Linfield face a baptism of fire in the opening weeks of the Danske Bank Premiership – but new manager Warren Feeney wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Blues have to play their first SEVEN league fixtures away from home as redevelopment work continues at their Windsor Park home.
It presents a number of daunting opening hurdles in the marathon that is the Premiership title race.
First up is Portadown at Shamrock Park on Saturday, followed by a derby showdown against Glentoran at the Oval and then a testing trip to the Ballycastle Road to face Coleraine.
The seven away fixtures will be competed with trips to Premiership new-boys Institute, then Dungannon Swifts, champions Cliftonville and Crusaders.
“People call it a ‘baptism of fire’, but that’s what I want. We won’t be hiding from any challenge in this league,” Feeney said.
“I can’t wait to get started into the bread and butter of the Premiership. The European games were competitive and encouraging, but now we are down to business and we are looking forward to it.
“This is what Linfield wants. The fans want it too, and the players. The title is our aim and we will be all out to win it.
“I said from the start that I want to get Linfield’s identity back. We need to be back winning major trophies.”
Feeney – who was unveiled as David Jeffrey’s successor back in April – admits it was painful to watch his boyhood club miss out on the Gibson Cup over the past two seasons.
“As a supporter, watching some of the results was disappointing. Linfield was always the first result I looked out for when I was in England,” the 33-year-old striker added.
“I am the same as Grant (McCann – former Northern Ireland teammate) who is also a fan, and we would be calling and texting each other about the results.
“But this is a new start now and we have a chance to get the title back.
“I want the league – 100 per cent. Two years is too long for Linfield to go without the title.”
Feeney believes this season’s title race will be “as tight as ever”, but is confident Linfield will lay down a stern challenge to Cliftonville’s recent dominance.
“It is a wide open race, which is fantastic,” he added.
“Someone told me the bookies have Linfield as favourites, but I don’t buy into that. It is just the bookmakers’ odds.
“It maybe highlights how big a club Linfield are, and how big a threat people regard us.
“I think a few weeks ago Cliftonville were favourites, so I don’t know if the European performances swayed the odds.”
Feeney accepts Linfield will need to be at their best to dethrone Cliftonville – who won back-to-back titles for the first time in their history last season.
“I was with Tommy (Breslin) at a function last week, and he is a top man,” Feeney said.
“You can see why his players fight tooth and nail for him. That makes them a formidable force and they will be determined to make it a hat-trick of titles.
“But there are other teams capable of going well – Crusaders, Portadown and Glenavon are all stronger.
“They will all have a say in where the Gibson Cup goes.
“We can only focus on ourselves and do the best we can. I am pleased with the squad I have, and I might add to it before the window closes.
“The players I have already are fired up and are raring to go, and training this week has been fantastic.”
Feeney accepts the pressure associated with Linfield, and understands that expectation levels will be high this season.
“I might be a new manager, but you have to hit the ground running,” he said. “People talk about a ‘bedding in’ period and things like that, but I have to get Linfield back to where they belong, and that’s on the top step of the Premiership.”