Linfield and Glentoran are still the Big Two in terms of supporters, says Blues' new-boy
Linfield midfielder Andrew Mitchell can't wait to sample his first taste of a fiercely competitive Big Two showdown in the Danske Bank Premiership.
The former Rangers ace wrestled with the Glens in a pre-season friendly at The Oval in July, but the temperature will rise significantly at Windsor Park tomorrow afternoon when the Blues' long unbeaten domestic run goes on the line against their old enemy.
Glentoran's pre-season form was so uninspiring they were dismissed as the league's whipping boys before the first whistle of the season sounded, but manager Gary Haveron has assembled a young and hungry squad and what bigger statement could they make than humbling the champions on their own turf?
David Healy's side, though, have an invincible look about them and they haven't lost a league game since Coleraine stunned them on January 3.
After winning their first title since 2012, the Blues have started this campaign the way they finished the last one, with a real swagger and full of self-belief.
But they are now the tastiest fruit in the tree for other sides looking to perform the perfect raid.
Mitchell knows the Glens will arrive in south Belfast quietly confident they can ruffle a few feathers, and a win over the Blues would see them leapfrog their bitter rivals in the table.
And considering the fan-base of the two sides, Mitchell reckons both deserve to be in the upper reaches of the Premiership table.
"Support-wise, they are the two biggest clubs in the league," he said, "While the Boxing Day fixture might be the biggest in terms of interest, they are always intense and unpredictable. Both sides have started well, which adds another dimension to the game."
The former Crusaders man, however, says Linfield are in no mood to remove their foot from the accelerator pedal as they aim to make it five wins out of five.
"There is no chance of any complacency creeping into our dressing room, the gaffer will not let that happen," said the 25-year-old.
"There will be no resting on our laurels here. The players are working harder and being pushed harder. There is serious competition for places and it's drilled into the players the importance of maintaining a high standard of performance.
"We are prepared right for matches and no one is looking too far ahead or getting complacent at all. Glentoran have started well and they have moved on from what many thought was a difficult pre-season for them, but we have already played them in a pre-season game and these matches are always very competitive.
"They have brought in a number of young players who have plenty of hunger and energy and no doubt their promising start will have given them more confidence.
"I know they had a difficult season last year but they seem to be more energised and focused now. We respect every side we face and Glentoran will be no different. This will be my first competitive Big Two game and it should be a cracking atmosphere. All the derby games are special, from Crusaders v Cliftonville ones to this one, but a Linfield v Glentoran clash is another level, it's a game both sides are desperate to win and a lot of fans talk about them.
Mitchell scored in a pre-season win at Newry City and netted a stunning goal in the 3-1 Charity Shield victory over Coleraine at The Oval, but his first goal in a competitive game for Linfield came in a 4-0 win against Dungannon Swifts last month.
He followed that up with another spot-kick in the 1-0 win over Ballymena United at Windsor Park and was also among the scorers in the 6-0 thrashing of Lisburn Distillery in the League Cup.
"I think you should always be looking to improve, and with David Healy as our manager that will always be the case here," he added. "The manager, quite rightly, sets high standards and always wants us to be better. Just when you think you are doing well he will find an area of your game which can be enhanced and that advice and encouragement makes you a better player.
"All the boys are striving to be even better. We've been on a great unbeaten domestic run but we want to keep that going."
Linfield were this week handed a trip to Tannadice Park and a battle against Dundee United in the third round of the IRN-BRU Cup.
The Cup holders will be formidable opponents for Healy's side, who were once again denied a home draw in the competition.
After already playing Celtic twice in the Champions League and Hearts in a friendly this season, as well as Spartans in the previous round, the Blues players could be forgiven for picking up a few Scottish accents.
"It's going to be great for me to go back to Tannadice Park where I made my debut for Rangers," added Mitchell.
"It's a tough draw for us but after facing Celtic in the Champions League it's another opportunity to take on a top Scottish side. They compete in the Championship but their fans are fantastic and they are a club with a rich history.
"We are going to have to be at our best to progress in the tournament.
"Celtic were a one-off machine and no team in Scotland is at that level. Brendan Rodgers' side blow teams away week in, week out in the Scottish Premiership, but while Dundee United are in the Championship they have a full-time ethos and they will be fit and strong opponents. From our perspective it is a different and exciting challenge."