League action returns at last when the Premier Intermediate League (PIL) kicks off on Saturday! Well at least for some teams, County Antrim based teams will be taking part in the first round of the Steel & Sons Cup meaning that only three out of six league matches will take place on Saturday; recently relegated Annagh and Armagh are at home to Tobermore and newly promoted Portstewart respectively and in Saturday’s other match Moyola Park host Banbridge. Those teams not playing on Saturday in the league will catch up on Tuesday, Donegal Celtic v Dundela and Sport & Leisure Swifts v Queens University, and Wednesday, Newington v Lisburn Distillery.
The PIL last season was incredibly tight, in the end Limavady finished top and were comfortably ten points clear of second placed Newry but only 19 points separated 2nd placed Newry and bottom placed Bangor and even more incredibly only 7 points separated the bottom 7 teams in the division. To show how tight the league was relegated Bangor looked to be sitting comfortably in the top half of the table a month before the season end and then went on a woeful run of form before going down on the last game of the season.The PIL can be an almost impossible league to predict with any team being capable of beating any team on their day but if I had to call a league winner at this stage and look towards Donegal Celtic (DC). In 2015/16 DC had problems both on and off the pitch before eventually suffering relegation and many, including myself, expected these problems to carry on last season but DC started like a house on fire and at one point looked like running away with the league. The tailed off in the second half of the season but after strengthening their panel over the summer they will be confident that this year they can go all the way. Experienced striker Stephen O’Flynn has also joined the club after being released by Premiership side Glentoran and if he can stay injury free you would back him to score goals and be a key player for DC.
The PIL can be an almost impossible league to predict with any team being capable of beating any team on their day but if I had to call a league winner at this stage and look towards Donegal Celtic (DC). In 2015/16 DC had problems both on and off the pitch before eventually suffering relegation and many, including myself, expected these problems to carry on last season but DC started like a house on fire and at one point looked like running away with the league. The tailed off in the second half of the season but after strengthening their panel over the summer they will be confident that this year they can go all the way. Experienced striker Stephen O’Flynn has also joined the club after being released by Premiership side Glentoran and if he can stay injury free you would back him to score goals and be a key player for DC.
Other teams to potentially watch out for could be the likes of Banbridge who similarly to DC started strongly before falling away in the second half of the season, Dundela who were the exact opposite, having a poor first half of the season spending much of it in the bottom couple of places but were boosted by their run to the final of the Steel & Sons Cup and ending in 7th. The Duns lost a number of players over the summer but have been able to bring in more than capable replacements; Jay Magee, in particular, could be a strong signing.
My own team Lisburn Distillery struggled with consistency the first half of last season and failed to win more than one game in a row until December, a great run of form from mid-December until February had seen some Whites fans daring to dream of promotion before a terrible run of form saw most of us just happy to stay up. Two relegations in the space of four years has seen a high player turnover in recent years at the Whites, at the start of last season the Whites literally started with an entirely new playing squad. This year, however, we have managed to keep most of our key players together which will mean we go into the season with a mostly settled and familiar squad, this will no doubt help and the consensus so far being that the new signing made will be an improvement on any departures, Gary Workman, Connor Corry and Matthew Ferguson have particularly caught the eye in pre-season.
Another problem the Whites faced last season was too many goals conceded and not enough going in at the other end but hopefully, new signing Connor Corry and the returns of Barry Moore and William Wharry will help cut out the mistakes at the back. At the other end new signings William Cushley, when fit again and Matthew Ferguson will hopefully add more goals to the team but it is one of last season’s less regularly featured players Nick Beta who has caught the eye in pre-season and hopefully he will be pushing for a more regular starting spot this time around. If the Whites can improve on these areas they can be confidant of at least a top half finish (in my unbiased opinion of course).
It will be interesting to see how newly promoted Portstewart fare this season, more often than not newly promoted sides are automatically tipped to finish in and around the bottom end of the table but the Seahawks come into this season on the back of not only winning their league last season but only losing one game in the process so will come into the season on the crest of a wave, they’ve also managed to keep much of their title winning squad together and could fare much better than some may think. Sport & Leisure are another team that could raise a few eyebrows, they spent much of last season at the foot of the table and looked certain for relegation but some big wins in the second half of the season was enough to keep them up on the last day of the season. After last season it’s hard to forget that in recent years Sport & Leisure were one of the top teams in the division finishing in the top three or four places in the league and will be hoping to prove last season was just a blip, they also have an experienced manager in the shape of Pat McAllister.
It’s been all change at Armagh City, following relegation at the end of last season their long serving manager Marty Rice resigned his position and was followed out of the club by senior players in the shape of John Connolly and Dale Montgomery. The Armagh board announced a familiar face as the new manager in the shape of former City youth coach Joe Kerr who has decided to stick with what he knows and put together a youthful looking squad, whether this is a gamble that pays off in the rough and tumble of the PIL will remain to be seen.
The remaining teams in the division; Tobermore, Moyola Park, Queens University and Annagh United and Newington are of course all teams who will be capable of beating anyone on their day and will more than play their part in what is sure to be another topsy turvy season in the Premier Intermediate League.
Roll on Saturday/Tuesday/Wednesday (delete as applicable).