David Healy: Larne have changed the Irish League landscape but Linfield will relish challenge of chasing

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Having lost out on Premiership glory to champions Larne, Linfield manager David Healy is looking to end the season with a cup double – and insists he’ll relish the challenge of competing with the country’s best teams once again next term as they look to reclaim the Irish League throne.

The Inver Reds have now won back-to-back Gibson Cup titles, ending the Blues’ stranglehold on the competition after they’d collected four consecutive titles between 2018/19 and 2021/22, but Healy’s men still have the chance to finish the campaign strongly by adding an Irish Cup crown to their BetMcLean Cup success against Portadown in March.

Larne have shown no signs of slowing down with their recruitment consistently on point, looking far and wide to improve, bringing in the likes of Jaziel Orozco from Real Salt Lake, while Kenny Bruce’s vision is being implemented superbly by Tiernan Lynch and strides continue to be made off the pitch too.

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While Healy acknowledges Larne have now “changed the landscape” of the Irish League, the ex-Northern Ireland international is also driven by the challenge of going from hunted to hunters.

Linfield manager David Healy with the Irish Cup ahead of Saturday's final against Cliftonville. PIC: Stephen Hamilton/PresseyeLinfield manager David Healy with the Irish Cup ahead of Saturday's final against Cliftonville. PIC: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
Linfield manager David Healy with the Irish Cup ahead of Saturday's final against Cliftonville. PIC: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

"The pyramid and the challenge is now that they're at the top of it and we have to get our chasing boots on and do it quickly because the longer it goes without league title success...it's going to be a great challenge for Larne again next season to go and back it up,” he said. “Clubs like ourselves, Cliftonville, Glentoran, Coleraine with the investment and others now need to relish the challenge that lies ahead.

"You enjoy being on top and winners, but it's a challenge chasing a team down. I've seen so many youth age groups at Linfield and no matter who they play at U12, U13, U14 and I see the reaction from kids, parents and coaches, if they get a result against Linfield it just means a wee bit more.

"People outside of Linfield might disagree with that, but I'm being honest when I say that it means a bit more for others to beat Linfield at whatever age level.

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"Jamie (Mulgrew) can testify to that - he sees if his U18 team maybe lose to a team that we shouldn't lose too, it always means a great deal.

"That's something we've tried to drive into our lads in the first team and the younger players that if you have hopes or aspirations to play in our team in two or three years time that you need to realise you're at Linfield and everybody wants to beat you - and they want to beat you badly.”

With over 15,000 spectators expected inside Windsor Park – both clubs sold out their ticket allocations in mere hours – it’s set to be the biggest Irish Cup final in decades and the first meeting between the two teams at this stage in 90 years.

“We know the intense rivalry that the clubs have had over the years and we can call it as it is with sides from across the divide but the relationship that I have had with any Cliftonville manager, chairman or other people at the club has been a close working one and people may not see that,” added Healy. “There are respectful relationships we have built up, including the return to Solitude, and in my time here we have been respectful to one another as two successful clubs.

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“There will be a big crowd and hopefully we will minimise any controversy around it...we want it to be played in the right manner and the showpiece it should be.

"Hopefully, we can show anyone watching the game that we can hold a good cup final in front of a big crowd and everyone is toeing the line on and off the pitch.”

Alongside lifting a third Irish Cup as Blues boss, there’s also an extra carrot for Healy heading into this final with the winner set to progress straight to the second round of Europa Conference League qualifying – an achievement which is worth €350,000 – while the defeated finalists take a spot in the opening batch of fixtures.

He’s well aware of the challenges posed by opposite number Jim Magilton – someone he played international football alongside before working with him at the Irish FA briefly prior to his successful stint at Windsor Park.

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Magilton’s arrival at Cliftonville wasn’t met with resounding positivity as many fans originally questioned the appointment, something which Healy didn’t understand at the time and he was always confident the ex-Ipswich Town chief would prove a hit.

"He came into the job a little bit later and the job Paddy (McLaughlin) had done before in pushing us really hard for a league title...they won the League Cup and they'd been successful,” he added. "I couldn't understand the question marks at the time around someone like Jim Magilton coming into the job.

"Four, five or six years ago supporters of any Irish League club would have been really excited by that and I couldn't get it.

"Jim has went in, hit the ground running and got his team in fine form...they were the form team for large parts of the early stages and they've certainly hung in there.

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"I've worked with Jim, played with Jim and know the type of character he is - he was always going to demand the highest standards and he has certainly got that.

"Cliftonville are in the final again and everybody knows Cliftonville haven't won the Irish Cup in such a long time, so they're going to be desperate to go and put that right."

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