Belfast Telegraph

Blues' European heroics perfect boost for title defence: Healy

Star buy: Linfield’s new boy Bastien Hery
Star buy: Linfield’s new boy Bastien Hery

By Steven Beacom

Linfield manager David Healy insists his team will welcome challenges from across the board as they start the defence of their Irish League title at home to Institute today.

It's amazing to think that the Blues are having a season to remember already and their domestic campaign hasn't even started yet!

Put that down to the club's heroics in Europe. That journey will continue on Tuesday when FK Sutjeska from Montenegro come to Belfast and try to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg in the Europa League third qualifying round.

This afternoon Healy and his players must focus on Institute at Windsor Park.

Having fought so hard to win the Danske Bank Premiership last term, beating off Ballymena United in a compelling title race, Linfield will want to kick-off with a bang which could mean trouble for Institute.

Healy has won two league titles as Linfield boss and fancies a treble. He is also well aware that the last time the Blues entered a new season as champions in 2017 their standards dipped alarmingly. They were way off the pace in the battle for the Gibson Cup, didn't win a trophy and failed to qualify for Europe.

Don't expect the same scenario two years on.

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"It is something we discussed at the start of pre-season that we can't let our standards drop," says Healy. "What happened a couple of years ago was a valuable lesson for us and it can help us this time. We can't think 'I've won a league title at Linfield' and then take a dip and from what I've seen so far there is a hunger amongst the players to try and have another successful season.

"The good thing is we have a lot of experience in the dressing room and there is youthfulness and energy and an edge with the new players coming in and aiming to show what they can do."

Already those new players like Bastien Hery, Shayne Lavery and Rohan Ferguson, on loan from Motherwell, have had a big impact in Europe.

"Yes, they have been outstanding for us and we want them and everyone else to deliver consistently throughout the season," says Healy. "It's great to have players of that quality on board and we also have a few young players coming through the ranks who I have high hopes for."

Quizzed on the title race and the pressure being on the Blues, lifelong fan Healy says: "I always say to the players that Linfield traditionally have sent the benchmarks and the standards for Irish League teams.

"I know coming to watch Linfield when I was young that no matter how successful the team is there will be people who can go back and talk about teams who were even more successful so the demands are always here.

"It is up to us to constantly step up to the plate and live with those demands.

"With the demands at Linfield whether we are league champions or not everyone wants to come and beat us.

"That will never change. We welcome the challenge and we relish the challenge. The players stood up to the challenge last season. We need to make sure we not only stick to the standards that we have set but also raise the bar. We have done that in Europe this season by making it through to the third qualifying round in the Europa League and we will aim to be better in domestic football as well."

Healy also has interesting thoughts on the league as a whole stating that he believes it will be highly competitive in the weeks and months ahead pointing out that the top six from last term will be joined by others in the mix.

"The good thing for all those involved in the Irish League is that as well as having the top six from last season, Glentoran will be improved and Larne have been promoted so the top flight will be even more competitive," said the former Manchester United, Leeds and Rangers striker.

"I also believe that Dungannon are going to be stronger. Stephen McDonnell has done a terrific job at Warrenpoint and I feel they will be better this season. Carrick Rangers have come up and the way they did it was impressive. They will be big and strong and hard to play against and Institute will be tough too so I'm not expecting anything but a challenge every week.

"I also expect there to be a lot of talking points in the league this season and results where a team in seventh or eighth beats sides at the top of the table so it should be exciting.

"The plan for us is to start well and play well consistently and the hope is that we can have another very good season."

Key to that will be the spine of the Linfield team and experienced operators Jimmy Callacher, captain Jamie Mulgrew and forward Andy Waterworth, now the club's leading goalscorer in European football.

Linfield excelled in the 2018/2019 campaign. The worry for rivals is that they look stronger this term. In the title race there is little doubt the Blues are the team to beat.

Talking point

CAN LINFIELD HANDLE HEAT OF BEING CHAMPIONS?

Given the talent David Healy has at his disposal this term, one of his biggest issues will be who he plays week in week out. Not a bad problem to have. As always the pressure is on for the Blues to deliver. They didn't deal with it the last time they started a season as champions but there is a sense and belief at Windsor Park that things will be different this time around.

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