Here we are at the conclusion of the 2017/18 Danske Bank Premiership season and we stand face to face with a peculiar situation. It’s not unusual to see a title race go to the wire, or to see teams battle it out against relegation on the final day – it’s not unheard of for both the title and relegation to still be decided on the final day. The state of play in the league is exactly this but with the title challengers and relegation battlers tying for points on 88 and 20 respectively with five out of the six fixtures potentially impacting on the title’s destination, European qualification places and relegation.
It seems most appropriate to start at the top. For a large part of last Saturday it appeared that neither Crusaders or Coleraine wanted to get one hand on the Gibson Cup, both teams having to fight back from the clutches of defeat to secure vital draws. Paul Heatley’s strike for Crusaders rescued a point against North Belfast rivals Cliftonville after a Joe Gormley wonderstrike. Meanwhile, Darren McCauley helped Coleraine fight back from a first-half two-goal deficit against Linfield at Windsor Park.
Somehow “A26 Saturday” doesn’t quite have the dramatic ring to befit a final day title chase but that is the stretch of road that the Gibson Cup may have to make its twists and turns on as it awaits the full time destination: Mid-Antrim or Mid-Ulster? Crusaders travel to Ballymena for their final show of the season as they look to equal their title-winning point tally of 91 from the 2015/16 season. Coleraine will be leaving their Bannside home to take on Glenavon at Mourneview Park in search of their first top flight league title since 1973/74.
If both sides were to match results and finish the season tied for points then the decision would be made according to Goal Difference in the first instance, an area in which Crusaders hold a +22 advantage over their title rivals.
Chase for Europe
Ballymena’s final league position will be unchanged by 5pm regardless of any results and as such their primary focus will then switch to the upcoming European playoffs. A victory for Ballymena over Crusaders could well hand the title to their rivals Coleraine, however, manager David Jeffrey is never one you would expect to rest on his laurels and I’d expect a strong showing from Ballymena in their final league fixture of the season.
Earlier in the season Glenavon were amongst the title-chasing pack but have now fallen back to 3rd place. All is not lost, however, as 3rd place would be an open door into Europe if Coleraine win next week’s Irish Cup final. Glenavon will have to contend with a strong Coleraine side looking to grasp their league title chances while also keeping an eye on Linfield who are just a point behind them in 4th.
Linfield host Cliftonville at Windsor Park as they attempt to sneak their way into 3rd place. Cliftonville may well have their sights on the bigger picture of their Irish Cup final. It’s a classic case of Irish League Permutations as Linfield beating Cliftonville will do them no great deed if Cliftonville go on to beat Coleraine in the Irish Cup.
Ballinamallard’s slip against Ards handed Carrick a lifeline in the battle against the drop. With both clubs level on 20 points the decision may well come down to Goal Difference, of which Carrick hold the advantage by 5 goals.
Glentoran are assured of their spot in the European Playoff but will be mindful of the ever-growing discontent in the stands following another dismal result last week – giving up a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 to Carrick Rangers. Ballinamallard will be hoping for a last push over the line to grant them a place in the relegation playoff rather than taking the automatic drop.
Carrick’s fightback against Glentoran was the trademark sign of a squad that isn’t ready to give up just yet. McAlinden’s side know they have the fallback of Goal Difference on their side, for which they’ll simply have to match Ballinamallard’s result. Their opponents Warrenpoint are confirmed in 10th place regardless of the outcome of the final day.
Ards and Dungannon is the only fixture which has no wider consequence for anyone else in the league. This match comes down to a straight shootout for 7th place as both clubs go through the final day motions and look ahead to preparations for next season.