Belfast Telegraph

How Linfield have improved enough to sustain title challenge, argues Waterworth

By Steven Beacom

Linfield motto's 'Fortuna Audecas Juvat' means Fortune Favours The Brave, and boy do the club need to be brave and strong this season.

The summer heat has given way to seasonal flooding, but Blues fans are still struggling to understand just how it went horribly wrong for their team last season.

With the Gibson Cup, Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield in the Windsor Park trophy cabinet, and Celtic coming to the international venue for a historic Champions League clash, David Healy's men felt on top of the world.

Then the foundations began to shake.

Andy Waterworth sustained a horror knee injury at Parkhead and his strike partner Paul Smyth got his deserved dream professional move to Queens Park Rangers.

But while Smyth was living the dream, Linfield's nightmare was only just beginning.

Frustration with poor form deepened and it was hard to comprehend the lack of hunger, creativity and quality the fans were witnessing.

There's always pressure to deliver at Linfield, but with last season's debacle still fresh in the memory of the disillusioned support, it now means the club really needs to hit the ground running when the league campaign starts on Saturday.

Perhaps Glenavon's Mourneview Park, where new signing Joel Cooper once dazzled, is an ideal venue for the Blues to send out an early statement that they're back and they mean business.

Only time will tell how the new players will integrate, but one thing is certain: a failure to keep pace with the top sides will put significant pressure on manager Healy.

The club has backed Healy in the transfer market and shown faith in him, but the Northern Ireland legend knows the score, as do the players.

"We were found wanting last season and let ourselves down," admitted Waterworth. "Our aim is to make sure that doesn't happen again.

"No league titles are handed out in August or September but we need to stay in the hunt. It's a long season and we can't afford to look beyond the first few fixtures.

"We have to concentrate on what's up next and never get complacent. It is one step at a time for us because all the games are very tough, starting with Glenavon away. It will be all systems go and the squad will be needed.

"Last season we had injuries but lacked the squad to deal with it. Now we have two or three boys for every position and that's important.

"When you fail, it's how you bounce back. We failed last year but if we learn the lessons from it and work out things right we will improve and be right in the mix.

"From pre-season we have talked about what went wrong and how we can put things right. The manager has created a positive environment, new players have come in and it's up to the players to now go out and win games."

The pre-season vibes are good at Windsor Park. There are fresh faces and belief.

Darren Murphy has replaced Alfie Wylie as first team coach, Ricky McCann is now adding strength and conditioning input, while the new players include Cooper, Brandon Doyle, Connor Maxwell, Lorcan Forde, Jonathan Smith, Daniel Reynolds, Ryan McGivern, Michael O'Connor, Daniel Kearns and Benny Moller Nielsen.

The settling in period will be short and the players will quickly discover the club's expectation levels.

"Pre-season has been brilliant," added Waterworth.

"Ricky and Murph came in on the coaching side and it's been first class, well planned.

"Nothing is rushed, we are doing things gradually and developed a different type of fitness with loads of games played too.

"It's been different, but the boys are energised and good to go. To be fair to the manager, he's changed the training and it's up to the players to kick on and do well from the first game of the season.

"You are always judged on your games and any player is judged on what they do in front of the fans," he added.

"It will probably be different for the boys coming in as they haven't experienced the club before, but the new lads have been positive signings and it was something the club needed.

"It was vital to bring new players to the club."

While opinion will be divided across the Irish League regarding who will be crowned champions, there is widespread acceptance the standard of football has never been higher.

"Every year I have been in the Irish League the standard has risen, and as a product it deserves more recognition," added the Crossgar man.

"Foreign players are coming into the Premier League which means English players fall down a few levels. A lot of our boys are staying and giving the Irish League a go.

"The games are fiercely competitive and I haven't played in such a competitive league and every year is getting harder.

"Every club is ambitious. The top six teams are strong, you couldn't really answer the question 'who do you fancy for the league?'"

Linfield's warriors need to be brave again.

Belfast Telegraph

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