15 years to the day since Linfield lifted the Setanta Cup against the odds with a 2-0 win over a strong Shelbourne team, midfielder Michael Gault has been reflecting with pride and fondness.
“It was a fantastic experience and one of the best matches I have ever been involved in due to the quality of opposition. It was a privilege to be playing for ‘The Blues’ and to be involved with such great players and such a great team, as well as the management staff and the supporters who were surreal, out in their numbers that day.
“We travelled down on the bus and we knew we were up against a great opposition. Shelbourne had great players and were close to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stages in the previous season. They had Joe N’Do, Wes Hoolahan, Crowe and Byrne up front; they were a great team. We were under no illusions and knew we would have to go out and give the performance of a lifetime to beat them.
“On the bus on the way down we joked how good they were and how much they were going to beat us! But us, being Linfield, we knew we had the players capable of doing anything. I thrived on the Setanta matches, it gave me a wee boost to beat so-called better teams across the border. I was always determined to give a good performance for myself personally and for the team and manager we had, we were never going to lie down to anybody. Shelbourne were the best team in Ireland at the time, we were the underdogs.”
‘Gaulty’ paired Paul McAreavey in midfield on the night and what a duo they were. Reflecting on the game itself, the former Linfield captain says manager David Jeffrey got his tactics spot on that night.
“It was the normal matchday routine – get to the hotel, pre-match meal, and then the team talk when David Jeffrey had us well drilled. No-one could believe we’d actually gone out and done it. I watched the game back a few weeks ago and we didn’t give them a second on the ball. From Alan Mannus, right through the whole team, we got in their faces.
“I am 37 now and still trying to play a bit of football - it’s very hard in your later years, but you could see the efforts of Glenn Ferguson, Noel Bailie and Winkie Murphy who were well into their thirties at the time, yet the energy levels they played with were unreal. I probably only really appreciate now how fit and energetic they were, a credit to themselves.
“I think even David Jeffrey was in disbelief that we were 2-0 up at the break, and deservedly. Usually at half-time you’d go in and focus on the wee small things. Right on half-time I’d let Stuart Byrne run off my shoulder, and just got a last-ditch tackle in and David Jeffrey told me not to let that happen again. That was my wee pointer for the second half.
“In the second half we went out and again fought for everything, didn’t give them time on the ball and ran out 2-0 winners which was unbelievable. The Linfield support that day was unbelievable. Bluemen always expect us to win every single game, but even then they knew before the match they were going to give us good support, and if we got anything from the match it was a bonus. My mum and dad were in the crowd and I just knew the supporters were so proud of us because we gave them everything.”
The Setanta Cup proved a great platform for Linfield to bounce back from the disappointment of losing out on the league title to Glentoran a few weeks prior, and as Michael points out, led to bigger things – as in a domestic ‘clean sweep’ and six league and cup ‘doubles’ in seven years.
“It had been very disappointing to lose the league a few weeks previously, but in football you’re very lucky that there’s always something on the horizon and you can pick yourself up a week or two later which proved the case for us.
“For the Club to be on a downer, to go on and do this was fantastic and obviously, it led us on to bigger and better things. I still have my ‘clean sweep’ jersey up on my wall and it’s something which I take great pride in. I am proud to have been a part of that.
“We went into the town that night and had a few drinks to all hours. The celebrations on the bus home were led by Bryan McLaughlin, that was brilliant. It was a sing-song the whole way home but unfortunately for me, I had an exam on the Monday. I had to take it easy and try to hit the books on the Sunday evening. It’s something I will always look back on very fondly. It was definitely the single best match I have ever played in – not my own performance, but in terms of the team and how we triumphed. We knew then we were the best team about and showed that in the next ten years or whatever it was with so much silverware.”