Linfield FC have beaten nearest challengers Cliftonville FC 1-0 to regain the Northern Irish Premiership title with a game to spare, the trophy lifted by Noel Baillie on his 1,001st appearance for the club.
David Jeffrey's side went into the home match against second-placed Cliftonville needing just a point to secure their 49th league championship, second only on the all-time world list to Rangers' tally of 53 in Scotland. Robert Garrett struck on the hour for Linfield to reclaim the title from arch-rivals Glentoran FC who sit a point behind Cliftonville in third.
The Windsor Park side will enter next year's UEFA Champions League at the second qualifying round. They could claim a 21st double by beating Portadown FC in the Irish Cup final on 8 May.
Jeffrey's job had been under threat back in December when the south Belfast side suffered a run of only one win in seven matches. The Blues stuck by 'Big Davy' and he delivered a seventh title in 13 seasons in charge.
The over-riding feeling is of immense satisfaction and thankfulness," said Jeffrey. "I am very thankful. I have to thank my mum and dad, Ken and Isobel, because when you are down in the depth sometimes you need your family around you. [This was] the best ever title win, not because of the difficult times but because this was the fourth side we were putting together."
Alongside the younger players in the team there remained defensive legend Noel Bailie, who clocked up his 1,000th appearance on Saturday at Crusaders FC. The 39-year-old captain played his usual part in ensuring the Blues lost only one of their last 11 league matches, winning eight of those, including taking ten points from their four games so far after the league split into top and bottom sixes.
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