Who would have thought what? Who would have thought that the top three trophies in Northern Ireland would find respective homes at Crusaders, Coleraine and Dungannon? It’s not as outlandish as it seems but as a collective, certainly the days of south and east Belfast domination are long gone. Let’s have a bit of a look at the teams involved and how they played out against my own pre – season predictions.
CRUSADERS 1st. Predicted – 2nd.
Perhaps a season of showing that last season’s blip at Ballymena really was just that. All credit to them for their steadiness, not just in hauling back Coleraine from an earlier season lead but also maintaining their nerve whilst under huge pressure from them especially after the split when they did the same. The goal difference buffer they had was due reward for the offensive extravaganza the Whyte, Heatley and Owens vanguard provided and is such a feature of the Hatchetmen. The Crusaders bench more often than not came into play and David Cushley was the most striking example of this. Worthy Champions.
COLERAINE 2nd Predicted 5th.
The surprise packet of the season but when one really reflects perhaps us onlookers might have been cuter. In a similar way that when Everton’s reaching of the 1984 Cup Final was a strong indicator of upward movement Coleraine in 2017 had similar markings. A very loose analogy and perhaps inaccurate also, but this season clearly showed Oran Kearney knows and has known exactly what he is doing.
The end of season 50% odd increased crowds had witnessed a team maturing to excellence with a Cup win that will resonate and provide a platform for further north coast bounce. From Johns in nets to Bradley showing all his experience up top the team had few weak points. The pairing of McConaghie and O’Donnell was the bolted door of the season. Harkin and Lyons attracted the headlines but McAuley for me was their player of the season. A big game player whose consistency never wavered, his Cup Final goal said it all.
Managerial and tactical moment of the year being the half – time double substitution of Bradley and McGonigle v Linfield to grab a draw after being 2-0 down. As 10cc might have said- “Balls and brains”.
GLENAVON 3rd Predicted 3rd
Sometimes there can be little to say when you end up as expected – satisfactory progress actually does go some way to summarising their season. However Gary Hamilton should be more than pleased especially with one eye to the future. His management and selection of Sammy Clingan was a boost for Mourneview and the league in general but more specifically his stewardship of Mark Sykes was impressive. It could be said that the slight peak and trough of their season coincided with the form of Sykes but surely that is too simplistic. The transfer of Bobby Burns to Hearts is huge testament to both player and manager and European qualification is worthy reward.
LINFIELD 4th Predicted – Champions.
In some ways actually the story of the season. A start that never got into full flow and then stuttered, tripped and suffered eventual pain that seemingly no – one had answers to. The goals still continued to come from set pieces and the exits by Smyth and Burns caused offensive deficit certainly. Many felt that Roy Carroll won them the title last season and if that is true he himself would certainly admit he was unable to repeat that season through performance and injury. The team and especially new replacements did not click and there will be some navel gazing down Windsor way this summer.
CLIFTONVILLE 5th Predicted 4th.
Well it came good in the end. It took a good half season for the new manager to sort out his team and to get them to gel. Both he and Rory Donnelly needed all that time and indeed it was felt that returning legend Joe Gormley would struggle. Gormley was fine but Cliftonville certainly needed gas and air to eventually walk unaided in this season’s league. Once they stopped conceding they got into their stride and Barry Johnston’s backroom addition no doubt played its part. European qualification which had been their pre- season goal was achieved and more than offset their Cup Final disappointment. Gormley probably scored the two goals of the season against Loughgall and Crusaders.
BALLYMENA UNITED FC 6th Predicted 6th
Little change in the fortunes of the major market town but no cause for disappointment. The club is in good managerial hands and plenty turn up now in hope and anticipation to watch the Sky Blues. A League Cup final appearance might appear meagre and certainly there have been a few times the team failed to turn up. Whilst the team continue to concede goals at the rate they do they will struggle to climb but they will be better for taking a moment this season and with one or two clever additions are well placed.
GLENTORAN FC 7th Predicted 7th
Not a whole lot to write positively about though climbing from 9th to 7th is progress of sorts but the underlying malaise on and off pitch continues. Moments of joy were rare and tended to involve matches v Linfield. A steadier defence and Curtis Allen’s twenty-six goals are worthy of mention but the club is not in a position to live off an approximate 40% success rate on the recruitment front. Midfield creativity is an ongoing problem and whilst this maintains, players played out of position will continue to cause problems amongst the support who in turn pass the pressure back onto the pitch. A new manager needs to break the circle.
DUNGANNON SWIFTS 8th Predicted 9th
The season will be reviewed with nothing but fondness and dewy eyes down East Tyrone way and with good reason. The League Cup final win is already the stuff of legend and this on top of a reasonably comfortable league placing which has to be viewed in the immediate absence of the loss of Andy Mitchell. Throw in a fantastic end to the Terry Fitzpatrick years and the decision of Rodney McAree to stay at the club and well…..just enjoy the summer afterglow.
Ards 9th Predicted 8th
A sure enough last quarter saw Ards steady themselves so that relegation worries were reduced and with that achieved all must be said to be satisfactory at the club. Whilst this happened manager Nixon ensured no time was wasted ensuring youngsters were blooded ensuring possible financial pressure is negated and team renewal disruption will be minimised. The belief the manager has in the team and project no doubt had a part to play in his rejection of Glentoran and all in the club must build on this confidence to strike on. Any quality added will be incremental but there are enough concrete blocks there to do this. As ever their own stadium in Newtownards is the big elephant in the Fuels Arena.
Warrenpoint Town 10th Predicted 11th
Huge achievement to avoid relegation but the Tipton/McDonnell managerial tag team did the trick and huge credit to them both. Hampered by early season discipline issues and then the transfer of Darren Murray halfway through the season, the team performed the not unusual story of some great football but horrendous inconsistency. However there was a structure and an organisation sufficient to get them through and in Lorcan Forde they have one very exciting prospect. They will surely need him if they are to stay up next year and they now have a noisy neighbour keen to bite them next season.
CARRICK RANGERS 11th Predicted 12th
Whilst it may appear unfair on previous relegated managers it appeared to me that nobody fought a more valiant rearguard action against the going down of the sun than Davy McAlinden. Their season was one of monthly peaks and troughs, and sphygmomanometers in the area must have had a hell of a work out. The bouts of hope that surfaced every now and again suggested that they would not be one of the rare teams to lose out to a Championship team in a play – off but they came up against a Newry team fuelled by upward thrust. For me, the spirit is far from dead in the club but they will have a harder task getting out of their next division whilst competing against the Larnes and Portadowns of the next battle zone. The recent loss of their manager capped a sorry end.
BALLINAMALLARD UNITED FC 12th Predicted 10th
Another team who died with their boots on. A touch of the West Brom about the club insofar as an earlier managerial change may well have saved them. Fondly thought of Gavin Dykes visibly wilted each week trying to get the team going but their time in the top flight had exhausted all and despite the McConkey spring offensive, the die had been cast. They have added much in their time not least geographically, but living around the lower echelons of the league for a while eventually catches up you as the league shoots higher with European money etc…
As mentioned everywhere one of the great Irish League seasons and the increased crowds certainly vent this across the province. Seven clubs have a four figure average and though the league can be split into three or four mini leagues this will become even more complex and competitive with the likes of Newry already, and probably Larne and Portadown at the party door. The message is clear – you really cannot stand still in this league and that in itself will maintain present and future interest.