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Bailie: Linfield have staged one of the best ever fight-backs

 

By Alex Mills

Linfield legend Noel Bailie has doffed his cap to David Healy's braves, who are within touching distance of landing their first Danske Bank Premiership title in five years.

The Blues have turned up the heat on champions Crusaders in recent weeks - and Stephen Baxter's boys, who led the way since day one, finally cracked under the strain at the Ballymena Showgrounds at the weekend.

For the first time in the campaign Linfield hit the summit and now, with only one game remaining, they are big favourites to finish the job at Cliftonville on Saturday.

What makes it even more remarkable is the fact the Blues plummeted nine points behind the Shore Road boys following a disappointing draw at home to Portadown back in February.

Bailie, who made over 1,000 appearances in the famous blue shirt, knows a thing or two about winning league titles. He has 10 winners' medals to complement his seven Irish Cup successes.

He became such a hero at Windsor Park that his famous No.11 jersey was retired by the club on April 30, 2011, following his final appearance against Portadown. His final duty was to lift the league title at the end of his 1,013th game.

However, during his fantastic successful period, Lisburn man Bailie can't remember a Linfield team claw back such a points deficit in such a short period of time, which puts the current squad in a league of their own.

"It's the mother of all comebacks," said Bailie, known as 'Captain Fantastic' during his playing days. "As revivals go, it's right up there with the best of them.

"We've seen teams reel in three, four or maybe even six points, but to recover from a nine-point deficit is some going.

"I certainly don't recall anything like that from my playing days."

Although the job is still not finished as the Blues require a point across town at Solitude at the weekend, he believes the current squad and manager Healy still deserve a massive amount of credit.

"They have dug in when it really mattered," he said. "The players have taken a lot of criticism in recent years and probably rightly so because they failed to show up in big games, which led to the Cliftonville and Crusaders dominance.

"But the mentality has certainly changed. They got that monkey off their backs - they started to match the north Belfast clubs. In six meetings this season, the Blues are unbeaten against the Crues.

"The two league wins were massive. They also defeated the Crues in the Shield final, which heralded the first trophy for David - and the first for the club for some time.

"It's all down to the manager. He has instilled a new steel into the side. David is only around 20 months into the job and his impact has been immense.

"Probably, in his early days, he didn't really know his strongest team. But he certainly does now. They are on a great unbeaten run. They now have two massive games of the season left (the Blues are also in the Irish Cup final).

"As a player, these are the games you want to be involved in. I've no doubt the boys will all be pumped up, determined to get the job done."

Even though he will be urging on the Blues, Bailie admits he has a certain degree of sympathy for Crusaders, who faltered just when the finish line came into sight.

"They have shown great consistency, not only this season but over the previous two years," said Bailie. "The reality is they have missed their captain and leader Colin Coates, along with Michael Gault.

"Yes, Coates been out for some time and they have won games in his absence, but they missed his leadership qualities when the going got tough.

"It's the same with Gaulty. He's a former Linfield captain. He knows how to drag teams over the line when the going gets tough. They are two big players and even their personalities in the dressing room would have been missed."

With all roads now leading to Solitude, Bailie sounded a word of caution, especially with Tommy Breslin and Peter Murray back in the Cliftonville dugout - albeit on a temporary basis - following the departure of Gerard Lyttle to Sligo Rovers.

"That will only help spice things up at Solitude," he added. "Tommy has been there and worn the t-shirt at Cliftonville. I know it's a stop-gap measure, but he'll be wanting to get the best out of the team.

"But after chasing the Crues down for so long, Linfield must now take on the mantle of league leaders. That brings its own pressure, but I've no doubt David will have them well prepared and they'll be bursting to get out onto the pitch at Solitude.

"It's a scenario that didn't seem possible even six weeks ago, never mind six months ago. Fingers crossed, the boys can get the job done. They deserve it."

Cliftonville

Linfield

Danske Bank Premiership:

Solitude, Saturday, 3.00pm

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