“This is why I love the Irish League!” We have another change at the top. What an exciting season the Danske Bank Premiership has been. With only the top two spots in for a chance of grabbing the European money, we have a tug of war on our hands. For both the title and the European windfall. Glentoran’s stint at the top came falling down as Crusaders moved above them to take the top spot. You just couldn’t write this league at the minute. We have a five-way battle for the top.
Just for anyone that is not familiar with the Irish League and importance of the European money. The clubs are mostly semi-professional, with the exception of a lucky few. The players hold down a day job and train two-three nights a week. They get paid enough to keep them going but only what the clubs can afford to pay. So, the 100-200k that the first European round can generate can make the running of clubs easier for a season or two at least. Linfield generated what had been reported £1 million-plus from their European run. These are numbers these clubs simply cannot turn their noses up at. Understandably it has become a business venture for some.
Crusaders 2-0 Ballymena United
As always, I will start my round-up of the weekend’s action with the team at the top of the summit. They have cracked it! Clean sheets, and it has only taken just over a year for them to realise how important keeping it watertight at the back really is. Four wins in a row without conceding, and on Saturday against Ballymena United they did it again to make it five. All with the cleanest of sheets to go with them.
Hats off to Stephen Baxter and his backroom staff. It has been a long time coming. The Billy Joe Burns, Rodney Brown partnership at the back is working. Maybe that’s why there is a lot of talk of clubs now wanting the services of Crues’ skipper Colin Coates. The next few weeks will be crucial, but the rotating back four has stopped – and the goals against have stopped with it.
The Sky Blues have been a tough nut for the Crues to crack this season. David Jeffery has always got his side well drilled to the threat of the Crues. On Saturday they were at it again, frustrating the Crues for 71 minutes. A Jordon Forsythe pinpoint cross into the box, was meet by the Crues’ old wise head Declan Caddell who was there to head home. It didn’t take the Crues long to double their lead. Substitute Ross Clarke curled in a wonderful free-kick and sent the Crues straight to the top of the table. Even if only for a few hours as going into the Saturday fixtures the league leaders, Glentoran, had a late kick-off against Larne.
Larne 2-1 Glentoran
Saturday evening saw a late kick-off for the Danske Bank Premier League. League leaders Glentoran took on the leagues other heavily invested in team Larne. This late kick-off, for me as a fan of the league, was a great idea. Larne did this to try and generate more revenue through the turnstiles, and it worked. Around Northern Ireland, there are that many amateur games played at the same time as the League. The timing of this fixture gave people that usually cannot make the game an opportunity to come along and enjoy it. I, for one, have said before about the whole summer football debate, if we can get more through the gates then money can be generated for better quality players. So, for me, moving the hundreds of amateur games to the summer might work. Not saying it will, but it is an option that is out there.
This was a great entertaining game that the crowds turned out in their numbers to see. Between the two teams throughout there was not much between them. The fans had to wait until the last second for this encounter to spark into life. The Glens’ Paul O’Neill getting up before Larne’s skipper Albert Watson to power a header home. But Larne came straight back. They have not beaten a team above them so far this season and they were about to put that right.
Larne striker Johnny McMurray played in Lee Lynch, who produced the perfect finish. It was level until injury time when Larne striker McMurray put his head right into the danger area, and the ball into the net. What dramatic scenes to finish the game. McMurray being stretchered off, and the Glens being unable to reclaim the top spot from the Crues who had won it earlier in the day.
Linfield 8-1 Glenavon
You read that right, 8-1! Yet Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton has the audacity to come out after the game and have a go at the standard of the referees within the League. What next for Hamilton? We have had the plastic pitch groan from the Lurgan Blues manager, then we have him complaining about the clubs that keep getting the European money, and how they can outspend teams like his. I am done listening to Hamilton and his excuses. In the last two seasons this manager has let his best talent leave, yes in some cases across the water, but in others to the Irish Leagues top teams. But yes, it is everyone else’s fault for his teams under power performances.
The Blues were rampant and on form, and a display like that would win the league. They have been just too inconsistent of late. Before the Lurgan Blues even went down to ten men after Robert Garret got his marching orders, the Lurgan Blues were already three down. Goals from Stephen Fallon, Kirk Millar and the ex-Lurgan Blues man Joel Cooper. In all fairness, they should have been down to nine men as on-loan man Calum Birney was lucky not to see red.
The Blues were 5-1 up before half-time. Shayne Lavery and Matthew Clarke making it five, with Sammy Clingan pulling one back before the break for the Lurgan Blues from the spot. Into the second half and goals from Jordon Stewart, a second for my man of the match Cooper, and Jimmy Callacher topped off an impressive performance for the Blues. As for the Lurgan Blues, this was just not acceptable and maybe Gary Hamilton has his eyes on the main job somewhere else soon.
Coleraine 1-0 Cliftonville
A Sky Sports live showing on Monday evening was of the other two teams that are in with a title shot. The win for the Bannsiders moved them into third place and left Cliftonville in fifth. I am not getting Paddy McLaughlin’s thinking. He has brought in Michael McCrudden and seems to be trying to force him into the team. Joe Gormley is playing through the middle where he should be playing. Rory Donnelly has been pushed wide, and McCrudden has also moved out wide. It does not look a good shape, but it might work in the long run, but the long run could cost them the league.
The match was won in the 72nd minute by young 18-year-old Alex Gawne. Call it a cross, or a shoot, it really doesn’t matter as it caught out the Reds’ keeper Richard Brush. Brush has been in great form for the Reds this season but didn’t get this one right.
Carrick Rangers 1-2 Warrenpoint Town
Talk about a snatch and grab. Carrick fans will probably have been out of the ground and into the nearest bar not even considering injury-time would change the game so drastically. Only to wake up on Sunday morning to find out they actually lost 2-1 with the league’s bottom-placed club, Point, winning this encounter with two injury-time goals. The Point needed the points and with Stute’s loss, they closed the gap at the bottom to two.
Carrick went in front 20 minutes in. Caolon Loughran scoring from the penalty spot. But all the drama was saved for injury time in this one. The fourth minute of injury time was time for Point to come alive. A penalty was awarded and top marksman Alan O’Sullivan converted it. Almost immediately after they took the lead. 95th minutes to be precise. New signing Ryan Swan heading home to claim all three points.
Dungannon Swifts 2-0 Institute
Institute really need to turn their fortunes around or they will be looking up at the rest of the league as they drop down to the next level. Another defeat and more points dropped. Second-half goals from Dylan King and Douglas Wilson from the spot were enough to give the Swifts all three points.