Today sees the start of the new domestic football season in Northern Ireland, at 3pm the 2011/12 season IFA Premiership kicks off - just for fun and to keep a record of how bad my predictions can be, I'm joining Alex Gulranjani in putting my predictions out there in a bit more detail than I would on ILS Forums. Here are my thoughts on what to expect from the clubs involved:
Linfield. The current reigning champions are firm favourites for the title once again. Linfield's main advantage is that they have the funds to keep a large squad of good players whereas other teams can't afford to keep the same calibre of reserve players on their books. Over the course of a season that tends to win the league. There is little point discussing anything else about them except to expect a little more flair on show this season compared to last given the additions to the squad with it's improved attacking options – Rory Patterson and Daryl Fordyce spring to mind. If Linfield play to their potential, it's going to take something truly special to snatch the title from under their noses.
Crusaders. The Crues begin the season with high expectations but they're not just wishful thinking. The main weakness in the squad last season was a lack of cover in defence and a goalie who was down on confidence – both issues have been addressed. Like last season, the goals are unlikely to be hard to come by, an attack minded and hard working midfield combined with the clinical finishing of Timmy Adamson who has been added to the side could potentially see the Crues exceed last seasons impressive goal tally. The biggest improvement for the Crues though is in defence. Paul Leeman has been brought in and gives new options, combined with Sean O'Neill in goal, the goals against should hopefully come down. If anyone is going to push the Blues it's looking likely it'll be the Crues.
Glentoran. Since last season the Glens have added a few new faces but have also let a couple of experienced players leave and it'll be touch and go whether they can muster the fire power to keep up with the Blues and the Crues. The defence looks steady enough but it'll have to be a solid team effort in putting the ball in the back of the net if the likes of Andy Waterworth and Darren Boyce don't deliver. Seemingly a reason why Scott Young has let Gary Hamilton back in from the cold just in time for the start of the season. If no one can step up to the plate, there are a few other teams who might be hot on the Glens heels for a top 3 finish and realistically I could see them finishing 4th or 5th because so many sides have improved their attacking credentials. With the pressure off for once though, discount them at your peril.
Cliftonville. After what really has been bit of a slump the last couple of years after such a promising season in 06/07, the Reds will be up for breaking back into the top 3. Up front Cliftonville go into the season with some great attacking options after the addition of Martin Donnelly and Joe Gormley and will be full of confidence. Like Crusaders, goals will not be the problem, strength and depth in defence will be the making between challenging at the top or just riding out the season at the top end of mid table.
Coleraine. Without seeing them play and with such a revamped squad it's hard to know what they're capable of or if they'll gel. Potentially, on paper at least, Coleraine could be the wildcard in a challenge for a top 4 place. Up front they've potentially plenty of goals in Leon Knight and Curtis Allen. With the personnel changes and uncertainty of recent months, a lot will come down to whether Oran Kearney can instil enough team spirit to have the side work together to provide the service required to their tricky two up front. If they can gel quickly I can see it being a very good season for them, if things aren't looking good by January it could be a case of going back to the pick and mix counter.
Portadown. The general feeling is that the Ports, like last season, will easily make the top 6.
Personally, I think that this season they'll be pushed all the way to do that. I think their hopes will rest on the shoulders of Jamie Tomelty and Matthew Tipton to give the sturdy side a little bit of spark. It just seems Portadown have stood still whilst others have made their moves so I'm thinking if the new look Glenavon, Ballymena and Coleraine's gambles pay off, the Ports may be playing catch up.
Glenavon. I have a good feeling about Glenavon and I can't quite place it. No one seems to be expecting much from Marty Quinn's team but they've got some players now in place in some of the key areas where they were underachieving last year. Though their defence doesn't fill me with confidence their midfield looks good. The likes of Peter McCann and Alan Davidson and by all accounts David Magee too, will be a handful. Up front, former Ballymena striker Kevin Kelbie should be the sort of player Glenavon really need as he has proven he can score from pretty much anywhere and against anyone in this league - a match winner. I think that this season they can secure a top 6 finish if their core players can stay fit. The only glaring problem being that from an outside perspective there isn't really a plan B if things don't work out.
Ballymena United. I think Ballymena might be one for a cup this season. The side looks to have plenty of goals in it and I think they'll be much more creative with the addition of Allan Jenkins and Alan Teggart. Combined with Costello and McCutcheon up front it and very little expectation, it might just play into their favour for one off games. Though the side still doesn't seem strong enough to push for a top 4 finish, I reckon they'll ride it out in mid table and give a good account of themselves in the cup competitions.
Lisburn Distillery. The Whites go into a season with nothing much to lose. Distillery have had the uncertainty of a CVA pending the sale of their ground since 2010 and obviously have had to cut their cloth accordingly in terms of wages. I think they will be unlikely to make the top six this season though I can see them still giving sides a good game. For that reason I don't think they'll be caught in the net of relegation prospects. Expectations seem to be resting with attacking midfielder Jordan Hughes who impressed Crues fans at the end of last season when he ran at the defence to score a consolation for Distillery.
Carrick Rangers. Newly promoted, the surviving members of the side will be on a high. With that element of the unknown too, they might just provide a surprise package and join in the mid table shuffle. I haven't seen enough of them to make a reasoned judgement but going by the rumour that they could spend in January if needed, well that makes them less likely to be relegation fodder. They seem to be similar in depth to DC and I can see them maybe finding it hard going towards the end of the season. Though they might be caught up in a relegation battle I think they'll be OK in the end.
Dungannon Swifts. The Swifts look to be flying a little bit light this season. Whether its financial pressures or the introduction of the salary cap at play, their squad is looking a little thin. Dermot McCaffrey has stayed and so will be their threat from set pieces but other than that it's not looking great. Either the Swifts will get lucky with players stepping up a level, riding out the season in mid table with hard work and team spirit, or, alternatively they'll be sucked into the possibility of relegation.
Donegal Celtic. DC struggled last season due to their defence, 89 goals against was the worst in the league yet they managed to score more than 6 of the 10 teams above them. Even with the arrival of Johnny Harkness, With so few defensive options it looks like it will once again be down to Paul McVeigh and an attack minded midfield to bail them out of the relegation boat. Treading such a fine line, I'd say they would be favourites for last place.
I could be right, I'll probably be wrong but whatever the outcome it'll undoubtedly be another great ride following our local teams. If you're not a regular at your local club, give it a try, you might just be surprised at the entertainment on offer :)