Linfield ace admits to trepidation following his switch from Dundalk
Chris Shields has admitted it was a case of “sink or swim” when he took the plunge last summer to join Linfield after leaving Dundalk where he had legendary status.
Eleven months on, the 31-year-old is overjoyed that he made the move having become a title winner on both sides of the border, earning rave reviews for his composure and class throughout a league season that climaxed with the Blues winning the Irish Premiership by one point from Cliftonville on the final day.
The quality and consistency of Shields was reflected last night when he collected the prestigious Ulster Footballer of the Year accolade at the Audi showroom in Belfast.
Part of the prize from the generous sponsors of the awards is to drive a top-of-the-range Audi for a weekend and a valet of his own car. He really has cleaned up this season, finishing with the individual award Irish League players cherish more than any other and forever associated with the Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters Club.
“It’s a great privilege to be recognised as the best player in the league. It was my first season in the Irish League and it couldn’t have gone much better with us winning the title and me winning this award. I feel quite proud,” said Shields, as calm and collected off the pitch as he is on it.
Shields, who lives in Bangor with wife Shauna and their three young children, had options when leaving Dundalk in 2021. Like the title race itself, Blues boss David Healy beat Glentoran counterpart Mick McDermott to the punch.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I made the right call. I went with my gut,” said Shields, who can play in midfield or defence.
“Everything suited with Linfield. The club was going full-time and I was going to have my routine that I had with Dundalk and it worked perfectly with my young family. There was also the size of the club and I had struck up a relationship with David (Healy) before I signed which helped. The stadium speaks for itself, the training facilities are good and there was a winning mentality within the club.”
Shields praises the influence of the Healy factor at Windsor Park and how experienced players like skipper Jamie Mulgrew, now a 10-time title winner, Jimmy Callacher, Matthew Clarke, Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart made it easy for him to settle in.
“It was a smooth transition. There was a slight worry in my head that it may not work. I was coming up with a bit of a reputation and people expected things off me so to fit in to the league seamlessly and have a good year was great,” he explained.
“A bit like Jamie (Mulgrew) is at Linfield, I suppose I was like that at Dundalk and could have happily seen out my days there and nobody would have questioned anything. Signing for Linfield, it is sink or swim for a lot of players and it was a bit of a risk but I have enjoyed it because you have to prove yourself all over again.”
On the key moment of the season, he picks out a vital 2-0 win at Ballymena United in March when he scored a crucial second half penalty after Christy Manzinga was sent off before the break.
“Winning the title on the final day was huge but the night up in Ballymena where everything was set to go against us was massive,” he said. “The pitch was awful and we went down to 10 men but we were brilliant. The lads showed champion mentality. That was when the penny dropped for the group that we were going to win the league.”
Next for Shields is a rest and family time before preparation begins for a Champions League first round qualifier. He made it through to the Europa League group stages in 2016 and 2020 with Dundalk. Could something similar happen with Linfield in 2022?
“Why not? You are not playing in Europe just to go across the continent and see different cities! It is an achievable aim and a target for us but you need a slice of luck in the draws,” he stated.
“The Europa Conference League is more than likely the aim for teams like us to reach the group stages. The big thing is to win that first Champions League qualifying round because if you win that, you have two opportunities in the Europa League and in the play-off for the Europa Conference League.
“European games are completely different to any Irish League game. It’s a lot more possession based and about patience and technical ability. You cannot cough up gilt-edged chances because teams will punish you.
“I love playing in Europe and want to help us go as far as possible. Mentality is huge in Europe as is how you manage the games. Our European run was decent last season but we felt we should have done more and hopefully we will learn from that.”
Also at last night’s Audi Ulster Footballer of the Year ceremony, expertly organised by Irish League great Bobby Carlisle, Cliftonville defender Luke Turner won the Young Player award, Newry City’s John McGovern was voted the top Championship player, brilliant goalkeeper Dylan McCready took home the Disability Player of the Year honour and former Irish FA President Jim Shaw was a proud recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award, presented by Lady Mary Peters.