Tuesday, January 30, 2007

FINAL TERM

The most crucial term of the 2007 Irish Premier League is upon us. Beautifully poised, with every side having 10 games to play, there's plenty of space for speculation. If there is one down side, it's the fact that Linfield are leading.

The Blues have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. There is an overpowering sense that they are going to show the rest a clean pair of cheeks from here on in. The depth of strength within their ranks, allied to the fact that they haven't properly hit their stride thus far is terrifying. The closing 45 minutes of their recent outing at Dungannon were reminiscent of that distant 1983 day, when Eamonn Coughlan powered past his opposition with fist clenched and a smile on his face to clinch the World 5000m title. In spite of perceived holes at the back, they have conceded just 17 times in the league; second only to Portadown. Ferguson and Thompson are scoring regularly, if not at last season's incredible rates. Clear favourites; were they ever any other way?

Glentoran lack the quality in depth of their Blue nemesis. Critics point to the dearth of creativity in their midfield; when Linfield hoovered up Conor Downey it was a dark day at the Oval. Of late, last season's defensive frailties have resurfaced and the team are in crisis. From a commanding position on Boxing Day, they have conspired to trail the leaders by 6 points. There is an over reliance on Gary Hamilton's goals and Paul Millar lacks managerial experience at this level. He is facing the first major crisis of his brief career and much depends on his ability to resurrect the confidence and belief of his players.

Laughin' Ronnie McFall on the other hand is a vastly experienced campaigner, and his performance this season has been a masterclass. He had turned his club on its head after the abdications of last season. A faltering start was rapidly pushed into the shadows by his impressive side. They have shown that they need fear no one, except Ballymena United of course - and even Sky Blues fans live in fear of the Braidmen. The Ports are tight at the back - the reassuring presence of Kevin Pressman has a lot to do with that - and solid if unspectacular throughout. Suspensions and injuries may prove to be their strongest opponents during the run-in.

Eddie Patterson should withdraw his side from the Premier League; if the Solitude boss is to be believed his side are only making up the numbers. Fortunately his charges appear to play little heed to his deceitful ramblings; they've crept quietly into 2nd spot. Vincent Sweeney and Daniel Lyons have clicked early, and the gaping hole left by the departing Conor Downey has been filled by the belief and unity of the Reds squad. And a lightweight squad it is, but without the challenge of Setanta Cup football to stretch their resources Lady Luck may well wink their way.

Mention of the prestigious cross border tournament adds further intrigue to an already tantalising chase. With a minimum of six tough games for each of the entrants - and at a crucial point in the season - the Setanta Cup could have a serious impact on the domestic title race. Assuming Glentoran recover their momentum, football fans are in for a treat as four sides push each other all the way to the finish line. Then there is the battle beneath for any scraps which might fall the way of Crusaders and Coleraine. Even the boys down Ballyskeagh way won't be throwing in the towel just yet; and Joe McAree has bequeathed expectation to Harry Fay.

It's a welcome return to competitiveness. After last season's procession it was hard not to fear the worst for 2006/'07. But there is a surprise around every corner flag, with even the also-rans capable of bowling a googly here and there. Bring it on!

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