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Aches and gains

Barry Gray admits he got exactly what he wanted out of yesterday’s Danske Bank Premiership encounter with Linfield at Windsor Park – namely, a selection headache for the Tennent’s Irish Cup Final.

Having made eight changes to the side that faced Crusaders the previous week, with rare starts handed to Aaron Donnelly, Ross Lavery and Daniel Reynolds, plus a debut for goalkeeper Declan Dunne in addition to a late cameo role for Gary Donnelly, the Manager was hugely encouraged by the 2-1 victory that was achieved courtesy of first-half strikes from Jude Winchester and Reynolds.

“We had quite a lot of young lads in the side and a few boys that haven’t had a lot of game time, so I’m delighted for them,” says Gray.

“To be able to turn out a performance like that with a group that were short of match time was what exactly I wanted. There are two or three calls to be made ahead of the Final, so that’s exactly what I wanted from the team.

“When you make so many alterations, it tends to disjoint you a little bit but, if anything, it reinforced us. I told the players it was their last opportunity to stake a case either for next week’s Cup Final or for next season. My goodness, they did that. It would be hard to pick out a player that wasn’t top notch.

“On paper, the result meant nothing to us, we couldn’t improve on our League position, but it was still a big win for us. When we play Linfield, we always know it’s going to be feisty, but we were calm and composed all over the pitch.”

One player in particular who caught the eye was Winchester who, just minutes after being on the receiving end of an horrific Robert Garrett challenge for which the Blues midfielder was sent off, opened the scoring with a delightful curler from distance to ensure that he will be in the Manager’s thoughts as next Saturday’s showdown with Coleraine at the same venue looms.

“Jude’s goal was a piece of individual brilliance – there is no other way to describe it,” adds Gray.

“I’m delighted for him. He is a great lad to work with and he is so passionate in his game, he has a winning mentality. Apart from his goal, I thought he was really on it throughout the game. It’s just what we needed ahead of next week – it keeps everyone on their toes.”