IRISH LEAGUE: Linfield one step from a title hijack

Linfield midfielder Jamie Mulgrew (right) was crowned Ulster Footballer of the Year yesterday afternoon . Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Linfield midfielder Jamie Mulgrew (right) was crowned Ulster Footballer of the Year yesterday afternoon . Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
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Linfield midfielder Jamie Mulgrew says he has had something of a surprising week.

Not only was he named Ulster Footballer of the Year yesterday afternoon, but he has also enjoyed training in the knowledge that the league title is in his side’s hands.

Paul Smyth was named Young Player of the Year in the awards organised by Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters Club. Photo Lorcan Doherty / Presseye.com

Paul Smyth was named Young Player of the Year in the awards organised by Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters Club. Photo Lorcan Doherty / Presseye.com

And he didn’t see either of those coming.

Although his personal accolade is one that brought shock to nobody but himself, it’s little wonder he didn’t envisage toppling Crusaders. Mulgrew’s side trailed the reigning champions by nine points when there were only six games left to play. Considering the Crues had dropped only seven points in the previous 17 games, few would have predicted such a monumental collapse.

But three defeats in their last five coupled with a perfect record from the Blues, and Crusaders have had their driving seat hijacked.

One turn of the key at Solitude this afternoon will rev up another Linfield title party - their 52nd to be exact.

And all that seemed a long way off just a few weeks ago.

“To be honest it was something that I never expected,” Mulgrew told BBC Sport NI.

“I just wanted to win games and stay as close to Crusaders as possible and then be in good preparation for the cup final but things have changed.

“We’ve got to treat it like any other game and continue to perform at the level that we have done.

“I’m sure there are going to be a few nerves from us and from Crusaders as well because I think in the past few years, they’ve won it at a canter and deservedly so. Noone has matched them but this year we have been able to stay on their tails and results have been great for us. Hopefully we can continue that.”

The backdrop to the final day has certainly altered significantly since the split, and adding to the drama, an unexpected character has wandered back into frame.

That, of course, is interim Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin, who returned to the club earlier this week.

No man is more capable of pooping Linfield’s party than the same who guided the Reds to two league titles.

“Tommy has been an incredible manager for Cliftonville,” admitted Mulgrew. “He brought them so much success and he’s a great man as well.

“I am sure that those players will be playing and working hard for Tommy and for Cliftonville. We went over there earlier on in the year and they defeated us and they did it at Windsor Park as well. We’re under no illusions how tough the game is going to be. I hear people saying (the title) is Linfield’s and blah blah blah but certainly in our camp, that is definitely not the case.”

Linfield will be without the services of the suspended Paul Smyth, who won the Young Player of the Year award to add to Mulgrew’s Footballer of the Year title and make it a double for the Blues.

Reflecting on his own award, the typically modest Mulgrew seemed slightly taken aback.

“Surprised and absolutely delighted to win it,” he said. “You only have to look at the names on it - it’s incredible. The things those guys did for our game are still talked about nowadays.”

And if Linfield manage to snatch this title, it will be a comeback discussed for many years to come.