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Linfield to do it at last: Paul Leeman

 

By Graham Luney

For the players involved in the last-day drama as the Danske Bank Premiership title race reaches a thrilling climax on Saturday, it will be a nervous and tense afternoon.

Linfield and Crusaders are both within touching distance of the Gibson Cup but there can be only one champion when a brutal, bruising and exhausting 38-game campaign is over.

Both sides deserve enormous credit for sticking at it and showing the mental toughness needed to be tantalisingly close to glory but there is still one big push required.

It's not often the Irish League's finest are left with work to do on the final day of the season to clinch the league title.

The last time it happened was on Saturday, May 2, 2009 when Glentoran, managed by the late Alan McDonald, edged out Linfield, denying the Blues a fourth successive title.

After 2009, Linfield on three occasions, as well as Cliftonville and Crusaders in their successful back-to-back title missions, managed to get the job done without making their supporters sweat at the death.

Eight years ago, the Glens beat Cliftonville 3-1 at The Oval with goals from Dean Fitzgerald, Kyle Neill and Matty Burrows inflicting the damage and even though Linfield cruised to a 5-0 win at Seaview against Crusaders with Paul Munster (2), Robert Garrett, Mark McAllister and Michael Gault on target, it counted for nothing.

Leading by a point before the last round of fixtures, the Glens knew a home win over Cliftonville would guarantee them a 23rd league success and they duly delivered.

Paul Leeman, the last Glentoran skipper to lift the Gibson Cup back on that glorious afternoon, recalled: "I can remember we went to Coleraine the week before and got a 2-1 win to keep the title in our own hands going into the last game.

"I think we were also a little fortunate as Cliftonville had reached the Irish Cup final against Crusaders and with respect to them, perhaps they didn't play their strongest side against us.

"But from our perspective we were focused on winning the game and there's always going to be a few nerves. There's an Irish League title on the line and you don't lose sight of that but we knew what we needed to do.

"We were quietly confident and just like Linfield at the moment we had confidence and momentum. We were on a good run and believed we could do it.

"That was eight years ago and unfortunately I'm the last Glentoran captain to lift the league trophy. They are good memories and sadly it doesn't look like the club is going to have that feeling again soon."

Neill, who also grabbed a league winner's medal that day, said: "It was the first time the Premiership had split into two and we finished with five hard games.

"A lot of the nerves disappeared when Dean Fitzgerald scored and Glentoran had a good team at that time.

"Alan McDonald was a great manager and an absolute gentleman and all the boys really wanted to win the title for him."

Fast forward to the 2017 Premiership fight and David Healy's side are two points ahead of the Crues as well as boasting a vastly superior goal difference.

A draw at Cliftonville will be enough for Linfield to win their first title since 2012 while Stephen Baxter's side know they must win at home to Glenavon to have any hope of adding one more dramatic twist to this fascinating tale.

As the legendary former Linfield boss David Jeffrey has reflected, "It's never over until it's over," and the Blues have one more hurdle to clear.

Leeman, who won four league titles with the Glens and one with Crusaders, thinks the force is with the Windsor Park side as they aim to reach the promised land.

"Linfield are full of confidence and looking very strong so I expect them to be crowned champions," argued Leeman, who made 597 appearances for the Glens during his 15 years with the east Belfast club.

"I've watched Cliftonville recently and they have been poor.

"I don't think they have enough quality to beat Linfield and going on form I can only see one outcome.

"The Crues must be kicking themselves as they have led the charge for virtually all of the season and losing to Ballymena United last weekend was a huge blow to them.

"They will have to go out and beat Glenavon but in their hearts they must know it has slipped away.

"I don't even think the return of Tommy Breslin can have a significant immediate impact as the quality is not there. Tommy will get a response but you have to give Linfield huge credit.

"I wrote them off about six months ago and a lot of people did the same when they fell nine points behind the Crues but they never gave up and David Healy and his players deserve a lot of praise for rallying and finding the strength and quality to get across the line."

Some Irish League fans can recall the 1994 league title race which went to the final day with Portadown, Glenavon and Linfield joint top and fighting for the prize.

The Blues started the day third, level on points but behind on goal difference. The Mid-Ulster sides played out a 2-2 draw at Mourneview Park - the Ports fighting back from 2-0 down - allowing Linfield, who beat Glentoran 2-0 at Windsor, to come home first.

There aren't three teams with a title dream on Saturday but we are still guaranteed a nail-biting finish.

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