Tuesday, November 28, 2006

IPL TITLE RACE TO SPREAD

With a third of the Irish Premier League games completed, the aroma of something special is in the air. This season has the potential to produce a classic battle, with just seven points defining the gap between top spot and sixth.

Admittedly, a casual glance at the upper end of the table is not going to invoke any trauma upon the more genteel football follower, save for the emergence of newly promoted Crusaders as a Premier League side of substance.

The usual suspects are hovering; Glentoran, Linfield, Portadown, and to a lesser degree, Dungannon Swifts and Cliftonville. Paul Millar's team have been impresive thus far, but have shown worrying signs of complacency. This does not bode well; any side seriously intent on making a sustained challenge needs to be strong of mind as much as fit, organised and skilful. The dismissal of Linfield in the CIS Cup semi final may have provided a boost to their confidence - but after last season's implosion I suspect it is a fragile commodity within the confines of The Oval. . While the headlines have been dominated by H&H up front, they have improved defensively over last term, and the presence of Paul Leeman and Gary Smyth will be key to their success this time around.

Paul Millar was not a happy man after the 2-2 stalemate against inferior opposition in the shape of Glenavon. The gap between his charges and the currently charging Champions is down to a meagre three points, and DJ's men have yet to slip imperceptibly into last season's groove. Elliot Morris can probably hear the rumble of Blue Thunder approaching as he guards the nets! While it seems to this writer that Glentoran's credentials have yet to be properly proven [ a league defeat or two will go some way towards showing us how strong they are], the pedigree of the Blues is unquestionable. The emergence of Jamie Mulgrew coupled with the signing of Thomas Stewart is beginning to add to their already impressive arsenal. For me the heartbeat of this squad lies in the combined talents of McAreavey and Gault; two different but beautifully dovetailed midfielders.

And then there 's Portadown. Firstly, toupees off to Ronnie McFall. His undying determination to prevail has dragged his team back from the horrors of last season's disappointing finish, followed by what was looking like a serious player haemmorhage. Kevin Pressman's presence has seeped confidence into a back four which oozes potential. In McCutcheon and Smart he has two quality strikers, and the league will continue to be graced by Wes Boyle as he nears full fitness. They may not have the strength in depth of the Big Two - and who does? - But if Lord Luck can convince his wife to show them some benevolence, they are in with a shout.

Realistically, the same can be said of both Cliftonville and Crusaders. Both talented outfits, but with the pitches cutting up badly it won't be too long before they have queues outside the physio's room. It's a tough slog, versus the polished professionalism of Windsor Park et al, and the 'smaller' clubs do need the peeress on their sides in these matters if they are to succeed Nonetheless, the performances of both outfits thus far have been invigorating for the neutral observer; with Cliftonville's opening day rout of Linfield a cherished memory.

In common with the other aspirants, the true test will come when the early season bubble is unceremoniously pricked for a couple of games; everyone becomes nervy, confidence begins to wane, managers earn their condiment. And what of Dungannon Swifts?

This was always going to be a difficult season for the Tyrone club. The ascension of Joe McAree may be good for the club overall, in the short term it's difficult to see what the benefits are to the senior side. This is in no way intended as a disrespect to the abilities of Harry Fay - whoever took up the job was destined to have a less than fluent opening. And that's how it has seemed for the Stangmore Blues; they're on the periphery of the title race, and in the thick of a battle for Setanta Cup qualification; but they seem weaker than last season. The departure of Timmy Adamson has holed them hugely; his goals are a major loss to them. The capture of Rory Hamill promised much, we are only beginning to see him settle now. Young Mark McAllister is in fine form, but can't be expected to maintain those standards for the season. If they can claim 4th spot again, it will be deemed a successful season.

Roll on December!

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