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Linfield's Jamie Mulgrew in mood for a title party

 

By Graham Luney

Jamie Mulgrew has witnessed just about everything at Linfield since he joined the club back in 2005. The midfield dynamo has seen the tears, tantrums, title wins and he's no stranger to heavyweights battles in the pursuit of the domestic game's biggest prizes.

But even the 30-year-old finds himself in uncharted waters this weekend, gearing up for an explosive finish to the 2016-2017 Danske Bank Premiership title race.

The Linfield captain will either be proudly lifting the Gibson Cup or reflecting on what might have been with one last dramatic twist sparking wild celebrations amongst the Crusaders faithful.

Read more: Stephen Baxter adamant that Crusaders will see season out on a winning note

David Healy's side know a draw at Cliftonville tomorrow will be good enough to net the club's 52nd championship and, if Crusaders fail to record a home win over Glenavon, they will be crowned champions regardless of how they fare against the Reds.

Linfield, however, will go for the win as they always do and Mulgrew admits he couldn't have written a more dramatic conclusion to the league campaign. The Blues have been relentless in their pursuit of the champions and Stephen Baxter's side wilted under the pressure last weekend, allowing their rivals to edge ahead.

But now the Linfield players must hold their nerve at Solitude and Mulgrew, the last man standing from David Jeffrey's all conquering Blues teams that won six doubles in seven seasons, says the players know they are tantalisingly close to completing a stunning fightback.

"It's an exciting opportunity for the club," said Mulgrew.

"It's been a very long time since we have been in this position and it will be a new experience for most of the players of Linfield and Crusaders.

"The league title race has come down to the last day and it's a different pressure for everyone. I've been at Linfield a long time and I've won titles but this is a special moment for me also. My attitude is it's an occasion and challenge to be embraced. I've no doubt there will be a few nerves but this is why we play the game and love it so much.

"After we won at Coleraine (5-1 last weekend) I was on a high and, after not winning the league for five years, it's very exciting to be on the brink of achieving it but we know it's not over yet and we need to seize the moment.

"I've got to say it can't come quick enough for me. The Irish Cup Final is the same, I want that day to come and I'm embracing the challenges."

There's understandably huge excitement in the Linfield ranks but also a little disbelief as the club were very much underdogs for the title when they fell nine points behind the Crues in February.

But eight league wins on the spin is the stuff of champions and Mulgrew, who has made 472 appearances in the famous blue jersey, admits the comeback has surprised many.

"The faith and belief comes from the manager and we have chipped away at the deficit," he added.

"I've been a bit oblivious to it and just been excited to win football matches but we gave ourselves a chance of catching Crusaders by working very hard and not giving up.

"But people are underestimating the threat that Cliftonville pose. Anyone who thinks this is a foregone conclusion is totally wrong. We lost at Solitude earlier in the season and now Tommy Breslin, their legendary manager, has come back in to rally the side. Tommy's a good football man and he will want the boys to put in a performance to lift the supporters.

"Cliftonville can beat anyone in this league on their day and to say anything else is disrespectful. It will be a very tough game and also a different challenge for us because now we are in front and need to hold onto that lead.

"Since the split, we have reached another level and it's important now we just treat this game against Cliftonville as just another game which required a professional attitude and performance."

Linfield's number 22 will discover today whether he has been named Bank of Ireland Ulster Footballer of the Year.

His team-mate Roy Carroll and Crusaders defender Howard Beverland have also been nominated for the gong, while Blues striker Paul Smyth has netted the Young Player of the Year prize.

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