Linfield will make changes for Dundalk clash as Champions Cup not the priority, warns Healy
Linfield boss David Healy will make no apology for naming an 'experimental' team for tonight's Unite the Union Champions Cup first leg tie against Dundalk at Windsor Park.
Before the Irish Football Association recently poured cold water on a proposed All-Ireland League, suggested by Irish businessman Kieran Lucid, Unite signed up to a three-year deal to sponsor the cross-border tournament that will see the Danske Bank Premiership champions go head-to-head with the League of Ireland title holders in a two-legged shoot-out.
The return match is scheduled for Monday night.
The eventual winners will pocket a hefty €50,000, with the runners-up picking up half of that figure. Importantly, there is a further €25,000 ring-fenced for community projects in the competing teams' local areas.
Although Healy is relishing the challenge, he is realistic in terms of his team's priorities. Dundalk's season finished on Sunday, a penalty shoot-out defeat by Shamrock Rovers in the final of the FAI Cup, but the Blues' title defence is in full throttle.
Following their epic performance in the Europa League, the Belfast side are still playing catch-up on their rivals in terms of games and points.
"There will be quite a number of changes to the team and the squad, that's for sure," said the former Northern Ireland international. "I can't imagine that, come the end of April, I'm going to be sat as Linfield manager recognised for winning the Unite the Union Champions Cup and nothing else.
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"Yes, there will be changes. The amount of games that some of the players have played so far has been demanding. I think Jamie Mulgrew featured in his 23rd game so far (against Carrick on Saturday) and he was man of the match. It shows the level he is at and the consistency of his performances.
"To feature in 23 games at the start of November, bearing in mind that eight of those were important European ties, coupled with matches against the likes of Crusaders, Coleraine and Cliftonville, is quite an achievement and certainly a big ask.
"Fast forward another couple of months, it means Jamie would play in the region of another 20-odd games - for a 33-year-old that is a credit to him. If we continue to play eight, nine or 10 games in 30-odd days, then there is going to be a day of reckoning. The Carrick match was our 10th in just over one month, so somewhere along the line it's going to have an adverse effect.
"At this time we need to make sure we keep players fresh, so others will be given an opportunity against Dundalk."
Monday's rematch will be televised line on RTE2.
Although it's the beginning of an exciting new cross-border competition, Healy admits he would rather be preparing for another important league outing against Dungannon Swifts - a game that has also been rearranged.
"I don't want to be disrespectful, but the match is coming at a time when we are looking to reel in the teams at the top of the table," he added. "For me, Dungannon would be my first choice.
"But the games are thrown upon us. A double-header can be difficult to be honest. Personally, I think a one-off match would be better.
"Dundalk were in the Cup final on Sunday. It's probably the last thing they wanted at the end of a long, hard, successful season, but it is what it is. Sponsors and the organisers are putting in decent money, so the positive thing about it is the money we receive is going back into the local communities.
"My first choice would be Dungannon at home, but you play the cards you are dealt.
"We were missing Jordan Stewart, Daniel Kearns, Ryan McGivern, Chris Casement, Josh Robinson and Shayne Lavery at the weekend, so it was a fair chunk, especially out of the spine of the team.
"So we'll see who is available for the Dundalk game and then I will select a team and a squad that can get a positive performance and result. We'll then look at the return game on Monday at Oriel Park after that."