It’s been a good week for Linfield following their 1-0 friendly win over Qatar and confirmation that Robbie McDaid is en route from Glentoran.
It hasn’t been just as good a week for midfielder and last season’s Player of the Year Chris Shields, who had a domestic emergency to attend to.
But he declares that Linfield are in a stronger position now than a year ago, an ominous warning to rivals for their crown as Danske Bank Premiership Champions.
“I was over in Spain with the lads for the training camp and friendly against Qatar,” Shields tells Sunday Life. “We left Wednesday week ago, but I had to come home early on Saturday morning because my wife Shauna broke her wrist and we have a newborn, Emily, in the house.
“Family always comes first and David (Healy) was very understanding. It wasn’t ideal timing but I had to come home and the boys seemed to manage okay without me.
“Beating Qatar was a fantastic result for us and it shows the fluidity in the team. Training was really good in the short time I was there and Qatar have no shortage of talent in their team.
“When the World Cup comes around later this year, it will be nice to look at Qatar in the Finals and think, ‘We beat them’.
“I was delighted for Chris McKee as well, it was great for him to get on the scoresheet with the winning goal and I’m sure he was delighted too. I haven’t played with Robbie (McDaid) but he is a quality player and I’m looking forward to having him in the team.
“With Joel Cooper signed and talk of Eetu Vertainen returning, we are looking very strong and I feel we are in a better position for next season than we were for last season.
“The transition from part-time to full-time is over and the squad is a lot more settled now. Last season, obviously we had new faces like myself arrive in the summer, then a few new players arrived in January. There were a lot of comings and goings.
“Last season was tough, mentally and physically draining, but it was as tough as I had expected. I never had any illusions about playing in this League.
“I said last January that the title race would go into the split and right down to the wire, it did, it was tough but also very enjoyable. If there was one thing I would commend the Irish League for, it is the split for the last five games of the season.
“It works very well and really appeals to the competitive side of me. You don’t want to be playing relegated teams if you are going for the title.
“Every team has something to play for so the competition is fierce and I think supporters like it too. It was my first time playing a winter season as I had been used to summer football at Dundalk, but I really enjoyed it and would have no feelings either way about seasonality.”
Linfield’s focus will now be on their Champions League tie against The New Saints, who beat Glentoran in Europe a year ago.
After a friendly against Newtown yesterday and another against St Mirren next Saturday, the Blues travel to Oswestry for the first leg on July 5, with the return leg a week later.
Like rival clubs, Linfield are desperate to be the first Northern Irish team to reach the group stages of European competition — and Shields is as fired up as anyone.
“This is my favourite time of the year because it’s time for European football and I love it. I’d been looking at possible opponents for a while and I would dearly love to make the group stages.
“Why not be ambitious? Look at Larne last year in Europe, their first time playing in Europe. No one gave them a chance against Aarhus, but they did it.
“Yes, we would dearly love to be the first team in Northern Ireland to make the group stages, but I’m sure every other team will have the same attitude.
“I’ve done it twice. I never thought I would do it again but you become obsessed with it, why shouldn’t the group stages be a target?
“Football has changed. The days of getting a big draw out of the hat are gone but we have the Conference League as well as the Champions and Europa Leagues, and that gives teams from smaller nations a better chance of making group stages.
“But first things first, we have a tough tie against The New Saints and we will have to be at our very best if we want to make any progress at all.
“It’s winnable, but they will be thinking the same thing about us. I didn’t see them against the Glens last year but I know a couple of players who played for them, Kurtis Byrne and Dean Ebbe.
“It will be a challenge, of course, but we love a challenge at Linfield.”