So that little summer Putin pantomime is over and once again the Ferdinands, Linekers and Shearers make way for the Fullertons, Taggarts and Morgans. A new Irish League season is upon us and Samara makes way for Seaview, Sochi makes way for ‘The Social Club’ and Nizhny Novgorod makes way for BBC’s Mark Sidebottom’s five o’clock round-up which is akin to Northern Ireland’s hidden Terracotta Army. Surprise and awe!
I have mentioned before how the Irish League is such an attractive competition nowadays due to the sheer competitiveness of the chosen dozen. This year we have Crusaders moving closer to full-time, Institute and Newry rejoining and extending the league geography again and more and more media attention being drawn towards one very tangible, accessible game. A game unvarnished by VAR as it is for those there and watching and not those on an armchair.
I am damned if I am going to call it a brand or product as one of my favourite characteristics of the local game is that it still is your local team who folk goes along to support. This is no criticism of those who work hard to make the game attractive as a product but if you are going to be attracted by a brand you will move on to the next thing that is trendy. Irish League fans in my experience have a bit more substance to them than that and to that end always have my respect. Likewise, the players and those who keep the clubs going here – love of the game does not need dressing up.
Enough prattle. What can we expect from the season for the competing teams ahead?
A big step for them this season as they head towards a full-time club and well done for this. This is an organic rather than an artificial step and for me whoever finishes above them will be Champions. They have specifically strengthened as always early and well but I feel clubs have become cuter at learning how to play them over the years. I do feel the pace and pitch-widening ability of Gavin Whyte will be hugely felt and also Owens missing the first part of the season will be a hindrance. Their strength, of course, is their squad and if any team can deal with setbacks it will be them.
Position – 2nd.
Few saw the blue and white Bann force arriving as it did last season but if we look at the season before the clues were there. What a season they had and they did wonders for the league in general. Breaking the team up into its four main parts I feel they have the strongest side with regard to a team hitting its zenith. Johns in nets was the best goalkeeper of last season and O’Donnell and McConaghie were like borrowed blocks of basalt from the nearby Causeway. Their midfield, already a smooth running machine will become very difficult to counter as I expect to see Aaron Burns cut loose alongside the already strong force of Lyons and Harkin and augmented by the return of Stephen Lowry. Their goals now come from all over the pitch but Oran Kearney and the team will have learned so much from last season. Bradley up front is hugely important in keeping the ball up top but I can see this team winning the league. Quite simply, last year they had possibly the best side but now I feel they have the squad to go with it. Position – Champions
In the same way, few saw Coleraine doing such damage Linfield’s season was out of the blue in a different shade. If Roy Carroll and Paul Smyth were the huge components in the successful 2016/17 season it still was more than that which provided the mystery of last season’s unsatisfactory summation. They have bought well and I expect a better season from them. Lorcan Forde and Michael O ‘Connor are great buys and I do expect less unpredictability from them but huge pressure is on this team as last season was more about underperforming with few ideas to find their way out. They have enough senior players in there to know what needs but a good start is so important. Position-3rd.
this time last season in writing this I wondered how the team would gel and it took a fair part of the season for that to happen and not just on the field. But credit to manager and players who did indeed sort it out and came good in a strong second half of the season. They have goals, a settled defence and a combative and creative midfield. Ryan Curran is an immense player for them but Rory Donnelly’s suspension for the first six weeks really won’t help. It goes without saying that Joe Gormley is key and I think fourth is likely but one of the Cups should find its way up the Cliftonville Road. Position-4th.
For me, there is not much between Linfield, Cliftonville, and Glenavon and I could easily have any of them in third, fourth or fifth. I find Glenavon probably the easier team to watch as I find they have that little bit more football in them than the physicality of the other two sides mentioned. It is not this that has me predicting a fifth position for them but too often, not all their players provide the week by week consistency required. Many players will get a few eights or nines some weeks but others will be on sixes perhaps. If more of the team all worked at getting sevens and eights week in and week out it might be a different story but that is completely possible as they have some excellent players in all positions. Still, a cup run side for me at the moment and capable of beating anyone but in Gary Hamilton they are in competent hands. Niall Grace could be the player to put a bit more power into the side as I have often felt they have lacked a little physicality there. Position – 5th.
Last season I saw Glentoran as seventh best and on the surface at the time of writing there is little to suggest an improvement on that. However several things strike me. The club last year had an excess of similar players, mostly midfielders, and there was no distinct first eleven allowing understanding, continuity, and confidence to grow. Most have been cleared out and it would seem that youth fringe players are going to get their heads. Midfield creativity is a huge issue and possibly pace but the defence has tightened but McDaid and Allen got close to forty goals last season and I see more to come from those two. I expect clearer managerial direction from the sidelines this season and if the fans are encouraging and they get past a tough enough few home games at the Oval in August sixth is achievable. Position -6th.
A few clubs have initial problems at the start of this season and I really don’t expect the club’s enforced home absence to help them one bit. Playing catch up is a huge problem and whilst David Jeffrey would have none of it, sometimes this sort of thing can be a mental get out when things go wrong results wise early on amongst players- as in ‘it will be fine when we get playing at home again’. There are a lot of new players at the club and getting this new mix hitting the ground running will be a big task straight away. There is huge know-how, experience and recent energy at Warden Street alongside the goals of Friel and McMurray but as before the back door needs a bigger padlock. Again a fight with the Glens for sixth place. Position -7th.
A key thing for the club will be to make sure that they still don’t bask in the glory of last season’s League Cup victory. I don’t expect them to but they need to be conscious of it. On and off the pitch they are well organised and are nobody’s push-over. I look forward to seeing Daniel Hughes and Mark McAllister together. They are a balanced side and Corey McMullan will want to impress in the way he didn’t get the opportunity at Glentoran. Still lacking the overall quality I think to get above eighth.
Position – 8th.
A decent season last year for the club and Colin Nixon’s imprint will grow stronger and stronger with the club. He is cleverly bringing youth into the club supported by experience and good old-fashioned Irish League street cred. This, however, will continue for the immediate future and as I mentioned last year the club may not well catapult forward until their ground situation is sorted. Just too many goals will slip through and just not enough will get scored I feel for the club to have a season to remember. There is character and organisation but there will be perhaps too many off days. Position-9th.
A story in themselves and we really have a South Down battle of wits going on all season this year. I see the energy of Newry carrying them far this season in the same way Ballinamallard benefitted in their first season in the top flight. Four promotions from the bottom of the Newry canal is to be properly admired and in Darren Mullen, they have a manager who has been able to adapt to the challenges of every new level of the league. This will be the biggest test of course and they will have some tough days but they are new to the rest of the league and can use that to their advantage enough times for the unwary. In a three-way battle between themselves, Warrenpoint and Institute I see them hitting tenth. Position-10th.
Never mind your Baxter’s and Kearney’s in this league- Stephen McDonnell take a bow. Taking over from Matthew Tipton at a difficult time in the season he organised and managed to ensure the team avoided the trap door. He knows his battles this season will be with those around him and seems to very much know his own mind as to what will be needed for each game. Nevertheless it will be a tough season and hopefully, the team might get more support now that local bragging rights are at stake. Position -11th
Welcome back Institute and you have had your problems since you were last in the top flight but full marks for the promotion. The energy required to get promoted last season amidst all their problems will have to be dredged up even more than before and I do believe it will one very hard season for the Drumahoe men. Manager Paddy McGlaughlin will have his work cut out and whilst he has some useful young players to unleash I can only see a brief sojourn in the top flight this season. Position -12th.