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Local hero: Linfield's Noel Bailie celebrates at the end of the match last Tuesday after making more than 1,000 appearances for the club

Local hero: Linfield's Noel Bailie celebrates at the end of the match last Tuesday after making more than 1,000 appearances for the club

Local hero: Linfield's Noel Bailie celebrates at the end of the match last Tuesday after making more than 1,000 appearances for the club

Another season and another Irish League title for Linfield Football Club. Today the Blues will savour their 50th championship success when the Gibson Cup is handed over to club captain Noel Bailie and team skipper Alan Blayney after their match with Portadown.

The Windsor Park faithful will celebrate.

Again.

This time though it will be that extra bit special, bringing up the half century in the club's 125th anniversary year. The pressure to achieve such a feat in this landmark period in the club's long, proud and eventful history was intense. Indeed, once glory was secured on Easter Tuesday thanks to a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Lisburn Distillery at Ballyskeagh, manager David Jeffrey revealed it was his greatest moment in charge of the club.

And this from a guy who has won EIGHT league titles as boss, several doubles, a domestic Grand Slam of trophies in 2006 and the cross border Setanta Cup competition in 2005.

He certainly has a lot to choose from but title number 50 for the club is top of the heap. No wonder because 50 titles in 125 years really is some going.

Looking at other leagues around Europe gives an indication of how impressive the record really is. True, there is a higher standard of football and the competition is greater in the full-time professional set-ups throughout the continent (remember the Irish League is part-time), but looking at a list of the record number of titles won in various countries provides an interesting insight into how Linfield's role of honour compares with others.

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Take this quick whistle stop tour around Europe.

Portugal: Benfica 32 league titles.

Spain: Real Madrid 31.

Holland: Ajax 29.

Italy: Juventus 27.

Germany: Bayern Munich 21.

England: Liverpool and Manchester United 18 each.

France: St Etienne and Marseille 10 each. Linfield are away ahead of all of the above but they still lag behind Rangers who have won a stunning 53 titles in Scotland.

Ironic that, because those with little or no interest in Irish League football would see Linfield as a mini-version of Rangers and all that goes with it. There are many similarities of course, not least that they both play in blue and it's an odds on bet that, if you follow Linfield, you will cheer on Rangers and vice-versa.

While the Gers were founded in 1873, Linfield came along 13 years later, and so began a colourful and at times controversial history, littered with memorable moments, magnificent footballers and an inbuilt desire in those involved with the club to never give up and fight to the end. Formed by workers of the Linfield Spinning Mill on Sandy Row in south Belfast in March 1886, it was originally known as the Linfield Athletic Club, playing at the back of the Mill in a ground labelled 'the Meadow'. The club didn't move in to its present home, Windsor Park, until 1904. At the time Linfield's main competition came from Belfast Celtic, now sadly defunct, and Glentoran, who to this day remain their fiercest rivals. The Blues and Glens are known as the Big Two of local football, though Linfield fans will tell you a more accurate saying would be the Big One.

They have a point in terms of the latter with the Blues a dominant force through the different eras of the Irish League, most notably when they won all seven trophies available to them in the 1961-62 campaign to the present day, when once more the boardroom is filled with silverware.

Jeffrey's modern-day Linfield will clinch a fifth double in six years if they defeat Crusaders in the Irish Cup next Saturday - a remarkable record.

Known to the fans as big Davy and renowned for his post-match celebrations, Jeffrey has won an astonishing 26 trophies since taking charge in 1997, yet amazingly he still has a way to go to become Linfield's most successful boss.

That mantle belongs to the legendary Roy Coyle, who managed the Windsor outfit from 1975 to 1990, winning 31 trophies including SIX titles in a row. When you consider he achieved all that by basically having to select players from just one side of the community, it makes his managerial feats even more impressive.

Like Rangers, there was a long, long time when an unofficial policy existed at Linfield where they simply wouldn't sign Catholics. Historically regarded as a Protestant club, Linfield were accused of being sectarian for decades. Obviously the lack of Catholic players at the club added to that reputation, along with some of the songs from the terraces.

Crowd trouble at Linfield fixtures didn't help either, with the most infamous incident taking place in 1948. Back then, in a Boxing Day match with Belfast Celtic at Windsor, there was a pitch invasion from Linfield fans who attacked visiting players, leaving famous Celtic striker Jimmy Jones with a broken leg. It was a shameful day and led to Belfast Celtic withdrawing from the league. The belief was that Windsor Park was an unwelcoming arena for any Catholic. For years that was the perception on one side of the religious divide and when Linfield's European tie with Dublin-based Shamrock Rovers was marred by crowd trouble in the mid-80s, that feeling grew even stronger.

There was shock all over Northern Ireland in 1992 when Dessie Gorman became the first high profile Catholic to sign for Linfield in many years. He joined from Dundalk with The Troubles raging.

It was a bold and brave step, made by manager at the time, Trevor Anderson, both in football and political terms because he had never seen Gorman play and was taking a massive risk with Linfield's passionate support.

Thankfully the risk paid off with Gorman becoming a huge success, helping the club to title triumphs and playing in such an exciting and unpredictable style that he became a big crowd favourite. The Linfield fans even nicknamed him the Dundalk Hawk and, almost 20 years on, there is now a cross community competition between Linfield and Dundalk youth teams named after him.

There have been many magical moments in the history of Linfield, but few, if any, were as ground breaking as Gorman's arrival and subsequent success. The foundations laid by Anderson have been built on by Jeffrey and indeed the current board at Linfield who attempt to sign the best players available to them, no matter what colour, creed or religion. Relationships have been forged in recent years with groups, such as camogie teams, you would never have thought possible.

Recently to celebrate Linfield's 125th anniversary, this newspaper decided to list the top 25 players to have donned the blue shirt.

It was no easy task with Tommy Dickson, the Duke of Windsor, coming out on top, followed by Jackie Milburn, the Newcastle United hero, who scored a shedload of goals for the Blues in the 50s with modern day star Noel Bailie, who has played more than 1, 000 games for the club, coming in third.

The response to the list was phenomenal with Irish League internet sites inundated by thousands of comments about the top 25. They didn't just come from Belfast. These were from all over the province and beyond, as far away as Australia.

Linfield is not a global brand like say Real Madrid, but their support is worldwide with many, many Ulster people who have emigrated still keeping track of events at Windsor Park.

While Wayne Rooney never quite lived up to his 'once a blue, always a blue' T-shirt when playing for Everton (he is very much Manchester United red now), for a Linfield fan that feeling of love for their team never leaves them.

The team's commitment, passion and drive for the shirt is invariably why the Blues have come out on top so many times.

They'll continue to do that over the next 125 years. Happy anniversary.


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