Jamie Mulgrew's relentless excellence leading Linfield to the Holy Grail
Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Linfield v Crusaders (today, Windsor Park, 3pm)
ONE more point to reach the Holy Grail – but it’s a place Jamie Mulgrew has been before.
If Linfield can grab a share of the spoils against rivals Crusaders this afternoon the veteran midfielder will get his hands on his seventh league winner’s medal.
Linfield’s claim on the Gibson Cup this year is irrefutable: four defeats in 34 games, 71 goals scored and a defence that has bordered on being impregnable having coughed up a meagre 21 goals since August.
If Jimmy Callacher has been a paragon of consistency at the heart of the Blues defence, Mulgrew has been the imperturbable midfield metronome.
The 32-year-old's relentless excellence has earned him yet another Ulster Player of the Year nomination.
"My theory is: what is there to fear? You’ve got to enjoy the moment," he says.
"If you start feeling the pressure then you’re not going to perform. What’s the point? So you should embrace these days.”
For Mulgrew, today’s showdown is all about redemption and trying to make up for a disastrous defence of their title last season.
After the Blues claimed their first league title in five years, in the 2016/17 campaign, they limped to a fourth place finish as the Crues reclaimed the silverware.
“It’s not a coincidence that we’re racking up a lot of clean sheets,” Mulgrew says.
“Since pre-season we’ve worked really hard on our defensive shape, our attacking play, patterns of play, all those things, and I think you can see that. We’re also playing a decent style of football.
“A lot of the boys who have played regularly this season have been boys, myself included, who failed last year. So the players deserve a lot of credit because a lot of us were written off after last year’s disappointing finish.
“It really was a disaster and nobody saw it coming. For us to recover the way we have done – being 12 points ahead in the league – we all deserve credit. And the new signings have contributed a lot too.”
Mulgrew had racked up five league winner’s medals before the clouds began to gather over Windsor Park and power shifted decisively to north of the city where Cliftonville and Crusaders shared four Gibson Cups between them.
Signed from Glentoran in 2005, Mulgrew has been the mainstay of successive Linfield teams – and despite an enviable medal haul, success hasn’t blunted his ambition.
“I was 18 or 19 walking into a Linfield changing room that was filled with top, top players,” he says.
“It was the start of an era where Linfield were just so dominant. Look, I’m not a big-headed person but with the poor run Linfield had, that lasted four or five years, if we get over the line against Crusaders tomorrow that will be my seventh league winner’s medal.
“Sometimes you think: ‘Seven titles?’ I really, really appreciate everything.
“I never envisaged winning the things I’ve won at Linfield and to rack up the appearances, I don’t take it for granted and I’m thankful for it.”
Mulgrew, who was on once on the cusp of the Northern Ireland senior set-up, may be in the twilight of his career but feels fitter than he’s ever done and says the “perfect plan” would be to finish his playing days at Windsor Park.
“I’d like to play as long as possible. Last year I had a few injuries that were frustrating and then last summer I put a lot of work in with a personal trainer and, touch wood, I haven’t had any injuries this year.
“I’ve felt good, I’ve felt strong. And obviously the work that I put in gave me the platform. I still feel as fit as I’ve ever been. I’m 33 in June.
“I could say I would like to play for another three or four years but, God forbid, you could go out tomorrow and suffer a bad injury.
“I’m obviously approaching the end of my career and I know I have to work that bit harder because I'm getting older.
“I still really enjoy it and I still want to win as much as I’ve ever done. The perfect plan would be to finish my career at Linfield.”
Mulgrew’s rich talent and humility have won him respect among opposition supporters and it’s doubtful there has been a better midfielder in the local game over the last 10 years or more.
“I would liked to have had the opportunity to play full-time football but the opportunity never arose. It didn’t arise because maybe I wasn’t good enough – I don’t know.
“I wouldn’t possess the shape of an athlete or a footballer but I’m certainly a fit enough guy who can get about the pitch and do all those things, I have a good, professional attitude and I work hard at training.
“But the opportunity didn’t come along. But, look, I don’t have any regrets; I’ve had a happy, enjoyable career and want to win more titles.”
Irish Premiership stats (3pm kick-off unless otherwise stated)
Ards v Glentoran
WARREN Feeney hasn’t been able to lift the gloom at Ards since taking charge as they’ve taken just two points from 12 and lost last week’s bottom of the table clash to Newry. The Glens, under new management, will be keen to build on last Saturday’s gutsy win over Dungannon Swifts.
Odds: H: 11/5 D:5/2 A:10/11
Cliftonville v Ballymena United
THE Reds showed plenty of bottle to come from behind to see off Coleraine last weekend, with Ryan Curran in fine form for the north Belfast men. Ballymena is one of only two losses on Paddy McLaughlin’s early managerial record. After the conclusion of their brave title challenge, the Braidmen are there for the taking today.
Odds: H:6/4 D:12/5 A:13/10
Dungannon Swifts v Institute
THERE’s never been more than a goal between these two sides this season. The Swifts have lost their last three games while ‘Stute have won their last two.
Odds: H:6/5 D:12/5 A:13/8
Glenavon v Coleraine
YOU’RE never sure of what you’re going to get with Glenavon but they’ve strung together a four-game winning streak while the Bannsiders have won just two of their last six.
Odds: H:6/5 D:12/5 A:13/8
Linfield v Crusaders
AT the start of the season this fixture was probably looked upon as a potential title decider but Crusaders are paying the price for a disastrous pre-Christmas period and some defeats to the Blues. With only a point required today, the south Belfast men should take care of business against the side that denied them in the Co Antrim Shield final and a shot at the Irish Cup.
Odds: H:10/11 D:5/2 A:11/5
Warrenpoint Town v Newry AFC City (5.30pm)
NEWRY will be buoyed by their ‘six-pointer’ win over fellow strugglers Ards last weekend while Warrenpoint’s form has been won one, lost one over the last number of weeks. The Irish Cup semi-final defeat to Ballinamallard may not be out of their system either.
Odds: H:5/4 D:12/5 A:8/5