I have been away for a week and have a lot to catch up on and a few talking points to cover. But straight away I reach out and congratulate both Linfield and Crusaders. The Blues have put themselves in prime position to qualify for the next round of Europa League Qualifiers. The Crues went to Molineux, the home of Premier League outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers, and put in a wonderfully disciplined performance in defeat.
Now going back to the age-old debate of summer football. Will it help in furthering the clubs in Europe? Well, let’s look at it. Crusaders and Ballymena have both knocked out teams from the Faroe Islands. Linfield are in prime position to knock out another team from there. The clubs they have just beaten are in the middle of their league… A summer league. Maybe it is just the standard in that league but summer football has not helped them.
I firmly have come to the decision that without full-time football the Irish League clubs will not make any impact in Europe, with summer football or not. Players need to be training daily with each other. If anybody wants to question me just watch this space this year and see how Larne will dominate games against teams. A lot of fans and clubs have written Larne off. All I can say is watch this space because they are going to be right in the mix from the start.
Another issue that has been raised this week is the ever-increasing use of agents within the Irish League. I get it the league wants to push on, and there are some teams operating in a full-time capacity, but the league is a part-time league. There is not a lot of money around. Players, for what they are paid, should be able to look after themselves when moving around like they always have done. But it’s the old age problem. Teams fall into the money, players want to cash in. They end up then waiting in the wings when the pound signs kick in. Are the agents looking for a cut and seeing an opportunity? Players will always be looked after but the money we are talking with wages and transfer fees is low and not on a par with the rest of the UK.
So, after losing out to Rosenborg 2-0 at home and 4-0 away in the European Champions League Qualifier the Blues dropped down into the Qualifiers of the Europa League where they travelled to the Faroe Islands to take on HB Torshavn. HB sit fifth in the respective league after 15 games, one place behind B36 Torshavn (who the Crues knocked out in the last round). The Blues came away with a very good 2-2 draw with Andrew Waterworth scoring late on for the Blues. It puts them in a very good position for the second leg.
After defeating B36 Torshavn, Crues were drawn against Premier League outfit Wolves and came away with what can only be described as a very respectful score, even if it was a 2-0 defeat. The Crues train two mornings and two evenings a week. Wolves are a professional set up and their wage bill goes up over the £70 million mark in a season. Playing in front of 25,000 plus fans will be an experience most Crues players will never see again.
Stephen Baxter had his team drilled and it showed. They frustrated Wolves and made them work for the win. The Crues started with five at the back and defensively that is how to contain teams. But on the offensive Baxter had the players that could break away and hurt you. A special mention has to go out to Jarlath O’Rourke who for 90 mins was taken on time after time by Adama Traore. He got up time and time again, kept going and never give up against one of the fastest players within the English Premier League. I hope he does not go into a rotation system under Baxter who has Michael Ruddy and Rodney Brown also fighting for that position. Colin Coates is back from his annual holiday and will be trying to break back into the team. I think he will be warming the bench after that fantastic display by the lads at the back.
Cliftonville and Ballymena United both went out of the Europa League to in fairness top-class opposition. The Sky Blues went down 4-0 away to Malmo of Sweden and the Reds went down 5-1 away to Norwegian outfit Haugesund. Two really hard ties and David Jeffery was full of nothing but praise on the class of Malmo.
The Blues this week signed keeper Rohan Ferguson on a season-long loan from Scottish Premiership side Motherwell. Ferguson started in the European game and on the reports of that game he will be a very welcome addition to the team.
Fra Nolan has been shipped out by the Sky Blues to Ballyclare Comrades on a season-long loan to get some valuable game time.
Glenavon have this week signed 23-year-old Tommy Cooney on a one-year deal. It’s reported that he turned down full-time football in Sweden to sign for the Lurgan Blues. The Galway lad has had spells at Brentford, Morecombe as well as a short spell in Australia. James Singletonthis week signed a contract extension to keep him at Mournview Park for another 4 years. While there has also been a lot of speculation about Rhys Marshall this week. It is rumoured that the Lurgan Blues have put a £50k price tag on his head to warn off other Irish League clubs. They have turned down two bids from Larne with the highest bid being £20k. Might be an interesting week with this one.
Michael Carvill has been released from Crusaders and has signed a one-year contract at Dungannon Swifts, where he spent the second half of last season on loan. This was probably the best choice for the player – going back to continue where he finished off last season.
A great week for the Irish League and this week will see the return legs of both the European games. Seaview will be a sell-out and the Crues are in for a cash windfall from it. Good luck to both clubs. Go out with your heads held high and put not just yourselves but your clubs and the league on the map.