Fairytale finish but Linfield thirsty for more silverware
Coleraine 0 Linfield 3
Linfield's season is over and the curtain has come down on a campaign which brought three trophies to Windsor Park but leaving the international venue on Saturday it was difficult to escape the feeling that there's a new dawn at the club.
Something special is just starting to bear fruit and the rest of the Irish League will understandably fear that another period of Linfield dominance has arrived. Forget about Andy Waterworth's three goals in the Tennent's Irish Cup Final for a second. During the second half of the comfortable 3-0 win over Coleraine, Aaron Burns attempted a fancy flick that gifted possession to his opponents. His team-mates and manager David Healy blasted him and it was a crystal clear example of the standards that have now been set at the home of the newly crowned league champions.
Healy has enjoyed many magical moments at Windsor, - a hat-trick against Spain and a winner against England, but guiding Linfield to three trophies, starting with the County Antrim Shield in February, ranks very high on his list of career highlights.
Managers must inspire and be responsible for a group of individuals and it's a challenge which is particularly emotionally exhausting in an environment where every game is a must win.
With Healy in charge, you sense that this Linfield team will taste more glory days and it's no surprise the club have handed him a new contract until the end of the 2019/20 season. In recent times Blues teams lacked courage, self-belief and bottle but this season they have silenced critics. In the big matches against Crusaders and in the big finals they have shown their mettle.
The Bannsiders, a team full of youthful enthusiasm and hunger, presented a formidable challenge in the cup final but they couldn't rise to the big occasion and will have regrets they didn't perform anywhere near full throttle.
But they should not be too hard on themselves. Linfield simply showed why they are the most ruthless and hungry outfit in the country. Waterworth, for the second Saturday running, scored a hat-trick and has now lifted the trophy for both Big Two clubs.
What contrasting emotions to a year ago when he looked on and watched Glenavon lift the Cup.
Back then the Linfield defence couldn't live with Eoin Bradley. On Saturday the tide had turned dramatically.
Linfield skipper Jamie Mulgrew reflected on the first trophy success this season, the Shield Final victory over Crusaders in February, as giving the team the self-belief and confidence they needed to set up a thrilling climax.
"The Shield win kickstarted us," said Mulgrew. "People say you win leagues by beating the lesser sides but I felt we won the league this season through our results against Crusaders.
"We hadn't beaten them in a while and they were the better side which is why they won the league two years in a row.
"They had the better of us over a long period but once we got that monkey off our back and that win gave us the belief that we could do this. The longer the season went on and we went unbeaten that gave us more confidence.
"I said privately in our changing room that if we beat Crusaders after the split we would win the league and I think the way we dispatched the top teams after the split we deserved to finish champions."
At times this season the Linfield players did question whether they had the character and bottle to win the big prizes.
Mulgrew added: "I can remember after the draw with Portadown we felt it had possibly gone but since then the boys won 43 points out of 45 and deserved to win the league. Where we have come from to where we are now is night and day."
Crusaders will need to produce something special next season to stop the Blues existing in a league of their own.
Linfield: Carroll 7, Haughey 7, Stafford 8, Callacher 7, M.Clarke 7, Smyth 8, (Casement 90, 6), Mulgrew 7, Lowry 8, Quinn 7, Burns 7 (Stewart 85, 6), Waterworth 9. Subs not used: Deane, Ward, Millar.
Coleraine: Johns 6, Kane 6, Ogilby 6, McConaghie 5, Mullan 5, McGonigle 6 (Allan 85, 6), Lyons 5, Harkin 5, McCauley 5, Bradley 5, McLaughlin 5 (Parkhill 60, 6). Subs not used: Douglas, McCafferty, Doherty.
Referee: Keith Kennedy 6.
Man of the match: Andy Waterworth
Match rating: 7/10