Last weeks arctic conditions meant scores of amateur footballers across the country woke up on Saturday morning knowing there would be no need for their boots, and so it proved with the entire Intermediate programme postponed across the four leagues.
So with no games to look at this week, we decided to take the chance to have a close look at the standings so far, and what to look out for as we enter the run-in. With ten of the top teams in the country vying for the chance to join the highest level of Intermediate football next season, there will be plenty of twists and turns over the next number of weeks.
As we know, the NAFL is the only one of the four leagues whose members have not made any approaches to join the Premier Intermediate League, but the race for the title is proving to be a fascinating one. Last season champions Crumlin Star have been going about their business steadily, and their progress in a number of cup competitions has meant that they are a massive ten games behind the leaders East Belfast, but just 16 points off the summit.
Also coming up the rails are Rathfriland, and, like Star, Aaron Blacks men have ten games in hand as they sit a further two points back. Just a few weeks ago they really laid down a marker as they hammered Crumlin Star 6-3 on their own patch. East Belfast meanwhile are having an excellent campaign having been promoted as 1A champions, and they have been there or thereabouts since day one. They currently sit on 41 points, 14 ahead of second-placed 1st Bangor OB, who themselves only missed out on the 1A title last season on goal difference to the East Park men.
On to the BPIL now, and the league which provides the highest number of applicants for the PIL. Five sides have put their names forward for the promotion playoff, with the most recent side to drop out of the PIL, Bangor, one of those. The Seasiders are in the driving seat at this stage, leading the division after 16 games. After a shaky start as they came to terms with life outside the Irish League stage, Bangor have found their feet and are in good form as the season heads towards the finish line.
Coagh United are no strangers to the NIFL either, having been cut from the division upon the 2016 shake up which led to the PIL being formed. In their first season in the BPIL they romped to the title ahead of the now-defunct Wakehurst and fellow former Championship Two side Glebe Rangers. Coagh sit in third this season, nine points behind Bangor, and although they have a game in hand, they will have their work cut out to make it back to back titles.
Glebe meanwhile are right in the mix, despite being eleven points behind Bangor. Much like Crumlin Star, Glebe have seen extended cup runs take preference over their league campaign, and they will look to bridge that gap in the six games they have in hand. Glebe spent ten years in the Irish League from the 2005/06 season before the rejig in 2016, and will look to get the chance to rejoin the ranks with a title win come May.
The remaining two teams who expressed an interest in promotion were Brantwood and Sofia Farm. Two clubs with very different histories, however both look like they will miss out on the chance of a playoff place at this stage. Brantwood need no introduction to anyone, as one of the most decorated clubs in Intermediate Football history, with 9 Steel & Sons Cups and 4 Intermediate Cups among a host of honours the Brants have won. Opting out of national Intermediate competition in 2009, Brantwood joined the BPIL and have since picked up two titles. This season however they sit third from bottom of a division that has become much more competitive in the last few seasons with the additions of so many former Irish League sides.
Sofia meanwhile are only in their third season in existence, as the largely Portuguese speaking side were entered into the BPIL in time for the 2015/16 season. But their first season saw them established as the whipping boys of the division, conceding an average of over 7 goals a game as they ended up with only two points at the seasons end. In their second season they gradually found their feet as they welcomed a series of signings from Portugal and ended the season in a respectable mid-season position. This season began well for the side, but a mid season wobble derailed their hopes as one win in 6 league games has left them in mid table.
The side who could throw a spanner in the works of all the sides with ambitions of promotions are St.James Swifts. The Belfast boys are having a fine first season at Intermediate level, as they continue to build a club very much in its infancy. They too have enjoyed runs deep into a number of cup competitions, and now find themselves with three games in hand on Bangor and just five points behind them. Without doubt promotion into the Irish League set up is something this club will have their eye on in the future, but for now a chase for an Intermediate title will make this an enjoyable few months for the Swifts whatever happens.
To Mid Ulster now, and a very competitive top flight which looks set to go all the way to the wire. Dollingstown, Crewe United and Banbridge Rangers are all in the mix for the title and the playoff place that comes with it, and fittingly the sides make up the divisions top three. The Dolly Birds are the leaders with 44 points notched up from their 19 games to date. Another side which dropped out of the Irish League in the 2016 shake up, the Planters Park side are the leagues top scorers with 56 goals and they will look to that firepower to keep them at the top ahead of their nearest rivals.
Both Crewe and Banbridge, however, have games in hand on the leaders, with Crewe three games behind and Banbridge five. Crewe have racked up 37 points from their 16 games, while Banbridge looking ominous on 34 points from just 14 games. With Dollingstown in Marshall Cup action this weekend both sides will look to claw back ground as they host mid-table sides Tandragee Rovers and Fivemiletown Utd respectively.
The NI Intermediate League is the division which provided the PIL with its most recent ‘new’ side, as Portstewart powered their way to a quick return to the Irish League after they also failed to make the cut for the inaugural PIL season. The Seahaven men won the treble before seeing off Mid Ulster champions Dollingstown across a two-legged playoff, securing promotion with a 3-0 home win.
This season sees league new boys Magherafelt Sky Blues leading the way, but the two sides who have applied for the playoff place remain well in contention at this stage of the season. Strabane Athletic sit in second place, and although they have two games in hand on the Sky Blues, they are ten points behind the leaders, so will be relying on favours from elsewhere to make the top spot their own.
Maiden City meanwhile are back in fourth place, behind Ardstraw, but much like those teams mentioned above their progress in the cups has seen their league campaign left on the back burner. They are currently 15 points off the leaders but crucially have five games in hand and still have to travel to Spires Park in the penultimate game of the season.
With a pick up in the weather conditions this week, here’s hoping for a full programme of Intermediate football this Saturday as the race for promotion also heats up.