Sean Ward insists Linfield are ready to “right the wrongs” of last season and lay down a genuine title challenge.
The Blues finished runners-up in the Danske Bank Premiership last term – 10 points behind champions Crusaders.
It was an encouraging debut season for new manager Warren Feeney, but late capitulations in games proved their Achilles’s heel on more than one occasion.
Feeney’s players threw away winning opportunities against the likes of Ballinamallard, Coleraine and Cliftonville, squandering vital points that contributed to their failure to lift the Gibson Cup for the first time since 2012.
Versatile defender Ward believes the Blues have learnt from their erratic ways, and he expects the Windsor men to be challenging at the summit come next May.
“We are all so focused to right the wrongs of last season,” he said.
“There were too many games where we threw away points. We were cruising up to half-time and then suddenly went into our shell.
“It is hard to explain, but it was very frustrating, not least for the manager.
“But we have learned from last season and we know what is expected.
“Last season was a steep learning curve, and I think we are ready now to go for the title.
“The pressure is always there to deliver the Gibson Cup to the fans. We always target the title and the Irish Cup – and this season will be no different.”
Feeney has strengthened his squad during the summer with the arrivals of former Mallards pair Mark Stafford and David Kee.
Former Glenavon striker Guy Bates has also arrived at Windsor along with youngster Danny Wallace.
“I have been impressed by all the new lads,” Ward said.
“Davy has really settled in and looked impressive in Europe and the friendlies.
“I always knew he was good, but only now am I realising how good he is.
“Mark has been recovering from injury, so he has been a little frustrated. But he is nearly back to full fitness and raring to go. He is a natural leader.
“Guy is another player I know well from playing against him. He is a quality striker who can score goals.
“He is also very experienced which is important.
“And young Danny has been super since arriving. He is from west Belfast but I didn’t really know much about him. But he looks a real talent.
“So we are pleased with the way the squad is shaping up, and there would be a few more arrivals before the end of the window.
“It is important to have strength in depth, and we certainly have that.”
Ward believes Crusaders remain the team to beat this season following their title heroics last term.
“They have quality throughout their side, and they have added to it during the summer,” he added.
“Michael Carvill is a great player. He is a friend of mine and Crusaders have signed a quality operator.
“They have also added a couple of others, so they deserve to be favourites.
“But I believe we are ready to challenge them. We are playing some great football and we can’t wait for Saturday to come around.”
Ward will be hoping Linfield avoid a repeat of last season’s opening day shambles when they lost 3-0 to Portadown at Shamrock Park.
“It was a shocker,” he recalls.
“Thankfully this time we have a home game to kick us off, against Ballymena United. Windsor Park is looking incredible at the minute, and it really inspires you when you walk out onto the pitch.
“It is an exciting time for the club and we want to deliver results on the pitch.
“We also want to deliver trophies so we will be giving it everything to achieve that.
“The manager is hungry and so are the players – so we can’t wait for Saturday.”