Most football in Northern Ireland fell victim to the Beast from the East on Saturday with the only game involving a Championship side to take place being one of the scheduled Tennent’s Irish Cup Quarter Finals between Loughgall and Premiership side Glenavon. With that in mind, we’ll be taking a look back at Loughgall’s heroics as well as the standings in the Bluefin Sport Championship as we head into the home straight.
Glenavon 1 Loughgall 2
Glenavon players and officials, including club manager Gary Hamilton, joined forces to ensure Saturday’s game went ahead and when the referee gave the game the thumbs up there was a great cheer from the Glenavon faithful but unfortunately for the home supporters, this would be the biggest celebration for them on Saturday. Glenavon went into the game as big favourites, and had even been tipped by some as potential winners of the competition, but it was the Championship side who went closest to scoring first as Andrew Hoey hit a low effort at goal after 5 minutes but keeper Jonny Tuffey was equal to it.
After this early scare Glenavon settled into the game and had chances to take the lead through Rhys Marshall and Andrew Mitchell, but Marshall’s effort was saved by Craig Robinson and Mitchell couldn’t keep his effort down. After 35 minutes Glenavon player Bobby Burns cut inside from the left-hand side and tried his luck, Robinson saved his effort but the rebound fell to Mitchell who tapped the ball in but the linesman’s flag was already raised for offside. Loughgall reminded Glenavon of the task at hand a minute later when boyhood Glenavon fan, and former Lurgan Blues striker, Gary Liggett had a goal of his own chalked off. Three minutes later and Loughgall had a great chance to take the lead after Josh Daniels fouled Peter Campbell in the area, Liggett took on the responsibility but his poorly struck effort was saved by Tuffey.
Loughgall took the lead from the resulting corner, Campbell’s deep cross came to full-back Dale Montgomery who fired an unstoppable effort past Tuffey and into the net. Early in the second half Loughgall stopper Robinson was called into action again as he pushed a Sammy Clingan free-kick over the crossbar. Glenavon continued to squander whatever chances fell their way and after 51 minutes Mitchell found himself with only Robinson to beat but the usually lethal striker made the keeper’s job an easy one. Ten minutes from time the Villagers scored their second of the game when another corner, this time from Marc McConnell, fell to Hoey who fired goalwards but Tuffey saved his effort well, sub Nathaniel Ferris had a second bite at the cherry but Marshall blocked his shot on the line but when the ball fell to Liggett it was third time lucky as the big striker finally got his name on the scoresheet. There was more drama to come after five minutes from time when both sides had men shown red cards, though it remained 11v11, as substitutes Stefan McMaster (Loughgall) and Simon Kelly (Glenavon) were sent off following a clash on the sidelines during a Glenavon throw in. James Singleton did pull a goal back with one minute of normal time remaining to give Dean Smith’s side a nervy closing few minutes but the Championship side held on to book their place in the semi-finals and will find out their opponents on Tuesday 13th March after the rescheduled quarter-finals are played.
Moving on from the Irish Cup for now we’ll take a look at the standings in the Bluefin Sport Championship as we approach the run-in, just to remind readers that with the league now being split it is now impossible for teams in the top six to finish outside the top six and vice versa. Looking at the top end of the table Institute currently occupy 1st place in the table and currently sit 6 points clear of their nearest challengers and have a game in hand. It’s fair to say Paddy McLaughlin’s men are very much in the driving seat and most would be surprised if they aren’t occupying 1st place come the end of the season. Stute’s season is made all the more impressive due to the fact they had had to play virtually the entire season away from him because of damage to their Riverside Stadium home and on that note Stute were given a further boost in recent days with the news that they have been awarded just over 160,000 Euros from the UEFA Natural Disasters Appeal Fund.
Just to refresh people’s memory on how promotion from the division works, 1st place (Institute as it stands) will go up automatically assuming they meet the licencing requirements and 2nd and 3rd (Newry and the Welders respectively as it stands) play off over one match, 2nd place getting home advantage, for the right to play 11th place in the Premiership (Carrick Rangers as it stands). Currently in the running for the two play-off spots are the aforementioned Newry and Welders plus Ballyclare Comrades. After a strong start to the season that looked for a while like they might push Stute for the sole automatic spot Clifford Adams’ Comrades side have slipped down the table and whilst they are by no means out of the race they have little room for error in their closing seven games if they are to secure promotion. On the other hand both Newry and the Welders seem to be playing with little fear at present with Darren Mullen’s Newry side on an incredible run of form with only 1 loss in their last 18 league games and the dream of back to back promotions is very much alive and well. Gary Smyth’s Welders side are also enjoying a lengthy unbeaten run of their own having not lost in FOURTEEN league games and of the four defeats they have had this season two of those came in the opening weeks of the season.
Making up the rest of the top half are Portadown and Loughgall respectively, whilst perhaps not mathematically out of the race for promotion it is perhaps fair to say that both sides will be focusing on other areas in the coming weeks. Portadown rather spoiled our regular Championship roundup last week, at the time of writing that article we were aware that the club had parted company with manager Niall Currie and a few hours either side of our roundup being published former Ports striker Matthew Tipton had resigned as Warrenpoint manager and arrived at Shamrock Park to be announced as his former side’s new manager, making our article out of date within moments of it going live!!! Portadown were most people’s pre-season title favourites, and some people even expected them to win the title comfortably but the season has been a poor one for the mid-Ulster side with the club just about, and no more, making it into the top half. Tipton now has the remainder of this season to assess his current squad and prepare for a promotion push this season. Loughgall are a side who perhaps could have pushed for promotion but inconsistency put paid to any chance of that, with almost as many defeats as they have wins and only two drawn matches all season, but Dean Smith will probably look at a top-six finish as a solid return and let’s not forget the club are 90 minutes away from an Irish Cup final.
Moving into the bottom half of the table, in 7th place sit Larne. The Harbour Rats sit comfortably 20 points clear of bottom side Lurgan Celtic and 14 points ahead of 11th placed Dergview so it’s fairly safe to say they have no worries about relegation. Larne have had a bit of a mixed bag this season, a disastrous start to the season saw them in danger of relegation but a new financial backer and some high profile signings seems to have rejuvenated the club and they went on a lengthy run of good form but ultimately just missed out on a top-six finish and a potential shot at promotion. Nevertheless, Larne fans can already start looking forward to next season when they may finally get a taste of some of the success they crave.
Larne may be safe but the same cannot be said of the other five teams in the bottom half of the table, relegation from the Championship works the same as that from the Premiership, bottom spot (currently Lurgan Celtic) go down and 11th place (currently Dergview) play-off against a team from the Premier Intermediate League (PIL). Dropping right down to bottom we have Lurgan Celtic, after quite a promising start Lurgan Celtic have had nothing short of a disastrous season and need a miracle of epic proportions to avoid the dreaded drop. Celtic are 6 points behind Dergview and 10 points behind guaranteed safety, a big gap to close for any side out of form but to put an even gloomier shadow over things Celtic have only won three league games all season, the last of which was against PSNI on the 2nd September. They also now find themselves managerless after Frankie Wilson resigned last week, unfortunately for Celtic Harry Houdini is unavailable due to the fact he died in 1926. Falling in between Larne and Lurgan Celtic are, PSNI, Limavady, Knockbreda and Dergview, these four sides are separated by only 5 points and it is simply impossible to call which one of them will end up in the relegation/promotion play-off, or indeed bottom spot, come the end of the season. My guess would be that PSNI and Limavady have enough about them to secure safety and Dergview seem to be on a bit of a new manager bounce following the departure of Richard Clarke but with just two wins in 17 and no wins since the spilt it is worrying times for Knockbreda and they would perhaps be my pick to be in the bottom two along with Celtic come the end of the season.
Whatever the eventual outcome there will be plenty of twists and turns over the next few weeks at both ends of the table. Hopefully normal service will resume this Saturday with the following fixtures scheduled to take place:-
Ballyclare Comrades v Loughgall
Institute v Portadown
Larne v Lurgan Celtic
Limavady United v Knockbreda
Newry City v Harland and Wolff Welders
PSNI v Dergview