Linfield ace Ward insists confident Blues on the up
When losing became a habit for Linfield in November, it was a case of don't mention the C word - crisis.
Now there's a new C word that has come to the surface and that is confidence. The Blues have emerged from the storm and are confident they can breathe fresh life into their title challenge by stunning Crusaders at Windsor Park today.
Blues midfielder Sean Ward says his side are starting to believe again and a victory over the league champions would be a dream start to 2016.
But there's no escaping the reality that this month is make or break for Linfield's season with key questions hanging in the air.
Can the Blues stay in the title race? Can David Healy win his first trophy as a manager when Linfield take on Ballymena United in the County Antrim Shield final? Can the Windsor Park side keep their Irish Cup dream alive by sweeping aside the Sky Blues?
If the Blues fail to come up with the right answers to all three questions then the supporters will let their frustration be heard.
Three straight wins, however, has generated New Year optimism and Ward wants to keep the good times rolling.
"I know the Crues have a great record against us but we are feeling strong and very confident we can win this game," said the former Glentoran ace.
"It's on our patch and if we play the way we have been playing in the last few matches we can beat Crusaders. We are winning games of football again and we are all relieved about that.
"Winning three matches in a row certainly goes a long way to getting rid of the bad atmosphere.
"November was a very tough month for everyone. I've gone through difficult periods in my career and the festive season wasn't always a great time at Glentoran but November was very tough.
"The manager was feeling the pressure and the players were too. A lot of people had written Linfield off but in the last few games we have shown our quality and the confidence has returned.
"The match on Boxing Day was a tough test but we put in a good performance and deserved the victory.
"This game against Crusaders is massive now to keep the run going."
Ward accepts it's a must not lose battle for his side as defeat would leave them 12 points adrift of a formidable Crues side.
"Crusaders are a very good side, very strong and they have a lot of big characters in their team," he added.
"We have not played very well against them and they have deserved their formidable record against us.
"It's up to us to change that and answer the critics like Scott Young who have been highlighting how we have fallen short. It's been pointed out that we need to strengthen and the manager is always looking to do that.
"There is pressure on us to get a result in this game and you only have to look at the league table to understand that. It's not an exaggeration to stay it's a game we must not lose if we want to stay in the title race.
"You've got to stay in contention because a side of Crusaders' quality should never be given a huge lead."
Ward is excited by the emergence of teenage talent Paul Smyth, a new weapon in Linfield's armoury and the scourge of Glentoran on Boxing Day.
"Paul has been fantastic," added Ward.
"Both him and Andy (Waterworth) can get in behind defences with their pace and Irish League defenders don't like that.
"Paul will chase lost causes and he's just got great enthusiasm and energy as well as a desire to do well.
"As well as chasing every ball what I like about him is he can hold the ball up well, he retains it in difficult areas and that helps the team in an attacking sense.
"He's David's blue eyed boy at the moment and he's been a breath of fresh air at Linfield. If he keeps progressing, Paul is going to have a fantastic career in the game."