Belfast Telegraph

Warren Feeney's troops are hoping it's a happy blue year

By Graham Luney

Surprises. That's what you get at Christmas but I'm not talking about the socks and the shampoo left for you under the tree.

And I'm not talking about the television schedules either, as predictable as our lives grinding to a halt after the drop of a few snowflakes.

The surprises I'm referring to are in the Danske Bank Premiership, a league that gives you entertainment and a fair degree of amusing stories by the bucketload.

I'm an honest man (well, I am a journalist!) so I must admit I'm surprised at how the league table looks as 2015 hurtles towards us faster than Prime Minister David Cameron out of Stormont.

Hands up if at the start of the season you expected Linfield to be four points clear at the top and champions Cliftonville foundering, seven points behind. I'm not seeing too many hands!

When the Blues were thumped 3-0 by Portadown on the opening day, Warren Feeney's critics were in full voice but over the festive period they have been chewing on some humble pie as well as their cold turkey.

Ross Glendinning has given them a safe pair of hands in goal, they are more resolute at the back, Stephen Lowry and Jamie Mulgrew are driving them forward from midfield and, along with Crusaders, they are the two sides proving toughest to beat in this league.

That's a good quality to possess.

Of course it could still all end in tears for Linfield but they aren't playing like a side that is about to give up the fight.

The hunger and desire to succeed is back and the players work hard for each other, a clear sign that all is well in the dressing room.

Crusaders surprised many by winning at Solitude on Boxing Day and with experienced duo Barry Molloy and Stephen O'Flynn coming on board they are looking the real deal, with strength in depth to sustain a title challenge.

It's nearly time to trot out the old cliches, there will be more twists and turns, but you know that already.

A Day to remember

Huge result for Linfield but what happened at Solitude could also be significant in the long run. In recent seasons, Cliftonville have virtually ended Crusaders' title hopes on Boxing Day but it's a different story this time. Paul Heatley's sweet finish will inject more belief into the team but it will be interesting to see whether Gavin Whyte gets a move in January.

... and one to forget

How to solve a problem like Cliftonville? The defeat to Crusaders was bad enough, but the serious knee injury suffered by Barry Johnston deepened the despair. The Reds have been on the ropes before and come bouncing back in style but they need to do it quickly. It's not easy playing catch-up as the pressure mounts.

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