Caught up in the mini-storm of three league games without victory – rarefied air of the wrong kind for a Linfield player – the Blues hit the road to face an on-song Cliftonville side searching for top spot in the table.

Under those high stakes, Linfield produced a stirring performance towards three goals and three points thanks to high energy.

Clarke, sporting the captain’s armband on the night he marked the milestone of 400 appearances in Linfield colours​, celebrated the collective commitment and an end to the run of disappointing results he now wants to spark into the start of another strong sequence.

"After the Coleraine game we had a long, hard conversation,” said Clarke. "We knew ourselves what we needed to do because that night wasn't good enough - we let the club down, the manager and staff down and the fans down. The senior players in the dressing room know to take the bull by the horns to try and drive things on and, thankfully, we did.

"We've a young squad, with younger faces than in previous years since I've been at Linfield. But it's great to see the younger lads stepping up.

"We had some honest conversations after those previous results but, hopefully, Cliftonville can be a turn-the-corner moment.

"It was high energy, going hunting your opponent. It's important to keep driving that mentality until the end of the season to keep those standards and pushing on.

"It's a reset button.

"Now we want to finish off the week with three points against Ballymena showing that same mentality and desire."

The Cliftonville result has put Linfield’s title ambitions back on track before hosting Ballymena at Windsor Park this weekend.

"No-one was left feeling more disappointed in the past few league games before Cliftonville than us,” said Clarke. "We were hurting and knew the performances were not good enough.

"One point from nine in the previous three meant, realistically, it was a must-win game for us (against Cliftonville).

"Thankfully, from one to 11 and the subs all turned up with a great performance against a high-flying Cliftonville team really in hot go to a cauldron like Solitude when they're going well and get a big result was great.

"Hopefully now we can kick on and put another run together like previously from last October/November through the Christmas period.

"We don't really think or look too much in the past and just try to keep it game by game but also we knew we probably couldn't afford to lose or even draw (against Cliftonville).

"It's important now that we try to look after ourselves and, hopefully, claw back a few more points.

"It will be important to try and put another run together heading into the split and then those games are massive.”

Silverware success at the close of the campaign would prove the perfect reward to mark Clarke’s testimonial season.

"It definitely was a big night (against Cliftonville)...400 appearances for arguably the biggest club in the land,” said Clarke. "It was a proud achievement for me, my family and our area at home.

"Thinking back those years ago when I first signed I could never have dreamt of it means a lot for me personally. It's my testimonial season, with stuff going on from the summer and we've had three events pre-Christmas all sold out.

"Now we've a poker night coming up this Saturday, which is the first since the turn of Christmas.

"Everything that we've put on and organised has been well-supported so it's been a success so far and, thankfully, well-backed by our supporters and people close to me.

"I can't thank them all enough for that to date and, hopefully, those remaining events will be the same.

"I've been very lucky and am so grateful to have a testimonial committee that's first-class in their attention to detail and amazing organisation.

"When you're involved and see the work and commitment that goes into it all, it's unbelievable really, just amazing.

"It would be nice to end the season with silverware.

"We've the League Cup final coming up against Portadown and still in the Irish Cup, so battling on multiple fronts.

"We'll always just take it game by game, that's what we do at the club.

"We don't get too carried away or too down."

Ballymena’s arrival this weekend to Belfast marks the return to Linfield of another player with a proud Linfield history in Jim Ervin, now in his first season of management after a celebrated career on the pitch.

"Jim was very successful as a Linfield player...I had one season with him at the club and he's an absolutely gentleman and his trophy haul is unbelievable,” said Clarke. "He has Ballymena fighting for their lives and they have been unlucky in games.

"We’re in for a tough game I’m sure...but it’s also always great to see Jim.”

2024-02-24T01:01:35Z dg43tfdfdgfd