Belfast Telegraph

Healy's boys still the team to beat, warns McLaughlin

Big ambitions: Cliftonville manager Paddy McLaughlin
Big ambitions: Cliftonville manager Paddy McLaughlin

By Steven Beacom

Cliftonville manager Paddy McLaughlin has insisted ahead of tomorrow's clash with Linfield that the Blues are big favourites for the title and if anyone finishes above them this season they will become league champions.

The Danske Bank Premiership encounter at Solitude is Linfield's first game since their heroic European journey ended against Qarabag in Azerbaijan last month and as far as David Healy is concerned only domestic football is in his thoughts from here on in. Healy has set his sights on retaining the Gibson Cup and former Institute boss McLaughlin would not be surprised if that happened.

Asked if he saw the Blues as favourites for the league, McLaughlin said: "Big time. I said last season two games in when I was in charge of Institute, and we played them at Windsor, that they were the team to beat.

"We never laid a glove on them because we couldn't get near them and I told our boys to get their heads up because we'd just played the champions and that proved to be the case.

"I think any team who finishes above Linfield this season will win the league. For us this weekend they don't come any more difficult than Linfield especially with the form they are in. They carried the flag for the Irish League over the summer and were unlucky not to progress into the Europa League group stages which would have been an incredible achievement.

"Anyone who takes any points away from Linfield this season will have to be on top of their game so we know what it will take to get anything at all from the match."

While the majority of the top flight clubs have played five matches, Healy's men only have two on the board. They are in ninth place with three points which is 10 behind early pacesetters Crusaders and seven adrift of second placed Cliftonville.

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If the target for Linfield is another title, McLaughlin refused to be drawn on specific aims for the Reds this term.

"This league is going to be really competitive this season. It will be hard to get into the top six," said the Solitude supremo.

"There are a lot of quality squads around. Crusaders, Linfield, Glenavon, Coleraine, Larne, Glentoran and Ballymena; they all have big squads with a lot of backing behind them. We have to be realistic what we are trying to achieve here. We want to stay in touch with the top sides as long as we can and also have a good cup run and hopefully win a cup. It would be great to say we are going to do this or do that but I'm not going to make any empty promises."

Last weekend the north Belfast side hammered Warrenpoint 5-1 at Milltown. Liam Bagnall and Joe Gormley scored brilliant goals but Rory Donnelly, who netted a double, was the best player on the pitch. The Linfield defence must nullify him if they are to triumph.

• Larne have signed midfielder Conor McKendry, subject to international clearance.

The 20-year-old arrives at Inver Park as a free agent, following his release from Ipswich at the end of last season. During his time at Portman Road, McKendry made his way through the ranks at the club, being handed a two-year professional contract and representing Northern Ireland at under-17 level.

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