Plucky North Down find themselves defying cricket title odds
It wasn't supposed to be like this for North Down. Having lost four of their best players from last season, even the most faithful supporter was expecting a season of rehabilitation.
But on Saturday, the Comber side host pre-season title favourites Waringstown when victory will open up an eight-point gap at the top of the Ulster Bank Premier League with just two games to play and the following day they face Instonians in the O'Neill's Ulster Cup final, again with home advantage.
Of course, it could yet go pear-shaped but captain Martin Moreland admits just to be in this position is a surprise and, unarguably, "no team is playing better at the moment." So what has gone right at North Down this season?
"We knew we were capable of beating anyone and we're hitting form at the right time. We've just got better," added Moreland.
"We have a good team spirit. I was talking to (former captain) Peter Shields about it and it's like whenever we first started, everyone gets on, has good banter, and we have a good pro."
Pieter Malan (featured in this column in May) arrived with a big reputation and he has lived up to the billing, culminating in an unbeaten century last Sunday to guide North Down to that huge win over big-spending CIYMS which moved them clear at the league summit.
"He has made a big difference, on and off the field. Just ask our young players Alistair Shields, Daniel Graham and Peter Eakin. He talks to them about batting. He doesn't say you have to do this, or do that," said Moreland, whose only previous experience of captaincy before this season was with the Midweek XI.
"He builds an innings and, as you saw on Sunday, the boys have caught on. It's not all about hitting boundaries or scoring off every ball.
"If you build your innings then in the last 10 overs he can score 50 off 20 balls.
"I'm loving it (captaincy). It helps when you are doing better than expected. But all the young lads have stepped up.
"Eakin is my vice-captain and behind the stumps Peter Shields helps a lot while Malan is captain of his side in South Africa. But no matter how many years you have played cricket, captaincy is different."
On Sunday he hopes to become the first North Down skipper to lift a major trophy (they won the Twenty20 Cup two years ago) since their last league title success in 2011 - a lengthy famine for a club which won everything, more than once in the previous decade. But Moreland knows it will be a tough challenge and they cannot rely on home advantage.
"We know Instonians well. It will be a tight game. Home advantage is not so important at North Down because the wicket is so good," he said.
"Any batsman has enjoyed batting at The Green this season but Instonians have two or three players who can take the game away from you very quickly, especially the big fellow that opens the batting."
The big fellow is Comber native Neil Russell, the first player to leave the all-conquering team of the Noughties following a disagreement with then captain Ryan Haire and on Sunday he will be in the middle with Moreland calling heads or tails as captain of Instonians.
"But we've beaten (holders) Bready, Donemana and Waringstown to reach the final, all decent teams, and we are playing as well as anyone at the minute," added Moreland.
North Down will take that same attitude into their game with Waringstown on Saturday when victory will leave them just two wins from the league title.
And Moreland is happy to play the psychological card.
"All the pressure is on them. We're not expected to win the league. Indeed, Waringstown were my tip at the start of the season. But we fear no one now," he concluded.