Well, what a season that was.
As the calendar rolls on towards the latter end of May, I am left to reflect on what a frankly superb season the Danske Bank IFA Premiership threw up. In days gone by, the Irish League was one of the powerhouses of European football. However, lack of investment and some bewildering structures has seen the collapse of the league. Now a semi-professional affair, attendances ranged from less than 100 right up to 5,500 – with an absolutely exceptional 9,500 turning out for the showpiece Irish Cup Final.
I imagine that, for many of you unfamiliar with the league, once you hear it’s name you will instantly jump to runaway champions Cliftonville of North Belfast, who ended a 15-year wait for a top flight title as well as adding the Irn-Bru League Cup to their now bloated trophy cabinet. The Reds powered their way to glory, leading for the vast majority of the season. With supposedly Shrewsbury Town-bound Liam Boyce clocking up over 30 goals in all competitions; the ex-Werder Bremen star has set the division alight this year. Other Red Army heroes include Conor Devlin, the goalkeeper who was once a trainee at Man United, Jaimie McGovern who looked a totally different player from the one at The Oval one year earlier, and Boyce’s strike partner Joe Gormley, who has lived something of a fairytale story after being snapped up from the amateur leagues.
Hot on the tails of Cliftonville were North Belfast rivals and one of the most physical sides in the league; Crusaders. The Hatchetmen owe their incredible season to the fact that they turned Seaview into a fortress – going unbeaten all season at their Shore Road home. Sitting in third place were winners of six doubles in seven years Linfield. The Blues are the wealthiest and biggest club in the country. The south Belfast club will admit themselves that this was probably the worst season that they have endured in recent history, having collected no silverware despite their considerable acquisitions in the transfer window adding to what was arguably the strongest squad in the league by a considerable distance.
At the bottom end of the Irish League ladder was Lisburn Distillery and Donegal Celtic. Distillery, nicknamed “The Whites”, were absolutely abysmal all season and fully deserved to go down. Despite only collecting a handful of points all season, the Lisburn club do possess several talented players like tricky wingers Jordan Forsythe and Jordan Hughes. As for DC, they have been brandished with the unwanted nickname “A Glorified Pub-Team” because of their small fan base and often poor form. The west Belfast club had to partake in a play-off with the second placed side from the Championship in order to determine who stayed up and who went down. After losing the first leg 1-0, they won the second leg 2-1 but went down on away goals to Warrenpoint Town.
One of the feel-good stories of the season came in the form of newly promoted Ballinamallard United. The side, hailing from a village of no less than 2000 people, awed spectators with their fast flowing, skilful attacking football. The Mallards managed to record some frankly incredible results, such as being the only side to defeat Cliftonville at Solitude as well as recording an awesome 3-1 win at Windsor Park against Linfield; the Ferney Park club have now firmly established themselves as part of the top flight – their biggest task is now to retain the squad that they have built-up.
Now, we move on to the club closest to my heart; Glentoran. The east Belfast outfit, who had been all but buried after a winding-up bill came through the letterbox of the Oval two years ago, have undergone something of a redemption this season. The second biggest club in Northern Ireland and part of the Big-Two with fierce rivals Linfield, Glentoran endured a largely indifferent 2011/12 season after finishing sixth, failing to qualify for Europe. To add insult to injury, they were completely outclassed on their own patch by Cliftonville in the County Antrim Shield Final. As well as this, they hit their rock bottom in footballing terms after losing 1-0 to amateur side Newington in the Irish Cup. For those of you unfamiliar with the league, that’s like Kettering Town beating Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Thankfully, this year the club has improved on and off the field. Despite several missed wage payments, the club’s finances seems to be more stable now, but that isn’t the main talking point. After a change in management and playing staff, the club improved on their league position and finished fourth; a solid showing despite the high-expectations of Glens fans. However, the true forte of the club came on May 4th at Windsor Park. After a relatively easy run to the final, the Cock ‘n’ Hens walked out in front of 9,500 fans and a raucous atmosphere to face treble hunters Cliftonville. With the odds stacked heavily against them, the heroes from the East powered to a 3-1 extra time victory to finally give the fans who have supported them through thick and thin something to cheer about.
An awesome season then and one that will live long in the memory. Next season will have a LOT to live up too.
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