It is January 2012 and that means we are mid-way through the football season in the IFA Premiership (The top flight of Irish League football) and as always, this is where the roller-coaster ride for supporters gathers pace. If you have checked the league table recently, you may have noticed that the team I support - Crusaders FC, haven't reached the heights of their potential in the league this year, but not to worry, following the Crues is never dull and there is still very much to play for.
Back in August my hopes were high that the Crues would push towards giving Linfield a run for their money at the top of the league this season. Unfortunately, we just haven't been able to set the league alight this time around; be it improved opposition, players not clicking as well as last season or, as on a few occasions, just sods law and plain old bad luck. This is football, these things happen. As it is, and as many predicted, it's looking quite likely now that a Linfield side playing steady but unexciting football and not performing as well as their fans would expect, will win the league. As the season progresses and other sides start to pick up the inevitable fatigue and injuries to key players, Linfield's strength in depth will very likely pull them increasingly quickly towards yet another Gibson Cup, I hope it doesn't happen but it's likely it will. Fine for those who can afford it.
So for Crusaders, who were sitting in 6th place in a 12 team league at Christmas and 5th after the New Years games,it might seem like there wasn't much left to play for... That isn't the case - indeed it's very much the opposite, there is still very much to play for, including plenty of silverware.
Thanks to plenty of hard work and a bit of luck, the club sits in the best position it has done off the pitch for over a decade, with great facilities and a continued drive to sort out the finances once and for all - though obviously there is still much work to be done as there is at many Irish League clubs. On the pitch, although not in the form we got used to seeing the team last season, the side can still beat anyone on their day - as the recent games against high flying Cliftonville and Portadown have reminded us. We're perhaps a few too many points out of touch of the leaders but the season can still be a huge success. The good news is that there are still 3 cup competitions to play for and in the league there are still places in the qualifying rounds of European football to try and secure. Beyond that, there is also a good chance of more North Belfast derbies. The media might currently focus heavily on the 'Belclasico' between Linfield and Glentoran but if you want passion and goals it's to North Belfast you should head.
So what are Crusaders chances of staying above those behind us and catching any of the 4 above to be in with a chance of a European qualifying place?
First thing's first - the split. This is where after 33 games, the Irish League splits into two sections. The top 6 and the bottom 6 then play each of the teams in their section once more to complete the last 5 games and the 38 game league season.
The way things have gone so far it seems almost like the league has split in two, with any of the top 6 capable of beating each other on their day and the remaining 6 sides being much less likely to get a result against the top 6 but all are capable of a surprise on their day. The only perceivable changes before the split would be if, against current form, Donegal Celtic or Ballymena suddenly started to pick up a freakish run of results to reel between an 8 to 12 point gap and were able to catch Glentoran, Crusaders or Coleraine. However, given both DC and Ballymena's string of fixtures (each play against current top half sides in 6 of their remaining games) and the potential of the sides they would have to catch, I'd say it was very likely that the top 6 now will be the top 6 at the spilt.
Hopefully that is the case and the Crues will end the regular season on a high. Securing a better placed finish in the league will be a tricky task – finishing the season in front of Glentoran and Coleraine this year would be a good achievement given some of the results from the first half of the season. Like the Crues, the Glens haven't been playing their best. Indeed Glentoran have probably been the worst of the top 6 so it's likely that Scott Young will try to strengthen in the current transfer window. Coleraine have improved a lot from last season as most expected they would with the players brought in. The thing being, Coleraine have been playing well for good spells of the season, as have Cliftonville, the question is can these sides get a second wind given that their runs of good form were contributed to by players like Leon Knight for Coleraine looking likely to move on and Rory Donnelly for Cliftonville having signed for Swansea. It's likely they can, but without these potential match winners, if adequate replacements aren't brought in to help turn tight games, it could potentially open things up a little more over the course of the rest of the season.
A little bit of quality in the Irish League can make all the difference. That quality up front is what Portadown have largely depended on so far this season and they are somewhat surprisingly the most consistent challengers to Linfield in the first 5 months. The issue being, with such dependency on their forwards Matthew Tipton and Kevin Braniff for the goals, it seems a fine line to tread, great if they stay fit but there is a lot of season left.
What I'm trying to say is that the potential is there for the Crues; the door may just be left open enough to get through. The quality to put a run or two together is in the squad and we're still in touching distance of those above even whilst not playing as well as a team as we know this very same side can. I think a higher placed finish than 6th or 5th is a real possibility because the team will click as before, it's just a matter of time and circumstance. The confidence is coming back :)
Currently the Crues are a point behind Coleraine so 4th is all to play for but 4th doesn't guarantee a Europa League Qualifying tie. The big prize would be 2nd or 3rd. Portadown are 2nd and 9 points ahead of the Crues and Cliftonville 3rd and 8 points ahead. It's technically out of our hands and it'll be hard given that the sides around us will also be trying to do the same, but with little to lose in the league and a bit of momentum in our favour at the moment, it'll be intriguing to see how it pans out over the next few months.
The league aside, there is still a decent chance of silverware in the cup competitions.
The 1st is the IRN-BRU League Cup. After winning a tight game against Ballymena back in December, The Crues booked their place in the final and will face Coleraine at the Ballymena Showgrounds for the chance to lift the trophy. The game is on Saturday January 28th at 2.30pm. The atmosphere on a cup final day with the Crues involved is always electric, fingers crossed for a good result but it should be a great away day.
The 2nd is the Irish Cup. For the Crues it begins on Saturday 14th with a home tie against Warrenpoint.
Last but not least is the All Ireland Setanta Cup that kicks off for the Crues in March.
With all that to look forward to it's easy to forget some of the action that has already happened this season. The highs and lows.
The biggest disappointment of the season so far for me was probably the Donegal Celtic game at Seaview that was live on Sky TV. We had gone one nil up in that game but after that it was just one of those days which somehow depressingly ended with a 1-2 loss.
The highlight of the season so far has to be Timmy Adamson's goal against Fulham and the very recent 3-2 win over our local rivals Cliftonville on boxing day. Both will live long in the memory. Our most important signing of the season so far has to be Sean O'Neill, a better goalkeeper I don't think we've had in our goal since Neil Armstrong.
Off the pitch, I'm in love with our two new end stands. When I think of a football ground seat I think of my knees pressed up against the chair in front. However, not at the ends at Seaview. There is no uncomfortable kneecap scraping, quite the opposite, it's leg room heaven. I'm 6ft tall and have relatively long legs. I can happily say that the seats, as well as having a great view, give a brilliant amount of leg room - I can slouch all I like! Compared to the numerous English grounds I've been to, I imagine it'd be like getting an upgrade on a plane. They're just awesome seats for 'real sized' people.
Undoubtedly there will be more highs and lows to come, hopefully more highs than lows, but as long as the team give their all we won't be disappointed, no matter how the season pans out.
I'll try to post more about the Crues and Irish league football this year but if you'd like to follow the action yourself from afar, here are a few Crusaders FC related links:
Crusaders FC Official Website
Crusaders FC Official Twitter page
Crusaders FC Official Facebook page