Having selected a strong goalkeeper and defence, attention for our Greatest Modern Irish League XI turns to the midfielders. Tough decisions had to be made and great players excluded. Let’s see who makes out Starting XI…
The midfield of Linfield’s stellar mid-2000s team was dominated by Michael Gault. A vital defensive component in a free scoring side, Gault racked up 13 years at the Blues, securing eight league titles and a Football Writers Player of the Year Award in 2007-08. A senior international appearance was his reward in a friendly match against Georgia in 2008. Gault was released by an incoming Warren Feeney and had spells at Portadown, Crusaders and Ballymena but his combative style contributed to frequent injuries by this stage of his career. Irish League supporters and Linfield fans in particular will use Gault as the benchmark for their side’s defensive midfielder.
Irish League: 2000-2001, 2003-2004, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012
Irish Cup: 2001-2002, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012
Irish League Cup: 2001-2002, 2005-2006, 2007-2008
County Antrim Shield: 2000-2001, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2013-2014
Setanta Cup: 2005
Since his singing for Crusaders in 2012, Paul Heatley has consistently been one of the most dangerous attacking midfielders in local football. The 2014-15 Football Writers Association and Ulster Footballer player of the year, Heatley was the League’s top scorer the following season. Despite playing as an advanced midfielder Heatley has scored double figures in every campaign with the Crues – Heatley averages 19.5 goals per season. Like the other Crusaders players featured on this list, Heatley was a central figure in Stephen Baxter’s development of the club, taking Crusaders to the next level and regularly competing for (and winning) major trophies.
Irish League: 2014–15, 2015–16, 2017–18
Irish Cup: 2018–19
County Antrim Shield: 2017–18, 2018–19
Jamie Mulgrew has been the creative driving force behind Linfield for over a decade. Since signing for the Blues in 2005, Mulgrew has secured seven League championships and, like Heatley, was a winner of both the Ulster Footballer of the Year and NI Football Writer’s Player of the Year Awards. Now a veteran of the Irish League, Mulgrew has tapered his marauding offensive runs to a more contained role. His passing qualities and vision that saw him linked with full-time football across the Atlantic at the turn of the decade. David Jeffrey would have been apprehensive at the task of replacing Paul McAreavey but this was a challenge more than handled by Mulgrew. With a few years left in the tank yet, Mukgrew will be eager to add to an already extensive trophy collection.
Irish League: 2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–12, 2016–17
Irish Cup: 2005–06, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–12, 2016–17
Irish League Cup: 2005–06, 2007–08
County Antrim Shield: 2005–06, 2013-2014, 2016–17
After two glorious seasons at Seaview, wide-man Stewart Dallas has had a highly impressive career in English football. Dallas kick-started his football career in north Belfast in 2010 where he made 38 appearances and scored 16 goals. Incredible form saw Dallas collect six awards at the Crusaders end of season ceremony. These accolades ranked alongside his Football Writer’s Player and Young Player of the Year awards. The following season saw the Crues come up against Fulham in the Europa League qualifiers and a successful Setanta Cup campaign – Dallas converted a crucial penalty in the final. Despite appearing only 85 times for Crusader’s, Dallas’ impact in the league and his individual performances live long in the memory of spectators. His impressive performances for Brentford, Leeds and particularly Northern Ireland secures Dallas’ icon status in the Irish League.
Irish League Cup: 2011–12
Setanta Cup: 2012
The successor to Stuart Dallas’ mantle, Gavin Whyte’s four seasons at Seaview are littered with great individual performances and three league championships. Whyte scored 43 times in 132 games earning him a move to Oxford in the summer of 2018. Whyte’s tally of 22 goals the season before was bettered only by marksman Joe Gormley. Whyte further showed his quality upon his move to Oxford, making 36 appearances in his first season and scoring 7 goals. His exploits earned him a move to the Championship with Cardiff City in 2019. Whyte has been on the fringes of the international set-up, earning five international caps thus far. His memorable debut goal against Israel, just 106 seconds after being substituted on, was a moment of pride for all associated with local football.
Irish League: 2014-15, 2015-16, 2017-18
County Antrim Shield: 2017-18
After chalking up over 500 appearances for Cliftonville, George McMullan retired as the most decorated player in the club’s history. A strong and skillful midfielder, McMullan was a central cog in Tommy Breslin’s revered Cliftonville team. An injury time penalty at Solitude against Linfield in 2013 secured the title for the Reds for the first time since 1998 and enshrined McMullan’s postion in the folklore of the club. McMullan also lifted multiple League Cups and County Antrim Shields as Cliftonville captain. An influence sorely missed in the current Red’s XI, McMullan has been turning out for local amateur side Crewe United.
Irish League: 2012-13, 2013-14
Irish League Cup: 2003-04, 2012-13, 2014-15, 2015-16
County Antrim Shield: 2006-07, 2008-09, 2011-12, 2014-15
In his two seasons at Windsor Park, Paul Smyth made a lasting impression. A tenacious attacking midfielder Smyth scored 17 goals in 59 starts before a 2017 move to QPR. Smyth was awarded the Ulster and NI Football Writer’s Young Player of the Year Award in 2016/17. Particularly memorable performances against Coleraine and Celtic in a blue shirt made it clear the attacking midfielder was a level above and deserving of a transfer. Smyth appeared 13 times for QPR in his first season but a managerial shift saw him allowed to join Accrington Stanley on loan in 2018-19. The attacker scored debut goals for both of these clubs. Smyth is currently on loan at League One’s Wycombe Wanderers where he has already made a match-winning contribution against Bolton in a 2-0 victory. Like Whyte, Smyth is hoping to emulate Stuart Dallas’ international performance and got out of the blocks quickly with a wonderfully placed right-footed shot to the bottom corner to secure a 2-1 victory over South Korea.
Irish League: 2016-17
Irish Cup: 2016-17
Charity Shield: 2017
County Antrim Shield: 2016-17
While the formation gave us the option to select five midfielders, tough decisions were made. Particularly difficult was the omission of Linfield’s Michael Gault who provided a stable core to Linfield’s midfield for a decade winning multiple titles. Mulgrew and McMullan get the nod in the central-midfield positions. Their creative flair and dogged attitude just shades them past Michael Gault. Unfortunately for Paul Smyth, the three advanced midfielders pick themselves. The Crusaders trio of Heatley Dallas and Whyte contains creativity, goals and determination and secures them a place in this side.
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