Lurgan Celtic boss Malone relishing semi-final clash with Linfield
Collie Malone admits he is very much looking forward to pitting his managerial wits against David Healy, when he takes his Lurgan Celtic side to face Linfield on their own patch in the semi-final of the Tennent’s Irish Cup on Saturday (3pm).
There is no doubt that, for the NIFL Championship One club, this weekend will be as much about taking on the occasion as the opposition - though that was also the case when the Hoops overturned the odds to secure a famous 3-2 away victory over Portadown in the quarter final, in a match that will forever be remembered as the one that ended almost 30 years in charge for ex-Ports boss Ronnie McFall.
Yet, there’s no getting away from it - this is another step up again. The new and improving stadium, the history, the swelling opposition fan-base. Linfield may be yet to overtake leaders Crusaders in the Premiership title race, but the fact that there even is a race at all at this stage owes largely to a sizeable improvement in recent form under fledgling manager Healy.
And Malone has been doing everything in his power ahead of the tie to level the playing field as much as possible.
He said: “We contacted the IFA about playing on the pitch beforehand, but they told us that wasn’t possible as it is still basically a building site during the week.
“So, we cancelled training last Thursday night, and took the boys up to the Linfield v Ballinamallard game, as part of our preparation. The thinking behind it was twofold - obviously to get a look at Linfield first hand, but also to get a feel for the surroundings.
“None of them have played at Windsor Park before, and quite a few of them have never been to the ground at all. I don’t want them to fret or to freeze.”
Malone admits it will be a major occasion for him, too, and he is relishing the opportunity of leading his team out at Windsor Park against a side managed by a former striker whose goalscoring exploits on the international stage ensured his place in history.
“It will be nice to meet David Healy personally," stated the Lurgan Celtic boss.
“I have a great respect for him as a player, but as a manager, it’s too early to say. He probably hasn’t got the team he wants just yet, but you can see he is making inroads, and they have been outstanding in the last few weeks.”
Like any manager worth his salt, Malone is approaching this high-profile fixture with a healthy degree of realism. He knows his side need Linfield to have an off-day, but also knows as unlikely as victory may be, it isn’t entirely outside the realms of possibility.
One thing is for sure, leading Lurgan Celtic to an Irish Cup final would rival anything he has achieved in the game to date.
He added: “In 2005, at Armagh City, we gained promotion to the Premier League without losing a single Championship One game. That was a very proud season - and this would be up there with that if we could reach the final.
“Realistically, we know if Linfield turn up, we could be stuffed. It was the same at Portadown, though, but this time, you could say we have lost the surprise factor.
“In any case, it was a big achievement to have made the quarter-finals, and even more so to make the semi-finals. The players are rightly pleased with how far they have come, and if we can stay relaxed on Saturday, then who knows?
“Win, lose or draw, they can be proud of themselves.”