NIFL Championship

An interesting season indeed in the Irish League featuring names as diverse as Ballinamallard and Iran. The one just passed provided plenty of interest and certainly did its job in providing anticipation for the next one. If we look at the Premiership as that awful word ‘product’ then it has worked well. Improved crowds and counting, a decent fight for the Premiership title, the emergence of Ballymena as a force to shake it up at the top end, and a dogfight and a half at the bottom end. Cliftonville, Coleraine, and Glentoran all added their own dash of particular seasoning. In short, it wasn’t dull.

Some thoughts then on the clubs involved in no particular order.

Coleraine
A season in which the team that started the season was nothing like the team that ended it. This applied to management too. In essence, the quick demise of the successful 2018 Cup winners was recognition of their success with manager Kearney, midfielder Lyons and winger McAuley all off to pastures Scottish. Sensible fans and sensible club direction have kept the ship sailing straight enough but they very much need to reboot following the departure of second manager McAree which never seemed to quite ring true.  Support and planning are needed though to maintain their mojo but they will look back on that Cliftonville play-off with rueful and angry eyes.

Institute
Another club with a new manager but they have to be very pleased with their season. The Michael McCrudden business was an unnecessary carry-on but they coped with that and also the loss of their manager Paddy McLaughlin to Cliftonville. That says a lot about the stability of the club and the ability of their players and that should be no surprise following the demands of the season before this. They have settled well into the Brandywell too and it’s not an easy place to pick up points.

Crusaders
It has to be considered a successful season with two trophies collected and a place in Europe. This against the backdrop of a move towards full-time football which is not an easy thing to manage smoothly in the Irish League. To be able to continue the ‘project’ whilst collecting trophies shows the correct building blocks are in place to continue forging ahead. The manager will have learned much from the fractured league campaign. The Crusaders cup run showed that they are still as much a force as anybody when they want to be.

Newry
Yes, relegation but Darren Mullen’s final post-match interview nailed it correctly when he stated that they were almost ahead of ‘plan schedule’ being in the Premiership.  They will be the better for the experience though a solid run of defeats did them no good. Morale and mood won’t be dented too much and they should be a force next season in the Championship. In any other scenario, Mullen might be a wanted man but he is such a part of the rise of Newry so that is hard to see. The club’s continued wellbeing will stay healthy as long as he is there.

Linfield.
Credit all round on several fronts but primarily to Linfield manager Healy who pulled this one from the depths of last season’s despair. On the pitch, the iron gates of Callacher and Robinson were the blocks that continued the spine of Carroll, Mulgrew, and Waterworth. Excellent recruitment in the summer paid off too as Kearns, Cooper, O’Connor and latterly McClean played their part but Jordan Stewart put several years of on and off-field frustration behind him to be the winning catalyst. Massive credit to him for that and a mention to the patient Gareth Deane who saw the team over the line. Worthy champions.

Dungannon Swifts
At one point they looked plausible European play-off candidates and the arrival of Kris Lindsay is one very comfortable fit. Rallied well after an average start but they should have a lot of confidence now that they belong comfortably in these environs. Capable of beating anyone on their day but stringing a load of games together needs to happen. Their New Year’s Day win away at Glentoran was probably their highlight of the season but they may well have swapped that for the post-split negative result against the Glens or perhaps the Cup result v Ballinamallard. Incremental steps are the way forward and provided they can hold onto the core players and their manager this is entirely likely.

Warrenpoint Town
An excellent season for the South Down men astutely managed and motivated by Stephen McDonnell. Erratic occasionally and lost focus towards the end of the season but in playing decent football, reaching the Irish Cup semis and avoiding relegation, they have performed wonders despite meagre resources. Keeping McDonnell could be their next major challenge but were major players in keeping the bottom six anything but a walk in the park.

Ballymena United
The surprise packet of the league is a reasonable way to describe the Braidmen this season. Whilst people could see and believe David Jeffrey was building a project few expected such a leap of forward motion so quickly, and perhaps neither did he. To maintain pressure on winning the league to within a month or so of its finale was a great feat and the club as revitalised itself massively. Jonny Addis, Steven McCullough, Adam Lecky, and Leroy Millar made big playing statements and with more judicious buying this summer,  it will be interesting to see how they do next year with this season’s experience under their belt.

Ards
Injuries and a certain degree of bad luck bedevilled the team early on and a lack of goals throughout maintained the rough ride. Sam Johnston between penalty saves and the more regular ones did more than anyone perhaps to keep the Scrabo badge above the waterline. Joshua Kelly’s consistency in midfield and some important goals from Mark McClellan more than contributed to the push for safety. There is no doubt a different voice directing in Warren Feeney nearly worked but the play-off against Carrick was to be a step too far.

Glenavon
A fine start got stuck in the mud a bit and if truth be told they never got themselves completely free of it. That could and might suggest a squib of a season depending who you talk to but the SS Glenavon still continues on its voyage. Helped by constant youthful throughput and a manager who keeps a calm and sensible grip on not just the team but the club, the main disappointment is missing out on Europe. But with a sensible core of players able to withstand colleagues moving from the club, they will still be a force and just need to make that final jump. Still, question marks do persist about a lot of one-off important games and their mentality surrounding them.

Cliftonville
Ultimately a decent season for them with European qualification. The sort of season though which would have exhausted their followers. The dressing room dynamic with Barry Gray finally collapsed and the steady sense of Paddy McLaughlin not only solidified a leaky defence, but reaffirmed belief which let the team’s class seep through once more. Massive statement from the team in the last week of the season with Conor McMenamin broadcasting it loudest. Expect a stronger challenge from them next season.

Glentoran
Three managers in a colourful season but unfortunately some of the colour was on the pitch where the overriding mood was black, and the cards were red. Their last two matches were against Glenavon and Cliftonville – two clubs which in some way crystallised Glentoran’s season. The  Glenavon match in October where they had three players sent off sent them on a wave of self-pity and poor discipline for several months. Their playoff match against the same team showed what they can achieve when they focus. The number of last-minute goals conceded against Cliftonville, right up to last week’s play-off highlighted the mental haunting. The lack of defensive concentration in the team continued right to the end. The story now moves off the pitch however where green envious eyes could be the next colour.