Oran Kearney has always been a class act, insists old pal Mulgrew
Jamie Mulgrew and Oran Kearney joined Linfield within a month of each other in 2005.
Fourteen years on, Mulgrew is still at Windsor Park winning trophies and Kearney is now recognised as an outstanding manager within the Irish League.
At the Showgrounds on Saturday, their paths will cross once again when unbeaten league leaders Coleraine host the champions in what promises to be a cracking encounter.
Playing catch up following their European heroics, fourth placed Linfield have moved through the gears to within two points of Coleraine and Crusaders, who are separated by goal difference.
It's also worth pointing out that David Healy's Blues, who hammered Warrenpoint Town 7-0 on Tuesday, still have two games in hand.
All the while, Linfield's legendary skipper Mulgrew has been leading by example. The 33-year-old has come a long way since his transfer from Glentoran.
Kearney was just in the Windsor Park door a few weeks earlier, signing from Ballymena United. Unfortunately, he was forced to retire from playing due to injury in 2009, though not before he had delivered numerous classy midfield performances for the Blues.
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He took charge of Limavady United shortly after and became Coleraine boss first time around in 2011. There were occasions when it was touch and go for Kearney, but the board kept faith and were rewarded in 2018 when the Bannsiders won the Irish Cup and finished runners-up to Crusaders in the league.
The following season, he was appointed St Mirren manager and, after pulling off a miracle to keep them in the Scottish Premiership, returned this term to Coleraine who, under his guidance, are title challengers again after a disappointing campaign with Rodney McAree at the helm.
"Oran signed for Linfield around the same time as me," recalls Mulgrew.
"He was a big name signing for Linfield back then and I was just a kid coming from Glentoran's reserves to be a first-team squad member. He was a really good guy. He fast-tracked himself in management to where he is now probably because of the injury he had and feeling the need to be involved in the game. Anywhere he's been, he's done a fantastic job. Keeping St Mirren up and starting off at Limavady, plus the job he did at Coleraine in between shows that.
"I know there were times when the Coleraine fans gave him a lot of stick but, to be fair, the chairman Colin McKendry stuck by him and has reaped the rewards.
"There was a long-term project there and they continue to reap those rewards now. I don't know what went on last season at Coleraine but something was missing."
Certainly Kearney, whose side won 4-2 against Linfield at Windsor in August, is getting the best out of the players, including midfielder Ben Doherty who has excelled since August.
"Coleraine are in the position they are in because they have quality in the final third and players who can hurt you," adds the experienced Mulgrew.
"Ben Doherty is only one of many players they have.
"They've played 11 games and have had seven or eight penalties, which shows they are getting into dangerous areas and causing teams problems.
"To have that amount of penalties in a small number of games shows they are dangerous.
"I feel we are ticking along nicely with games in hand but you'd probably rather have the points in the bag. You'd expect this to be another great contest with the form they've been in this season, and especially with the way they played against us at Windsor."
Mulgrew shows no signs of slowing up in mind or body.
He concludes: "From a personal perspective, I'm as fit as ever and still as hungry as ever to drive this team forward and help make this team the best."
• Carrick Rangers have signed Ohio-born striker Sachem.
The 25-year-old has previously played for both Liberty University and Buxmont Torch in the United States, before moving to Slovenia where he represented ND Adria, ND Gorica, NK Krka.