Unfortunately all but one Championship match was called off last weekend due to the heavy snow that fell across Northern Ireland on Thursday night and into Friday, so with the lack of matches and the upcoming league split we thought it would be an ideal time to take a look at the league so far.
Leading the pack at this stage of the season is Clifford Adams Ballyclare side, the Comrades are six points clear in top place and are also the team to watch if you want to see goals this season as they’ve scored four goals or more in no fewer than five games in all competitions this season and have scored 40 league goals this season, more than any other Championship team. Following behind Ballyclare is north-west side Institute, being managed for the first time this season by their former player Paddy McLaughlin. Stute have put a torrid season off the pitch to one side and are doing a good job of keeping pace with Ballyclare at the top, their currently 6 points behind the table toppers but have played three games less and the two sides face off this Saturday and will in all likelihood meet twice more after the league splits into two halves.
Not far off the top two in 3rd place we have Newry City, having gone out of existence in 2012 Newry reformed and have soared back through the divisions and the success story doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. After a slow start to the season, Darren Mullen’s men have went on a ten game unbeaten run, seven of those games resulting in wins, and last tasted defeat win they lost 1-0 away to Institute in September. At the moment Newry are well placed to secure a place in the top half and if they can continue their great current run of form until the split and can pick up some results afterwards there’s no reason City fans can’t start dreaming about yet another promotion.
Completing the rest of the top half from 4th-6th there is H&W Welders, Loughgall and Limavady United. At this stage all three of these sides will be quietly pleased to be sitting in the top half but all three may be wondering where they could be sitting, as they have all struggled for consistency at times. The Welders will be frustrated to have lost points from winning positions on a number of occasions this season and despite getting positive results against the likes of Institute above them have also dropped points against some of the teams lying below them in the table this season such as Lurgan Celtic, Dergview and Portadown and may feel they should have gotten more from those matches. Loughgall meanwhile have played 16 league games this season drawing one of those, winning seven and losing eight. Chasing close behind them is last season’s other newly promoted side Limavady, the Roesiders recently enjoyed a lengthy good run of form of their own but have now lost two in a row against league leaders Ballyclare. Those defeats leave United in 6th place and would possibly rule them out of the promotion chase at this stage but if you’d told most United fans they’d currently be sitting in the top half they’d have likely taken that. Of course one big boost to finishing in the top half of the table is that while perhaps not in the running for promotion you are guaranteed to be safe from relegation.
Moving into the bottom half of the table and topping that section is Knockbreda, it’s been a first half of the season of two halves for Breda as they got off to a great start going unbeaten in their first nine league games, winning 7 of these games, and topped the table at one point but have since won only one game in their last seven and have begun to slide down the table and now sit closer to the relegation spots than the promotion ones. Breda will look at most, if not all, their fixtures leading up to the split as winnable and need to get some points on the board ASAP before they fall closer to the bottom of the table.
In 8th place you’ll find most people’s pre-season title favourites Portadown, who like most teams around the middle of the table seem to take one step forwards and two steps back this season. They do however have some favourable fixtures coming up against some other bottom half teams and could still launch an assault on the top half of the table but it would appear that at this stage any hopes of promotion are a bridge too far. Level on points with Portadown is PSNI who are behind in 9th place on goal difference, there’s been some changes in the dugout at PSNI within the last few days with assistant manager and former manager James Kirk moving on after 5 years at the club and coming in in his place is Colin Malone, who joins the club as joint manager alongside Ian Campbell. Malone comes with great experience to his name having had two spells as manager of Glenavon and is also no stranger to Championship football having managed Armagh, Banbridge, Loughgall and Lurgan Celtic, getting promoted to the Premiership with the former in 2004/05, and PSNI will be hoping his experience and contacts in the game can help move the club further up the table away from the danger zone.
Next up in 10th and 11th place respectively is Dergview and Larne. Both these sides have identical records having played sixteen, won three, drawn six and lost seven. Both sides do have tough runs coming into the split with most of their matches being against teams who are already sitting in the top half but they have proven they can pull results out of the bag when needed, though I suspect top half may be out of reach for both teams. Larne are a team many neutrals in Northern Ireland are keeping their eye on as, after a woeful start to the season, they have recently been taken off by a millionaire investor and have managed to pull a few results together to move off the bottom. They have also made some big signings in the shape of former Premiership players like Conor Devlin, David McDaid and Martin Donnelly among others. Some had even wondered if Larne could make a surge for promotion but sadly due to their poor start that would seem to be a bridge to far and as I said I think even a top half finish will be a tough ask for the club but I would expect them to be safe from relegation and hopefully they can push on next season, after the last number of years they’ve had Larne fans do deserve some success.
Finally propping up the table is Lurgan Celtic, Brendan Shannon had promising start to life as Lurgan Celtic manager as the team won three of their first four league games but since beating PSNI on the 2nd September they haven’t been able to buy a win and have fallen down the table. The big probably as Celtic doesn’t seem to so much be scoring goals but keeping them out, they’ve scored more goals than all the other sides in the bottom half with the exception of Portadown but no team has conceded more than the Lurgan men. Celtic will be desperate to get some points on the board between now and the split to ensure they don’t get cut adrift.
Weather permitting The Championship returns to action this Saturday with a full programme of fixtures, in the meantime we’ll be back tomorrow to look at this Saturday’s sole Championship game and tonight’s Premier Intermediate League game.