Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Fledgling forwards rule the roost as Linfield see off Coleraine

And new signing impresses for Bannsiders while Linfield substitute shines

By Gareth Hanna

The Irish League season is just one day old and already Linfield have a trophy in their hands.

Alright, so it's only the Action Mental Health Charity Shield but, as they say, winning's a habit and it's one the Blues have picked up under David Healy. Coleraine put up a much better fight than they had managed into the Irish Cup final three months ago - but in the end, Linfield fought their way to a 3-1 success.

Here are three things I took from the Irish League curtain-raiser.

1. Fledgling forwards rule the roost

At both ends of the pitch, it was a young attacker who posed most problems.

For Linfield, Paul Smyth was never far from the action - although he must have wondered if the goal he so richly deserved ever going to come. In the end, he found the net on 79 minutes, rushing on to a neat ball over the top from Kirk Millar and converting with ease.

Before then, he had got himself consistently into scoring positions but was denied once by the post and once by an outstanding challenge from Coleraine's Stephen O'Donnell.

If there could be any criticism of the teenage attacker, he shot from an impossible angle when he should have looked for Jamie Mulgrew in the first half - but isn't it that ruthless, scoring nature that makes a striker?

At the other end, Jamie McGonigle was Coleraine's danger man and showed his undoubted quality on a number of occasions. The likes of Smyth and Gavin Whyte get their fair share of attention as the Irish League's young stars - mark my words, McGonigle is another.

Ask Niall Quinn or Mark Haughey - both of those Linfield defenders suffered at his feet. Not many players will have such success against that duo this season. One deft touch took Quinn out of the game as McGonigle dashed down the right flank during the first half and then Haughey was twice beaten in the build-up to the opening goal. McGonigle first out-muscled the centre-half and when he came back for more, the striker shuffled past him as though he weren't there before crossing low for Josh Carson to convert.

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Coleraine's Jamie McGonigle up against Linfield's Mark Haughey.

2. O'Donnell looks at home in the top flight

What of the new signings? One of Coleraine's caught the eye in particular. Stephen O'Donnell is ready for the step back up to Premier League football. He has played one previous top-flight season - for Institute in 2014/15. At just 24 years-old, the centre-back was Stute captain before his summer transfer.

His performance on Saturday showed just why he was handed the role, even at a relatively young age. He surely looked like he belonged in what was last season a top-half Premier League side. In fact, more than that he was one of the Bannsiders' best performers - not least for his goal-saving tackle on Paul Smyth when the game was still locked at 1-1. The young forward burst through on goal and, just as he prepared to swing his right boot and bulge the net, O'Donnell nipped in from nowhere and flicked the ball off his foot.

It wasn't the only moment O'Donnell saved a certain goal - he also did enough to put Smyth off a back-post header and in the first half, got the deftest of touches on a free-kick to take it off the waiting head of Aaron Burns.

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Stephen O'Donnell (left) gets in a challenge on Jamie Mulgrew during Coleraine's Charity Shield defeat to Linfield.

3. The Blues' brilliant bench

Brought on at half-time, Kirk Millar caught the eye with an exhaustive 45 minute performance. The fact that he created both of Linfield's second half strikes tells you everything you need to know. It was his quick-thinking to take a short free-kick and go for a one-two that unlocked Coleraine's back line. The cross to Andrew Mitchell was inch-perfect. And for the clincher, it was Millar's ball over the top that gave Paul Smyth the run of the Oval.

Adding to a goal by fellow sub Mitchell, if Millar's performance proves anything, it's the tremendous strength in depth that Linfield can boast. The Irish League season is up and running, and the Blues won't be easily beaten.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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