Only in Northern Ireland could the above heading have politicians, football fans and nervous grouse up on their hind legs. However it is the beautiful, rather than feathered game we refer to and it is indeed football fans who should be straining the most as the new season comes into view on Saturday 12th August. It should be noted however that Ballymena United actually kick off this evening against Crusaders on their own eleventh night preliminary.
So what awaits? In many cases, questions thrown up from last season remain to be answered and like every summer break, new faces and aspirations hold hopes that will never be as shiny and bushy -tailed as this week. Things that strike me at a surface glance. Has the recent North Belfast hegemony been interrupted just for one season or are Linfield back with a vengeance? Will the increased competitiveness of many teams in the league continue to result in increased crowds and profile? What sort of return will Joe Gormley make to the Irish League? Will the return of Sky to the local game be blessed with the last season’s average of three goals every game? Fascinating questions and soon to be answered.
So we will have a look at how things might unfold. Last season’s double winners Linfield deserve massive credit for their eventual trophy haul. It is one thing having the players and the ability, but the mental strength and determination shown to achieve all this was indeed something special. This will stand them in good stead as will their head start in Europe where they appear to have seamlessly picked up from the end of last season. Clever and natural replacements in defence, midfield and attack in the form of Josh Robinson, Andy Mitchell (Crusaders), Robert Garrett and Jordan Stewart will keep everything well oiled. Andy Waterworth’s ten week injury will certainly hamper their start and Linfield generally are slow starters but they should be there or thereabouts at the end. David Healy has not only infused the club again with the winners’ mentality but has shown managerial nous in all facets of the job. Whoever finishes above Linfield will win the League.
Prediction – Champions
Crusaders will be itching for this season to start if only to eradicate the memory of last April. Much has been written about lack of defensive cover and leadership in Colin Coates’ absence, but manager Stephen Baxter will be anxious to ensure that his team were not guilty of lack of hunger or complacency and also to ensure that teams have not worked out how to play them. Sean Ward, Mark McAllister and Mark McChrystal offer experience and positional back up in obvious areas and it will be interesting to see how Jamie Glackin performs towards the iron sights of the league. Some may feel that if Jordan Owens gets injured there may be problems but Crusaders can pass it as well as launch it and have four of five attacking players who can mix it all up. They will have learned from last season and like Linfield have an early season key injury in Sean O’ Neill but Brian Jensen is a welcome back-up.
Prediction – Second and League Cup
Just up the hill Cliftonville will find much scrutiny on them with a new manager and the return of Joe ‘The Goal’ Gormley. A club that unsurprisingly lost their way a little bit with the consecutive losses of Liam Boyce, manager Tommy Breslin and Joe Gormley they still have a more than major platform to provide a challenge . Barry Gray has shown his ambition to step on from essentially being Mr. Warrenpoint and he will be glad to reunite with Daniel Hughes. Last year I felt that Cliftonville weren’t sure of their best team and indeed Barry needs to ensure his team gels well both in central defence and up front. Gormley has a big season ahead of him not only in goal expectation but also in his return to the Irish League. I believe his goals though will return the Irish Cup.
Prediction – Third and Irish Cup
County Armagh now has only one senior representative and many expect Andy Mitchell to make a difference to Glenavon. Like Cliftonville last season, the team drifted a bit but Gary Hamilton has recognised this and has freshened up the team somewhat though numbers squad wise, could hold them back. Strong interest will be on Andy Mitchell as hopes are on him to be the factor to put the club into challenger mode. He is very much more the finished article now since the last time he inhabited these parts. Sammy Clingan is a shrewd addition and provided he stays injury free can put his foot on the ball and provide strategic on field leadership. Assuming Kris Lindsay’s move to the coaching bench is not a manhole and Joel Cooper fires well for Mitchell, I believe we will see a steadier more resurgent Glenavon.
Prediction – Fourth
Ballymena United were the breath of fresh air that the league welcomed so warmly last year. Many thought that they might be the piece of Antrim escarpment that David Jeffrey might have foundered on but we should have known better. The whole town and club is a quivering hub of anticipation and aspiration and why not with the very recent history. Having won the League Cup David Jeffrey is not a man who will let anything go backwards and I don’t believe he will, but this season might just need to be a season to steady and draw breath before a further sustainable move upwards is possible. Aside from seeing Michael Gault and Stephen McAlorum as team mates, there will be interest to see if a new defence comprising Emmet Friars, Andrew Burns and Stephen McCullough can reduce the amount of goals that flew into the Ballymena net last season. Their first match of the season at home to Crusaders will be one very interesting match.
Prediction – Fifth
Similar to Ballymena, Coleraine are a club who may have to take stock after the steady and pugnacious drive to third last season. But I feel that push has taken a lot out of them and they will badly feel the early season injuries to key personnel, most notably striker James McGlaughlin. Oran Kearney is the ideal man to steer them through difficult times but I see a difficult start to the season for them. The fans in particular need to keep the faith at this time and provided they do I expect them to recover to a mid – table position. Whilst this would be a drop of three places for the club they will continue to be a force and should be in a stronger place to push on next season, especially with the young team gaining much more sustainable experience.
This is one very big season looming for fallen giants Glentoran. Decay and negativity hang over the club like the two Harland and Wolff cranes but I do expect something from them this season. Gary Haveron has gone some way to energising the side, mainly across the front six and they certainly will now have more pace which was painfully lacking in recent seasons. Corey McMullan and John McGuigan who were probably the two best players in the Championship really have to provide forward thrust, and this youthful exuberance I expect will provide some traction. However, questions remain in central defence and who else can provide goals besides Curtis Allen. An on field leader needs to emerge but I believe they should improve on last season’s ninth simply because they really have to. Their first batch of games have winnable points and unless they hit the ground running, it could be a long season again.
Prediction – Seventh
Like Gary Haveron this will be Ards manager Colin Nixon’s first full season with something resembling his own team. He has half a dozen new signings in all areas but whose main job as far as I can see is to consolidate further up in the midst of the Premiership. The club’s major battle is still off pitch with the search for a new stadium and the club, manager and fans should make the most of this to push on without undue pressure. Of course middling aspirations are not the stuff of dreams but Nixon is a steady hand and will recognise that incremental growth is what the club needs. Jonny’s Frazer’s pace will be a useful tool in their quest to climb the ladder.
Prediction – Eighth
Many still feel Ballinamallard United are still punching above their weight but they are now nearly half a dozen seasons a Premiership side and good value for it. They are a very welcome western anchor to the league and for me show little few signs of relinquishing that. However, it is hard to see them pushing on and I do feel they will miss the sharp play and poaching of Ryan Mayse following his departure to Dungannon. Richard Clarke is the very man to steady the on field ship following his prodigal return to the county and along with Ciaran Martyn will provide great experience and stability. Manager Gavin Dykes will continue to maintain the fine seeds Whitey Anderson has sown for the club. Their first match at home to Glentoran has more than three points attached to it figuratively for both clubs. I expect a tougher season for them but no need for panic.
Prediction – Ninth
Dungannon Swifts will surely receive a harder Premiership buffeting without Jamie Glackin, Andrew Burns and Andy Mitchell. Over twenty goals for any club is hard to replace but Mitchell affected the whole way the team played and he will be sorely missed. They will still be a tough nut to crack at Stangmore and Rodney McAree will have planned for this season but east Tyrone will be a harder station this time round.
Prediction – Tenth
It is hard to see past another dogfight between Carrick and Warrenpoint for the last two slots. Warrenpoint in their second tilt at the Premiership will have learned a lot last time around. In Matthew Tipton they have a bright and enthusiastic manager who has been busy since his playing retirement learning his managerial trade. The loss of McGuigan will bite but it just may be that the combination of Darren Murray and Conor McMenamin will spark and be enough just to keep their nose ahead of Carrick.
Prediction – Eleventh
Sadly for Carrick I fear that their residence in the top flight will hit the wall this year. David McAlinden has moved down the Antrim coast but he is in choppier waters and I just can’t see the goals for coming or the goals against ceasing this time round. Seasoned heads like Gavin Taggart and Denver Gage will need to use their experience to help bed in returnees from England and lower league players. These include Dale Malone and Andy Mooney up from the Championship to score the goals. The team has been pilfered these last few seasons and it may cost them this time round.