Belfast Telegraph

Back from the brink, Irish League is alive and kicking

By Graham Luney

If there's one thing we excel at in Northern Ireland it's gurning. We aren't bad at golf either, but gurning is what we do best.

How many times have you switched on the radio to hear us doing what we do best?

In the last week we have even managed to sink to new depths of despair. Stormont is in crisis, our elected representatives are indulging in the politics of hate and we are even left without transport and family lives are disrupted.

Life is full of broken hearts and dreams... enough miserable material to keep the Country music people in business.

But there's no such doom and gloom in Irish League circles. As that well known cheerful chap Van Morrison would say 'Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?'

The truth is that our beautiful game is back from the brink, off the life support machine and regaining strength.

The Northern Ireland Football League's restructure plans have given it the kiss of life and one of the most positive features of our game now is that it boasts a genuine competitive edge.

It wasn't always this way and for that reason the Irish League was in danger of becoming predictable and when things are predictable they are boring.

Linfield fans may crave a return to the glory days when they won league and cup doubles under legendary boss David Jeffrey, but those days are gone.

Around the country, sleeping giants are awakening. Cliftonville stormed to back-to-back title triumphs and Glenavon tasted Irish Cup glory last year for the first time since 1997. Crusaders are threatening to win their first ever league and cup double this season and even Glentoran, despite their financial headaches, still pack the kind of punch Wayne Rooney can't muster.

Linfield, under rookie boss Warren Feeney, are in rebuilding mode and with each passing year the players' phenomenal achievements of six doubles in seven seasons, culminating in the 2012 Irish Cup final victory over Crusaders in 2012 sparkles even brighter. But Jeffrey is gone and only three players remain at the Blues from that thumping 4-1 victory - Peter Thompson, Michael Carvill and Jamie Mulgrew.

Linfield have won 23 league and cup doubles and when Jeffrey's all conquering side were blowing opponents away the Irish League lacked a real competitive edge.

Cliftonville ended the Big Two stranglehold on the Gibson Cup in 2013. It was a long time in coming after a Vinny Arkins inspired Portadown side delivered in 2002.

Today, you only have to look at Saturday's two Irish Cup semi-finals to realise how our game is returning to health. You couldn't pick a winner of either match, never mind the tournament.

Ballymena United, with a newly found never say die spirit and taste for the big stage, will be formidable opponents for Portadown while Crusaders will underestimate Glentoran at their peril.

How could they ignore the class and experience of Elliott Morris, the composure and work ethic of Barry Holland, the drive and industry of Steven Gordon, the creativity of Jordan Stewart and the finishing power of Curtis Allen? Then there's the clinical touch of Fra McCaffrey or the chance for the improving Kym Nelson and Danny McKee to show their class.

The more teams with aspirations of winning our prestigious prizes the better. No wonder attendances are rising. Of course we would also love to see better pitches, facilities, less controversial refereeing decisions and no more administrative blunders, but stop gurning... we can't have everything.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph