Welcome back to the first Player Watch of the 2018/19 season and as before we will try and get as many players from different clubs and positions covered. I should say perhaps here and now that I am conscious of no goalkeepers being covered last year.

I think the day I started to do Richard Brush he had such an uneventful game I was unable to fulfil the 400 word minimum required of us and have been ‘scunnered’ ever since to use a word unlikely up Roget’s way. In a similar fashion I started to do an article on Levi Ives in February but not only did he have a straightforward game, but I think was substituted on the hour and a week’s work goes up in flames.

So I was determined to get prose down on this first day of the season as he lined up against Glentoran at the Oval. A couple of points here. For some reason in my head I have always considered left backs to be the most consistent players in a team and I am obviously talking widely here.

People like John Easton, Dennis Irwin and Paolo Maldini just to seriously cross the footballing historical worlds come to mind as a loose, and I mean very loose quick example here. Don’t spend too much time on this as it is merely a bit of a preamble to Levi Ives whom I consider probably the league’s best left back. As always, I like to challenge myself on these ideas.

I wasn’t to be disappointed. Due to suspensions it appeared that he was the left of back three rather than four though Liam Bagnall seemed prepped to do  right back if necessary in what seemed a fluid sort of system.

I generally have found Ives to be productive, safe, intelligent, tenacious and solid in his role with Cliftonville. This match against Glentoran proved all this beyond doubt. He is no physical monster or Linford Christie so I was keen to analyse why he has this elevated rank in my thoughts.

His first call to arms was covering a diagonal run into the box by his opposite number Peter McMahon. It is likely little would have come of it but it required to him to come in off position and certainly negated a threat. Awareness, speed and intelligence! This was followed by winning a header against McGuigan and once again against McMahon, getting a toe to the ball at the edge of the penalty area which was instrumental in breaking up the Glens’ first meaningful attack of the day. Small stuff but so important.

His first – half play was non spectacular but is full of the solidity a team and manager needs – especially if you are three at the back. Glentoran were not having the more comfortable time with football on the deck so ‘quick release over the top’ balls were being used to test the Cliftonville back line.

An important header to prevent Allen breaking free on the half way line showed his positional awareness and sense of danger. On the ball he is comfortable to the point of being a midfield player. But generally he was  happy to do simple sideways stuff to his centre – back to  then run into space for the return, or more frequently move the ball forward into channels ahead for McMenamin or Jay Donnelly to collect.

His left foot is so important to the side that he spent many a run moving forward across the pitch to take the Cliftonville corners where he would vary them from  a deep and high trajectory to lower mid – box affairs.

He rarely found himself under pressure due to positional sense and technical ability. A grim clear out by his goalkeeper Brush had him feeling the pinch but he had the strength and skill to get the ball back under control and maintain team possession despite huge pressure from Curtis Allen sensing an opportunity.

He was not getting forward as much as I am used to  but with a three man back – line this was understandable but he was still able to get deep crosses in which invariably led to plenty of corners. One moment I liked was his having the opponents expecting a left to right deep cross into the box, but he ‘changed’ it to a low linear flat pass forward down the left which caused consternation leading to another corner keeping his team in the right areas.

He has the tenacity you would want in a player in his position and chased more than one player out of the box with determination and does not unnecessarily go to ground. He might have been disappointed though to let Marcus Kane get ahead of him for a free kick which did flash wide but perhaps he did enough in his job there. He will also have been annoyed with himself in the second half not clearing the first man both in the initial corner, and then the follow up secondary ball.

In tight areas he is rarely in trouble either finding a man or opening the game up. Several times he had the ability and confidence to complete a dangerous cross field ball to Jamie McGovern without fear of putting his team under danger. He was still winning headers against bigger men like McGuigan and Birney due to balance, spring and core strength. Whilst a lot of his first – half play was good, solid and decent, two pieces of play impressed me no end in the second half where he had less of the ball.

On one occasion he fielded a returned Glentoran ball heading towards his half- way line with Calum Birney harassing his tail. The easy option was the long ball back to his keeper but turning and twisting like North Belfast’s Michael Jackson, he not only shook off his tormentor but headed back towards the Sydenham end, ball in control to maintain the Cliftonville attack.

‘Balls and brains’ to borrow a line from 10cc but what was I saying about a midfield player in there. That fierce turn of his to shake players off must put great stress on his ankles but it is great to watch such confidence in back four players.

He had one loose pass before his second piece of outstanding play. Just inside his own half all looked normal, but with what looked like the outside of his foot after taking a man out by moving right with the ball off his thigh, he put a ball through to Joe Gormley that took out the Glentoran defence and midfield.

It was a majestic pass and teams need to be aware of the repertoire he has in this regard. More damage could have occurred had Elliott Morris not been of his line in a flash. Possibly the pass of the game for me though the ball that broke Glentoran’s defence down the right leading to Cliftonville’s equaliser was right up there too.

His final contributions were similar- dealing with a long deep high ball to McGuigan firstly. It was critical he won it and I would say he did so with the odds against him as McGuigan had the better run and vision of the ball. Just in case you thought this was a one – off he repeated the same situation with a last ditch sliding tackle on Peter McMahon as the game became stretched in the final minutes.

Two big questions asked of him in those moments and answered with the durability and strength associated with Levi jeans just to throw in some poor humour. As mentioned I have often thought this guy is the best – left back in the Irish League and my thoughts are certainly more than reinforced on that now. Opposing sides will have their work cut out attacking Cliftonville’s left flank. Well played Lad!