Belfast Telegraph

It's red for danger as champions Cliftonville chase more fairytales

Warren's new look Linfield could be bitten in the lion's den

By Graham Luney

The last time Linfield and Cliftonville locked horns I told you what the scoreline would be be – 3-1 to the Reds.

Honestly, I don't know why thousands of you bothered to go to the game. I'm not just a pretty face you know. I can predict the future as well!

That last game between the fierce cross-city rivals was at Windsor Park on March 29 earlier this year.

It's fair to say a lot has changed since then, particularly at Linfield.

Warren Feeney has taken on his first managerial role following David Jeffrey's departure.

Succeeding a man who has been in the Windsor hotseat for over 17 years and who equalled Roy Coyle's tally of 31 trophies as manager of the Irish League's most successful club is not a job for a shrinking violet.

Out went big name players such as skipper Michael Gault, Matthew Tipton, Mark McAllister, Robbie Garrett and Philip Lowry.

Tommy Breslin's side have suffered a big name exit of their own as the best player in the league, Liam Boyce – who scored two of the goals in that Windsor win – pursued his full-time dream at Ross County.

Diarmuid O'Carroll also left the Solitude side, but the void left by Boyce's exit has been filled by David McDaid, while Tiarnan Mulvenna provides another attacking option and Johnny Flynn has bolstered the champions' rearguard.

There's fresh faces on both sides but while Cliftonville seem to have retained their swagger and confidence, a new look Blues side with Feeney leading the charge is still finding their feet.

Of course, Linfield can win at Solitude tonight.

They may be written off by many, but it was the same story at the Oval earlier in the season when they fought back from 2-0 down to snatch victory at the death.

It was just what the Blues doctor ordered after the sickening 3-0 opening day defeat at Portadown.

If Feeney's men can summon up the spirit of that derby victory and the 1-0 win over AIK Solna at Mourneview Park in the Europa League then a crucial away win cannot be ruled out.

But the footballing gods have not been kind to Warren. Injuries to Andy Waterworth, Sean Ward and Peter Thompson have sidelined some of his most experienced troops.

In contrast, Breslin's boys are fit and flying.

McDaid, since his arrival from Coleraine, has collected the Reds baton and set off at a blistering pace. He's formed an effective partnership with Joe 'the goal' Gormley and Linfield's defence will need to be resolute tonight.

A lot has been said and written about this season's title race possibly being a wide open one with several teams capable of winning it, but it would not surprise me if one side won the league comfortably – and that side is Cliftonville.

Three titles in a row is well within their grasp and while Linfield would love to knock them off their perch, it will be a rollercoaster season for Feeney and co.

The changes at Windsor have been so drastic that their progress this season will not be smooth.

Don't forget that Warren is on a steep learning curve too and not just with respect to his own players. This is his first managerial job and when you are learning to drive you don't step into that Vauxhall Astra and immediately start driving like Lewis Hamilton, or even Andrew Flintoff!

Already there have been a few painful setbacks including the shocker at Portadown and the League Cup loss to Ballyclare Comrades.

Football fans are less patient now and quicker to have a pop, but few truly understand the intensive demands of management and the time it takes to impose new ideas.

Even Louis van Gaal can't escape the talk of being thrown to the wolves after a few weeks in the Manchester United hotseat.

United fans would never have had the glory years under Sir Alex Ferguson with this mentality.

Warren can get Linfield challenging for the big prizes again, but Cliftonville are on another level at the moment and even if they aren't celebrating tonight, they should be popping the champagne corks again come April.

2-0 to the Reds!

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph