Wednesday, 23 September 2009

25% of the Irish League

What a league we have this season, the Irish Football Association’s Carling Premiership is building up to be a nail biting quest for the Gibson Cup and it’s not even October yet! 25%... a ¼... of the league season in and there are only 4 points separating 1st to 7th. All of the teams, so it seems, have the potential to get a result against any other side... well maybe except poor Lisburn Distillery who are currently the only team really looking to be struggling.

Many results last season were starting to hint that times were changing. Linfield ended the season without a trophy and things were starting to become a little less predictable. This season has started off in an even more spectacular style and it seems that the increased competition provided by the 12 team league is starting to show. There are no more guaranteed wins for the so called big two, even Linfield with their numerical advantages off the pitch are finding that money doesn’t buy you everything (although there is no denying it does help in the long run).

Looking at league tables for me at the moment is a bit surreal. Amazingly in my realm of understanding football, I didn’t think they were allowed to do well?... both of the domestic sides I support with a passion are at the top of their respective tables. With Crusaders top of the Irish League in Northern Ireland and with Leeds United top of League One over the water. It’s an odd feeling. I recently wrote on my Facebook that I do have to wonder if a rift might have formed in the space time continuum someplace. If anyone spots one, do let me know! I don’t know what it might look like but I’m guessing this one might be ball shaped, possibly size 5.

Although we can’t draw too many conclusions of how the Irish league might pan out in the remaining ¾’s of the season from what has gone so far, we can though see that it’s going to be no easy ride to the top for anyone. The title is going to be hard earned by whoever can last the distance. In a semi-pro league that’s harder than it sounds. Come February and during busy spells, those teams with the bigger squads are still likely to make back any ground lost, so it is still seemingly Linfield and Glentoran’s league to lose.

Looking through the teams and their games so far, it’s not looking good for one side. As mentioned, Lisburn Distillery are really struggling this season and have had some heavy defeats handed to them already. The management and subsequent team changes backfired more than I think they could have expected. As a club with one of the smallest supporter bases in the league, one that is funded quite strongly by business ties, it’s not looking too good for them at the moment. A -21 goal difference and 1 point from 9 games doesn’t bode well for a decent season when you don’t have much of a vocal support to urge you on.

The Whites, although bottom of the league, do seem to have been the most consistent - even if it is an unenviable consistency. The 11 teams above them have been in a dog fight for position and here is how the dust has settled so far from my point of view...

Above them, but currently sitting in the bottom half of the table are Portadown, Institute, Coleraine and Ballymena United, all sides that carry a big threat. Institute for instance after a poor start have in their last 2 games beaten league leaders Crusaders and drew away against Glentoran. Although these sides haven’t shown any strong form, none of them is so far off the pace that they can’t still make a challenge for the top 3. Above those teams 4 points and Glenavon, Cliftonville, Dungannon Swifts, Glentoran and Linfield separate Newry in 7th from Crusaders in 1st. No team remains unbeaten and of those records that do still stand, Glenavon are the only side with an unbeaten home record and Glentoran with an unbeaten away record... oddly enough Glentoran haven’t yet managed to win at home in the league this season!

Of these teams Glenavon and Dungannon are the teams who have most improved since last season. On the occasions the Crusaders have played these sides, we’ve beaten them both but on those days they’ve given enough to show that they’ve improved a lot, playing some good football and on the most part going for it which is all you can ask really! Cliftonville are also improved. They look to be re-finding their ability which they showed quite consistently 2 seasons ago. That season they put up quite a challenge to break the domination by the ‘big 2’, only fading in the later stages of the season.

The shocker of the season so far has been Linfield. Usually so dominant, they have been found wanting in relation to the resources they posses. Like a wounded dog though, they are still dangerous and sitting not very far off the pace, things can soon change. They’ll not be worrying too much at the moment but if their poor-by-their-standards form continues come January it could be interesting to see if they can buy their way back to the top. Also a bit of a turn up for the books has been Glentoran’s form. They looked decent in pre-season but haven’t carried their ability to overcome some of the sides just last year they might have brushed aside. Maybe Keith Gillespie can help them; he scored his first goal for the Glens tonight. Neither side are far away and will still be hard to beat, saying that though, it’s been well proven already that teams that hold no fear can come away with 3 points from both the Oval and Windsor Park.

Above all of these sides, and currently at the top of the league even after a week with only 1 point from 2 games... are... (and I’m very happy to say it again) Crusaders F.C! We’ve had a brilliant start to the season apart from last week and also the tight 3-2 home loss to Cliftonville. We’ve a squad full of potential, the ground work having being built up from the season not so long ago when Stephen Baxter pulled the club back into the top flight from the first division. However since the Cliftonville loss and maybe a game or so before, we’ve not been playing the eye pleasing and highly effective football as consistently and as often during games. The team’s strength in recent times has been in keeping the ball on the floor, utilising the wings effectively. Obviously all other routes haven’t been neglected, but we always seem to do most damage down the wings. Goals from set plays have also dried up a little bit and we’ve been relying, a little too much, on goals from the player in the form of his life... David Rainey! It would seem in the press that the team are looking a little short of rocket fuel for flying down the wings in their usual fashion. I hear third hand but Stephen Baxter has said that this is due to fitness - fitness in terms of too many games/long trips in the space of a short time for part time player, which is understandable.

With the odd injury too (namely to Mark Dickson), that’s seemingly caused us to struggle a little more when sides sit back and counter attack. I can sympathise given the fact that most of the time I’m tired just heading home on an evening after work. These guys work... then train... then have to traipse around the country playing football - sometimes only to get home after midnight and then having to head to work again the next day. I think we’d all be a little jaded after several weeks of that sort of thing. So it is understandable for a few poorer performances on the pitch. Hopefully it won’t be long until the team are back in their groove and hopefully consolidate the position we’re in. That’s no easy job, but if there was ever a side the Crues have had that could do it... and if the majority of the team can stay fit and motivated... then there is no reason we can’t be looking to perform another outstanding achievement to add to last season’s Irish Cup final victory.

29 games to go on the stop watch... 24 games until the split. Who might win the league this year... only time will tell, but I can’t wait to see it play out! If the start of the season is a flavour of what we can look forward to, we’re in for a treat.

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