David Healy believes there are still six sides capable of toasting Danske Bank Premiership glory at the end of what he expects to be an intriguing second half of the season.
His Linfield team sit two points behind table-topping Ballymena United courtesy of their weekend victory over Cliftonville, whom he refuses to discount from the race despite a third consecutive defeat leaving them a yawning 14 off the pace.
“The top six will be the top six we have now,” said the Blues boss.
“There’s us, Ballymena, Crusaders, Glenavon, Coleraine and Cliftonville and all those teams will be in the top half of the table and they can all still win the league, so it’s going to be an interesting battle over the next few months.
“I don’t think you can rule any of those teams out because they’re all capable of going on a big run.
“I know some are a little bit further behind than others but a little bit of form, a little bit of momentum and you can be right up there.”
The weekend’s only downside from a Linfield perspective came when substitute Michael O’Connor picked up two yellow cards within five minutes of entering proceedings from the bench.
“It was silly from Michael and a little bit of petulance,” said Healy.
“The first one, he’s kicked the ball away after an offside and the second, I think he should maybe have had a free-kick for a foul on him but you can’t react like that.
“It hasn’t cost us anything on the day but it’s probably cost him a start against Ards on Tuesday.”
Cliftonville manager Barry Gray was left scratching his head at the concession of yet another gift-wrapped goal – the 40th his men have conceded in this season’s Premiership campaign.
“The goals came at really bad times for us,” he explained.
“I thought we’d done okay in the first-half and maybe could have been in front but the big thing we spoke about at half-time was making sure we didn’t give anything away cheaply and, within a minute, it’s 2-0 and the game’s dead and buried.
“We’ve tried various permutations and combinations at the back but, whatever selection we go with, every week we seem to give away preventable goals,” he sighed.
“It’s not for the lack of trying from me or the players and I’m not going to hammer anyone but it’s something I seem to keep finding myself saying over and over — I don’t see Rory Donnelly or Joe Gormley scoring goals like Linfield’s second one. I don’t remember us ever being gifted a goal like that. Anything those two have scored, they’ve had to work their socks off to get it.”
The breakthrough came on 38 minutes when Kirk Millar dinked a delivery into the middle, where Stewart leapt to connect with a header which, after taking a telling deflection off Chris Curran, was turned against the inside of the post by Brush at full-stretch before rolling over the line.
If the visitors’ first goal was unlucky from the Reds’ point of view, the second was symptomatic of the travails they have faced all season long.
Stewart’s attempt to knock a long ball in behind looked poised to be dealt with by a combination of Harney and Brush, only for Andy Waterworth to beat the advancing keeper to his kick and set Quinn up for a chance that he deserves credit for finding the restraint not to have converted by kneeling down and touching the ball over the line with his head.
There was plenty of huff and puff from Cliftonville but nothing that ever looked likely to set up a grandstand finale, even when sub O’Connor up one yellow card for kicking the ball away and another for catching Damien McNulty with a slap just five minutes after coming on.