title but they lacked the quality to take them.

Linfield found that great quality that every successful sportsman or woman needs to possess and that is a never-say-die mentality. They never quit, never gave up, kept believing and it was the fear of yet another failure that gave them extra motivation. Healy needed leaders to step forward and big characters to step up in big games and the players answered the call, from Stephen Lowry to Aaron Burns, Paul Smyth to Chris Casement.

Let's not be disrespectful to Linfield by saying Crusaders threw away the league title. Any team that finishes top after an exhausting 38-game campaign is where they deserve to be.

Will the Blues now dominate for years? As long as Healy is in charge that remains a possibility but time will tell.

Right now we should all, Crusaders included, applaud Linfield because their 52nd league title win was one of the Irish League's great never-say-die success stories.

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