Belfast Telegraph

Rivals still in for the long haul in title race: Coyle

Legendary boss says it's too early for Blues and Crues to consider league joy as crucial festive period looms

By Graham Luney

Windsor Park, or the new National Stadium if you prefer, is the place to be this afternoon if you want an insight into where the Gibson Cup could be resting come May. With Crusaders four points clear of Linfield, the stakes are high. If the champions' lead was to stretch to seven points then the Blues would be left trying to dig themselves out of a very deep hole.

The clocks may go back an hour this weekend but there is still no firm indication that the most successful club in Northern Ireland are ready to write another glorious chapter.

Warren Feeney's Windsor departure in October last year gave his former international team-mate David Healy a crack at the toughest job in the local game and Northern Ireland's record goalscorer successfully weathered a winter storm by steering the club back into the title race but painful defeats in the finals of the County Antrim Shield and Irish Cup, combined with Crusaders' back-to-back title triumphs, left the Linfield faithful with an empty feeling come May.

All that means that Healy is under severe pressure this season to win a trophy. The mental strength of his players has been questioned and they must come up with the right answers in the coming months. Allowing Crusaders to secure a healthy lead at the summit, even at this early stage, will only increase anxiety levels around Windsor.

The man from Killyleagh was able to weave magic in an international jersey but can his managerial career take off at the Blues?

Roy Coyle guided Belfast's traditional 'Big Two' to 13 league titles - 10 with Linfield - and he believes that regardless of the outcome of today's battle, it's far too early in the season to be making rash judgments.

"My view is that the Christmas and New Year period is the vital one for teams and they need to be in a strong position come January time before they can start believing a title win could be possible," said Coyle, now Director of Football at Glentoran.

"It's too early to be drawing conclusions. The games come thick and fast over the festive period and anything can happen. I don't even think you can rule out other sides in the chasing pack as the teams are capable of taking points off one another.

"Certainly, a Crusaders victory would give them momentum and belief and seven points would be a healthy lead, but they lost to Ballymena United recently and their manager Stephen Baxter will not believe they are anywhere near winning the title.

"If Linfield could reduce the gap to one point it would give them huge confidence and belief but it's all about the Christmas and New Year period for me. If they can hold a lead in January and February they are entitled to believe they have a chance."

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, Healy revealed he wants to remain as Blues boss for years to come and bring the big prizes back to the international venue.

In his first managerial role, Healy has needed to learn how to deal with the pressure of the post but former bosses Coyle and David Jeffrey know the Blues board are not known for making kneejerk reactions.

"I lost two Irish Cup finals to Carrick and Coleraine but the Linfield board have stuck with managers they believed in," added Coyle, who guided the Blues to 31 trophies from November 1975 to April 1990.

"David Jeffrey didn't have a great start either but the Linfield board have a habit of standing by managers. But while David (Healy) has a fantastic playing record, he will be judged on his managerial record. The problem all managers face is that the clock is ticking on their jobs but every manager needs to be given time - look at Sir Alex Ferguson, who didn't win his first trophy at Manchester United for four years.

"But Linfield and Glentoran are similar in that the history of both clubs dictate that they should be winning league titles and Irish Cups. The pressure is enormous, with respect to the other clubs it's not the same."

Five years without the league title? Unthinkable and unacceptable. Healy knows this, but his biggest problem is how strong Crusaders are.

If Linfield are to win their first title since 2012 their players are going to have to find a new inner resolve and steel.

Lose to Crusaders this Halloween and the ghosts of Linfield's past will be out in force.

Belfast Telegraph


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