It hasn’t been the pre-season that Mark Haughey has come to grow used to in his years playing football.
Usually by the middle of July, things are already in full swing for the defender and his Blues team-mates, passport in hand, ready to be flung off to some tin box airport in one of European football’s less heralded outposts. There’s definitely an argument to be made that he has spent more time in the Faroe Islands than any other known Newry native.
Last season’s failure to qualify for European competition for the first time since finishing outside the top three in the 2002-03 season, was not on the 27 year-olds to do list.
“It’s not something we’re too proud of, as you can imagine – being the first side in fifteen or sixteen years not to qualify for Europe”, he told us when we caught up with him for a coffee on the Lisburn Road last week. “I was on Facebook last night, and up popped one of those ‘on this day’ photos from last year of myself after training at Celtic Park, the night before the second-leg against Celtic. The difference a year makes.”
Although, stifling a smile the best he could, he did admit to being appreciative of the extra rest.
“We didn’t start back until the 22nd or 23rd of June, so we did have that extra couple of weeks more than what we usually have. And you can see it in the boys, there’s definitely a real freshness.”
Haughey himself has been restricted to a spectators role for now, suffering the ill-effects of tendonitis in his knee, that reared itself toward the end of the last campaign, a cause of annoyance for him.
“I’ve spent the six weeks off just resting the knee, and unfortunately to this point, it still isn’t right. But I’m hoping to be back soon. It’s just one of those wear and tear things that only rest can sort out.”
It hasn’t just been all lying up with his feet up, however. He’s been down amongst the boys at training and attending the Blues pre-season games. He even risked further injury to the knee, when he proposed over the summer to long-term girlfriend Melissa.
But he has been impressed with what he’s seen to this point.
“The manager has brought in some really talented young players over the break, something which he loves to do. There’s a real fearlessness in them and has added probably a wee bit more energy to the squad.”
He also singled out new recruit Michael O’Connor for particular praise, after the Dundalk teenager, grabbed a brace in a friendly against Waterford United last week, playing as a trialist.
“He came off the bench for half an hour and he had the ball in the net three times, granted one was ruled out. But he looks like he could prove a real asset to us. He’s a target man up there, very physical, and someone that lads like Andy (Waterworth) and other new boys like Daniel Kearns and Jonathan Smith, can work off.”
Haughey has become a real fan favourite with Linfield fans, a lot he puts down to the ability of getting his head on the end of a few crosses at both ends of the field – a facet of his game that he would like to carry on into his sixth season at Windsor Park.
“I got eight last season, and I think ten the season before that, so I’ll look to try and better it this year. Playing right-back these last couple of seasons has also let me get my foot on the ball a lot more, so I’d like to think I’m becoming a bit of a better ‘footballer’ too,” he laughs.
After five seasons with the club, and with David Healy assembling a younger squad, Haughey has had to become used to the fact that he’s becoming a bit of a veteran at the ripe old age of 27.
“It’s probably been the case for a couple of seasons now! We play old boys versus young boys at training the odd time, and I’m lining up with Roy (Carroll), Andy and Jamie Mulgrew. It’s hard enough to take.”
Retirement, needless to say, is still a long way off for the former Down GAA star, but something he does keep an eye on.
“I’m enjoying my football, I always have at Linfield, and I would love to keep going until they tell me otherwise. Hopefully, that won’t be for a while yet. I’ve done a bit of coaching with Burnsy’s (former team-mate Aaron Burns) soccer school and it’s definitely something I’m looking at doing more of at a higher level. Myself, Andy and Jimmy Callacher have also gone into business with another mate of ours Sean McCarthy, at Kit Room N.I., so life after playing is definitely something that I do bear in mind, and I’m lucky to have the opportunities I have had to this point.”
Speaking of opportunities, we couldn’t let him go without asking him, if he had any regrets about not making the step up and playing pro-football across the water.
“When I was younger, there probably were a few opportunities for me to go across to Scotland or England, and I once considered actually going off to the States on a soccer scholarship. The reality is I just wanted to be in Belfast with the rest of my mates. I don’t regret moving as such because I’m very happy with the career I’ve had.”
“When Warren Feeney was manager, he had Andy Todd, the former Blackburn defender as part of his backroom team and I remember he asked me one day about why I’d never made the move and I suppose when you get a boy like that rating you high enough to go across and have a career in England, it does be at the back of your mind a bit. But I’ve no regrets. I’m very happy at Linfield and they’ve been very good to me”.
News which will certainly be music to the ears of the Blues fans, a group of people that Haughey is desperate to win back the Gibson Cup, on behalf of.
“They’re an expectant bunch, and rightly so. We’ve got great facilities available to us that should have us towards the top of the pile each year. No doubt things are a lot more evenly matched in the Irish League these past few seasons, and anyone of ourselves, Crusaders, Coleraine, Glenavon, Cliftonville, even Ballymena under David Jeffrey can hold realistic title ambitions. But look, it’s top priority for us and we want it back badly to make up for what happened last year.”
And, it won’t be long for Mark and his team-mates to wait before going into battle again.
The new season kicks off on August 4th, and Ball-X will be on hand to deliver all the news from around the Irish League, all season long.