Belfast Telegraph

Linfield in the mood to make a fast start to Irish League title defence

By Graham Luney

On paper it looks like Linfield have been handed a comfortable start to their Danske Bank Premiership title defence while Crusaders are having a nightmare opener, but football doesn't work out that way.

David Healy's champions will kick off their campaign at home to Carrick Rangers on Saturday, August 12 and the visitors, now under the guidance of new boss David McAlinden, will be focused on consolidating their place in the top flight from the first whistle.

Carrick finished second from bottom in the 2016/17 season, and they also know that newly promoted Warrenpoint Town will look to hit the ground running, while Linfield will be looking to maintain their dominance at the summit of the domestic game.

"I've heard it commented that it is harder to retain a title," said Healy.

"I've heard Crusaders say that, that it's more difficult but I don't think that should be the case.

FULL LIST: Danske Bank Premiership fixtures - Champions Linfield start title defence against Carrick Rangers 

"If you win the league you have the best squad of the players and we will be looking to push on and improve. We will be ready for it."

The Crues, who stumbled near the finish line last season, return to the scene of the crime in their opener - to the Ballymena Showgrounds where they lost 3-0 in the penultimate battle, allowing Linfield to nip in.

The Showgrounds has not been a happy hunting ground for Stephen Baxter's side in recent seasons, though they will have fond memories of their 6-0 thrashing of the Sky Blues in the opening round of fixtures at Seaview last year.

Coleraine, who stormed to a stunning third-placed finish last season, begin away to Dungannon Swifts, while Glentoran are on the road to Ballinamallard United and Cliftonville take on Ards at Solitude.

It will be fascinating to discover if Barry Gray can revive fortunes in north Belfast, and his first reunion with Warrenpoint will be at Solitude on Saturday, October 7.

Sides like Coleraine, Ballymena United and Cliftonville are perfectly entitled to have title aspirations, but most observers will anticipate another shoot-out for the championship between the Blues and Crues.

The Belfast giants, who are both focused on European endeavours, were a class above the rest last season, finishing 22 points above all other sides.

And the huge rivals will meet for the first time at Seaview on September 2.

The Blues exorcised their Crusaders ghost last season, remaining unbeaten in their six meetings, winning four of them and conceding only two goals.

It was those performances, including in the County Antrim Shield Final, that proved that Linfield players had found their big game mentality.

How do you better a treble success after landing the league title, Irish Cup and Shield? It's a tall order, but Healy (right) will be ruthless if there are any indications that hunger or intensity levels are dropping.

While the Premiership has a habit of embarrassing anyone crazy enough to make predictions, it could be argued that the champions have been handed a comfortable start.

Their August programme reads Carrick (home), Ards (away), Dungannon Swifts (away) and Ballymena United (home).

Crusaders's opening four fixtures are Ballymena United (away), Warrenpoint Town (home), Coleraine (home) and Cliftonville (away).

Healy's immediate priority is Linfield's Champions League first qualifying round tussle with San Marino side SP La Fiorita, and don't mention the 'C' word to Northern Ireland's leading goalscorer.

Celtic await the winners and there is plenty at stake for the Blues as their European funds will soar close to £1m if they land a glamour clash with the Hoops. Talks are under way to show the Windsor Park clash on Friday, July 14 (5pm) live on television.

"Last season we played Cork City in Europe but I feel the boys are in a much better condition physically this time round," Healy added on Linfield's website. Glentoran will have home advantage for the traditional Boxing Day clash against old rivals Linfield but the first 'Big Two' showdown will be on September 9 at Windsor Park.

In the Championship, relegated Portadown will wrestle with Tiarnan Lynch's Larne at Inver Park in their opening fixture, but the mood is upbeat at Shamrock Park after boss Niall Currie's extensive transfer business in the summer. New Institute boss Paddy McLaughlin begins his tenure with a short trip to Castlederg to face Dergview, while Ballyclare Comrades, third last season, welcome Loughgall to Dixon Park.

Limavady United host HW Welders while Newry City visit Lurgan Celtic. Portstewart mark their return to the Premier Intermediate League with a journey to Holm Park and Armagh City, while Annagh United, relegated with the Eagles at the end of last season, entertain Tobermore United. Attendances are up, standards are improving and entertainment is guaranteed.

Support the local game from day one - you won't be disappointed.

  • See belfasttelegraph.co.uk for the full list of fixtures

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