Danske Bank Premiership

It has been, goals, goals, goals in the first quarter of fixtures this year. One hundred and nineteen to be precise scored already.  A staggering amount and just what the fans pay to watch. 

Yes, I get that not all teams have played the twelve games so far, but I thought that now was the right time to have a quick round-up of the movers and shakers in the Irish Premier League at the start of the season. 

Glenavon

If there was ever a way to show Northern Ireland football that we have talent, look no further than Glenavon. Gary Hamilton has unearthed some wonderful kids who have taken the league by storm. At the top of their class have been Josh Daniels and Mark Sykes. Hamilton has to be congratulated for taking them all under his wing and letting them play with freedom. Unbeaten from the opening day of the season, this team is full of young talent which some managers ignore in preference to overpaid players. The hard thing for Hamilton will be holding onto his talented bunch. 

Season so far: (P1, W9, D1, L1, F28, A11, PTS28) 

Starman: Mark Sykes. This talented young midfielder has been a stand out in the middle of the park. Another product of the youth system, who has been attracting attention from across the water. A fully established member of the Northern Ireland under 21 set up, whose last game against Slovakia saw him score the winner in a 1-0 win for his country. What a future the boy has ahead of him.

Final assessment: Hamilton and the board need to work hard here. They have the makings of a great team for years to come. Problem is letting their stars leave, especially to rival Irish League Clubs. Keep them together and this year will be a better one than last year and next season they will be the force of the league.

Prediction: 2nd

Linfield

What difference a fresh start to a new season makes. David Healy has brought Joel Cooper and Daniel Kearns into the team, reinforced his front line with Micheal O’Connor, and has worked out how to stop conceding goals. Five goals against all season says it all, and with the depth, they have in reserve you can see why they will be my shout for the title. Andrew Waterworth sitting on the bench and Jordan Stewart playing in the reserve after returning from Swindon tells you the financial clout this club has on everyone else

Season so far: (P2, W8, D3, L1, F22, A5, PTS27)

Starman: Joel Cooper. Said it once, I will say it a thousand times more. This kid is going places. Will the move to Linfield help? On current form, it is the move he needed. Healy is going to have another Mark Smyth dilemma on his hands. This kid is going places.

Final assessment: This is the team to beat this year. Its hard to put a good club down for long and they are right back at it. Depth, strength, and skill it will take a lot to stop them getting their hands on the Gibson Cup come May.

Prediction: 1st

Crusaders 

So, the Crues have started the season a so-called professional team. Stephen Baxter has embraced it like a Pro by rotating his squad week in week out. Busy old schedule at Seaview. Maybe Glenavon and Linfield should take a leaf out of his book. No! In this league it is consistency. Now, if you make a spelling mistake you rub it out find the correct one and fix it. Put that logic to the Crusaders goals against. Twelve games in, 20 goals conceded. Yes, twelve games in, 20 goals conceded. Took me 2 seconds to realise that. Baxter sits day in day out and hasn’t fixed it. It is the same old-same old long ball stuff that every club is used to now.

Season so far: (P3, W6, D1, L5, F23, A20, PTS19)

Starman: Ross Clarke. Not Stephen Baxter’s first choice, but Stephen Baxter doesn’t really give the kids the opportunity at the minute. When called on the ex-Linfield man has delivered for the Crues. After a frustrating few seasons at Linfield with injuries, Clarke didn’t get much playing time. The lad is a talent and needs to stay injury free. He will hope to express himself with a run of good games.

Final assessment: The whole spine of this team is not right. Gavin Whyte has gone and nothing was done to replace him. Rory Patterson is a proven goalscorer and he is showing it when the service is given to him. But he is not a long ball player and the default setting for the Crues is long ball. Something needs to change sooner rather than later with this team. 

Prediction: 4th

Ballymena United

So, the season started with Ballymena having to play eight straight games away from home as a result of a new pitch being laid. Continuing problems between themselves and the Council over the pitch being destroyed by stock car racing. Three wins, three defeats and two draws in their favour have been a nice return. Sitting fourth and now playing back in the comfort of their own home, David Jeffery has started to mould a good strong team that will only get stronger.

Season so far: (P4, W5, D3, L3, F23, A17, PTS18)

Starman: Cathair Friel. Since making the switch from Limavady, Friel has gone from strength to strength. The lad is a proven finisher, give him an inch and he will take a mile. Friel has scored four goals this season, but as the league moves on the lad will easily get into double figures. Just what the doctor ordered for David Jeffery.

Final assessment: Another team putting youth to the test and should be congratulated. A shaky start to the season for the defence, but Jeffery saw the problem and has worked to fix it. They keep up the good work and will finish strong in the middle of the pack. Something to work on for the future of a big club just not hating its potential.

Prediction: 7th

Coleraine

What a difference a season has made. Oran Kearney’s departure has led the snowflake generation kids at the Showgrounds in a huff. It is time to dust yourselves down and get on with it. The talent is there right through the team. McAree has got a job on his hands, but again another Irish League Manager on a full-time contract he has the time to do it. Sitting fifth and having notched up six draws so far, the momentum they had to take the title chase to the wire needs to be found again.

Season so far: (P5, W4, D6, L1, F17, A12, PTS18)

Starman: Jamie McGonigle. The lad has class written all over him. He harasses defenders, never gives them a minute and is a finisher to top it all off. Crusaders tried with a stupid offer to lure him away at the start of the season. Credit to him, he got his head down and worked away. The lad is destined for a move across the water.

Final assessment: 

Oran has gone. It is time to get back to the free-flowing quick football of last season. This Coleraine team is too good and too experienced to be sitting where they are. I expect to see a big push coming from them sooner rather than later.

Prediction: 3rd

Cliftonville

Cliftonville on paper have one of the most potent strike forces in the league. Jay Donnelly, Rory Donnelly, and Joe Gormley. As an Irish league fan looking at that I think to myself, “Barry Gray you are one lucky manager”. Yes, conceding fifteen goals already this season doesn’t make good reading. But supply these three and you will have goals in abundance. Its been a start-stop season and Gray has a little work to do to get this team motoring in the right direction.

Season so far: (P6, W5, D2, L4, F20, A15, PTS17)

Starman: Joe Gormley. Sitting at the top of the charts with eleven so far this season, Joe will always score goals. Proven striker and if I am honest, should still be playing at a higher standard.

Final assessment: Fix the goals against and this could be a very productive season. The talents are clearly there it will just take the extra motivation from the manager and his staff to make it work.

Prediction: 5th

Glentoran

I had the Glens down to have a very good season. Some good transfer business and, for me personally, the signing of Coner Pepper was a masterstroke. Not many would have given the kid a chance after the injury nightmares he has had. But you never forget a name. Ronnie McFaul has a strong team. The main problem at the minute is taking points off other teams above them. With Curtis Allen still as deadly as ever the Glens will hope to make a big push this season. It is long overdue.

Season so far: (P7, W4, D3, L4, F16, A15, PTS15)

Starman: Conor Pepper. I give it to Conor because when I heard the Glens had signed him, it took me off guard. After the two horrible injuries he had, he has got himself back to playing. He is a credit to himself. 

Final assessment: Its there in plain black and white. Beat the teams around you! That is something this team can clearly do. Then the jigsaw will fall into place.

Prediction: 6th

Institute

Fair play to Institute. Promoted and with no stadium to play in. Re-located to the Brandywell. This could have been one big mistake, but the North West club has really surprised everyone. Sitting eighth has been a good return for the club and if they continue to pick up points off other clubs in and around them they will stay up. That’s for sure.

Season so far: (P8, W4, D2, L6, F12, A20, PTS14)

Starman: Micheal McCrudden. The hitman has bagged himself five goals this season. He has been their standout player. The move up a division has not phased him at all. Keep him fit and he will score.

Final assessment: On current form, Stute should stay up. As long as they have the squad to keep up with the long season ahead. Fixtures will mount up, players will get injured, that is when the questions will start getting asked of them

Prediction: 8th

Warrenpoint Town

After a terrible start to the season where Warrenpoint couldn’t even steal a win, they have turned it around. Up until last weekend, they went five games unbeaten. Some lazy laid back play on Saturday saw them look like a team from a few divisions below. They let in the most goals all season to date, even more than the Crusaders. Manager Stephen McDonnell is the youngest manager in the league and he has taken on a big task. But if he keeps it simple then the team has shown in recent weeks they can compete. 

Season so far: (P9, W3, D2, L7, F12, A28, PTS11)

Starman: Ciaran O’Connor. The brothers from Dundalk have taken the league by storm. Micheal at Linfield and Ciaran. Having witnessed first hand the midfield man myself I knew straight away that Point needs to hold onto players like this. The former Finn Harps and Dundalk player has had a great start to life in the Danske Bank Premiership.

Final assessment: Back to basics and with the market of players they can dip into from the Dundalk area they should stay up.

Prediction: 6th

Ards

What an indifferent start Ards have had. Four losses on the bounce after having gone five games without conceding, Ards fans must be pulling their hair out asking what is going on. Last week saw the surprise of the season so far. Beating the unbeaten Linfield. No one saw that coming. Still without a home and playing at Bangor. Ards need a change of fortune or this season is going to see them in real trouble. There is no consistency with this team and they are not playing as a team.

Season so far: (P10, W2, D3, L7, F10, A16, PTS9)

Starman: Sam Johnston, five clean sheets in a row has kept his team off the bottom of the table. He has been outstanding and if things do not pick up for Ards, they will find it hard to hold onto there prize goalkeeper.

Final assessment: I struggle to see how they can keep themselves out of the bottom two. At a push, I see them going into the relegation playoff.

Prediction: 11th

Newry City AFC

The new boys have had a rude awaking to the top flight. Is it just one step too far at the minute? Three defeats on the bounce now, unable to collect points from the teams around them, the writing looks to be on the wall here. Maybe January will bring in new faces but it might be all too late by then. They just do not look strong enough to stay in the top flight. Home form has got to be a key here. At present, they can’t even find a win in their own backyard.

Season so far: (P11, W2, D2, L8, F8, A23, PTS8)

Starman: Stephen Hughes. His experience in the top flight is what the team needs. Steady head and an eye for goal, Newry would do well to hold onto a player of his calibre.

Final assessment:  One step too far for Newry. My tip for the drop, but it will be a big learning curve for them and one they can come back stronger from.

Prediction: 12th

Dungannon Swifts

Rodney McAree has gone and it has fallen to Kris Lindsey. Yes, they are bottom but give Lindsey time and he will turn the club around. They are a strong club. They have got the players now, they just need the leadership and the season will pan out itself. Dungannon has the right man in charge and I am sure that come May they still be in the top division. The team has been together for a while and can play as one. Just need to get the confidence back and last seasons league cup winners should go from strength to strength.

Season so far: (P12, W1, D4, L6, F8, A17, PTS7)

Starman: Chris Hegarty. The former Rangers and Linfield stopper is a class act. Dungannon has on their hands a centre-half and a leader that most Irish League clubs would bite your hand off for.

Final assessment: Bottom end finish but this team will stay up. Work to be done but in time it will be and this great little club will stay in the top flight where it belongs.

Prediction: 10th

It has been a great start to the season. Goals galore, unbeaten teams, records were broken and more cards than you would find in your average deck. Onwards to the second quarter and hopefully by Christmas it is more of the same.