Danske Bank Premiership
Linfield legend Glenn Ferguson says he believes last season’s Gibson Cup triumph was David Healy’s biggest achievement as Blues boss so far.
The club’s 56th Irish Premiership title was Healy’s fifth since he took on the role in 2015 and it was also Linfield’s fourth league success in a row.
Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer has also steered the Blues to two Irish Cups, a League Cup and County Antrim Shield but the league championship brings with it the label of being the best team in the country.
Healy was emotional after the title victory which was hard-earned against the backdrop of experienced players leaving the club, a transition to full-time football and a phenomenal challenge from Cliftonville that only ended on the final day.
There was a heady mixture of pride, relief and satisfaction for the 42-year-old when his players accomplished the mission — and the silencing of the club’s harshest critics was also particularly sweet.
Ferguson, head of youth at Linfield, won six league titles in his glittering career which featured a total of 22 winners’ medals — 21 at Linfield and a League Cup success at Distillery.
And the former Northern Ireland striker rates this year’s success as Healy’s finest hour in his managerial career to date.
“I think this title win is David’s best one,” argued Spike, who scored 285 goals in 519 games for the Blues after joining for a then Irish League transfer record of £55,000 from Glenavon in 1998.
“After losing players like Shayne Lavery, Andy Waterworth, Joel Cooper, Mark Stafford and Mark Haughey, who were hard to replace, questions were asked how the team would do. Shayne and Andy were scoring 50 goals between them and there were doubts but the boys did an unbelievable job to get it over the line.
“They had to be on it every week because Cliftonville pushed them right to the end.
“Glentoran fell away but the Reds kept up the chase and Linfield kept on their game every week.”
Winger Joel Cooper has now agreed a three-year deal with the champions following his return from England.
Last season also marked the club’s move to a full-time structure and as skipper Jamie Mulgrew has highlighted, there was never going to be any understanding or forgiveness around a drop in standards.
“The other good thing from Linfield’s perspective is that they made the full-time transition and still held onto the title,” added Ferguson, who won both the Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Player of the Year award and Ulster Footballer of the Year prize on three occasions.
“A few years ago I felt Crusaders struggled to adapt to a full-time set-up and they haven’t put up a serious title challenge since then. With losing players and going full-time this season, there was a lot of change going on at Linfield so that’s why I feel it was an unbelievable achievement and probably David’s best win.
“Every league is hard to win but this one was especially hard and a great achievement by him and his backroom staff.”
Glentoran threatened to sustain a challenge for a while but they ended the campaign without a trophy or European football. The ferocious title challenge came from north Belfast and a part-time club with a full-time mentality.
“Over the course of a season, you need a squad but Cliftonville didn’t have a lot of injuries or people out for a long period of time,” said Ferguson, who made 1,040 appearances for four clubs — Ards, Glenavon, Linfield and Lisburn Distillery
“Jonny Addis and Luke Turner were brilliant at the back and Jamie McDonagh had a great spell. They were capable of winning every week but a few late draws saw them come up short.
“But you have to give Cliftonville huge credit for hanging in there. Glentoran were full-time but they were unable to challenge like the Reds.”
Perhaps last season was a good opportunity for clubs to reel in the Blues but it wasn’t taken and Linfield’s mental toughness saw them home.
Healy will look to refresh and rebuild now for another title assault and his attacking options will be bolstered if he can net striker Robbie McDaid, who has been out in the cold at Glentoran after turning down a new contract.
“Every team in the league would want to sign Robbie McDaid,” added Ferguson.
“He’s a quality player but when Robbie made it quite clear at Glentoran that he wasn’t signing a new deal, he was put out in the cold.
“He wasn’t even training with the team but football is all about making decisions and he wants to leave and go somewhere else. I hope Linfield are very much in the market for him.
“He’s a top player, has pace and scores goals. He’s strong and a good player. There are plenty of Linfield players who can provide him with service.”
On Cooper’s return, Healy said: “It’s great that Joel has shown faith in the club and the squad by committing himself to this three-year contract and I want to assure all our supporters that we are continuing to make plans to try and bring in further players, to strengthen the squad for what is sure to be an even tougher league season next year.”