Irish League: Can anyone stop Linfield this time?
How to win the Irish League title, Lesson One: Finish above Linfield.
It’s a simple theory, but for the 11 clubs that will try to do just that it’s going to prove very hard to pull off.
When the Carling Premiership campaign kicks-off tomorrow everyone will be gunning for David Jeffrey’s side, but he knows it and the Blues are ready for the fight.
And when you think that only once in the last five seasons has anyone managed to finish higher than the Windsor Park men — Glentoran in 2009 — it shows just how tough a task it is.
This season, however, it’s going to be even tougher.
Irish League football isn’t immune from the financial climate that exists in general society and the days of players picking up hefty wages are dying fast.
The days of transfer fees are disappearing even quicker.
While others have been trying to pick up the best free transfers from rival clubs or picking over the cast offs, Linfield have managed to secure two men with international caps on permanent deals.
With a squad of title winners rather than young players who had never won anything, plus Chris Casement and Peter Thompson on-board after last season’s loan deals, the Blues are even better placed than they were a year ago.
A lot of people talk about Linfield’s financial clout, but their best players over the last few years, Alan Mannus, Michael Gault and Thompson came through the ranks and another, Jamie Mulgrew, cost nothing when he was plucked from Glentoran’s second string.
Finished last season: 10th
Players in: Gary McCutcheon (Portadown), Ryan Berry (Glentoran), Richard Gibson (Coleraine), Eamonn Murray (Glenavon), Ryan Brown (Larne), Mo McDowell (Carniny Rangers), Denver Gage (Ballymoney United), David Cushley (Lisburn Distillery).
Players out: Kevin Kelbie (Greenock Morton), Sean O’Neill (Dungannon Swifts), Chris Ramsey (Portadown), Mark Picking (Ards), Philip Carson (Lisburn Distillery), Aidan Watson (Crusaders), Darren Lockhart (Ards), Ryan Deans, Noel Anderson, Ormond Okunaiya, Nathan McConnell (all released).
Strengths: Talented young players like Michael Smyth, Aaron Stewart and Lee Colligan, who are the envy of teams across the league.
Weaknesses: A serious lack of consistency which has dogged them for years.
Key players: Ryan Brown, Gary Haveron, Andy Smith.
Hopes for new season: They’ll hope for a top-half finish, but another cup run might be the best they achieve.
Prediction: Lower reaches of table, 11th.
Finished last season: 2nd
Players in: Stephen Garrett (Newry City).
Players out: Conor Downey and Francis Murphy (both Newry City), Declan O’Hara (Donegal Celtic).
Strengths: A tight-knit squad that knows each other inside out after being together for years. Their European run will be a major confidence boost too. In Eddie Patterson they have a manager who has signed cast-offs from other clubs and turned them into a really strong and entertaining team.
Weaknesses: Without anyone in the squad who has experience of the pressure that comes with actually getting over the line and winning the league, it is hard to see them going that extra mile this time around.
Key players: Peter Hutton, George McMullan, Chris Scannell.
Hopes for new season: After coming close to winning each of the three main prizes over the last few years — second place in the league and losing in cup finals — Patterson is desperate to finally put major silverware on the table. A return to Europe will be the least they will expect.
Prediction: Second place again, but with a trophy.
Finished last season: 7th.
Players in: Aaron Black (Crusaders), Johnny Harkness (Linfield), David Scullion (Richmond Eagles), Paul Brown (Institute).
Players out: Rory Patterson (Glentoran), Tommy McCallion (released).
Strengths: Their attacking quartet of Stephen Carson, Darren Boyce, David Scullion and Sammy Morrow are as good as you’ll find in the league. If Morrow goes to England though their firepower will serious diminish.
Weaknesses: Despite having a quality, experienced goalkeeper in David O’Hare and a talented young centre-half in Kyle McVey Coleraine’s defensive record last season was atrocious.
Key players: David O’Hare, Darren Boyce, Stephen Carson.
Hopes for new season: David Platt will be looking for improvement on last season after reaching the Co-operative Insurance Cup final and Irish Cup semi-finals, although they only came seventh in the league. In order to do better than that, the 64 goals scored between Rory Patterson and Darren Boyce last season will have to be shared around and that will be a tough challenge.
Prediction: Top six this time and another cup run.
Finished last season: 4th
Players in: Michael Halliday (Glentoran), Stuart Dallas (Coagh United), Aiden Watson (Ballymena United).
Players out: Aaron Black (Coleraine), Mark Dickson (Donegal Celtic), Eamon Doherty and Michael Collins (retired).
Strengths: Like their north Belfast rivals Cliftonville the Crues squad has been together for a while and they have a settled style of play. David Rainey’s goals haven’t dried up, despite now being in his mid-30s and he’ll keep contributing.
Weaknesses: Without a goalkeeper who is among the top five in the league the Crues won’t seriously challenge over the stretch. Even less strength in depth than before and injuries and/or suspensions will take their toll more than ever. Letting MIchael Collins go in favour of Stuart Dallas and Aiden Watson doesn’t look like a clever move.
Key players: Colin Coates, Ryan McCann, David Rainey.
Hopes for new season: They’ll want to be in the mix for the title and make at least one final.
Prediction: Peaked a year-and-a-half ago when they won the Irish Cup. Top six, but no better.
Finished last season: Promoted.
Players in: Aiden McVeigh (Loughgall), Darren McNamee (Carrick Rangers), Mark Dickson (Crusaders), Declan O’Hara (Cliftonville).
Players out: Lukasz Adamczyk (Loughgall), Liam Bradley (released).
Strengths: They’ll adopt a siege mentality right from the word go, with Marty Tabb telling his players that the whole world is against them. Not strictly true, but it might work. Signing Declan O’Hara will be a great fillip and he will make a big difference to their defence.
Weaknesses: Although they were in the Premier League for two seasons before it was cut from 16 clubs to 12 a lot of their squad still looked like intermediate level players and that’s hasn’t changed greatly.
Key players: Declan O’Hara, Paul McVeigh, Mark Dickson.
Hopes for new season: Finishing 10th would do for most people up at DC, but after reaching the semi-finals of the Irish Cup a couple of years ago a few would fancy a repeat of that.
Prediction: A season of struggling up on the Suffolk Road. Flirtation with the top flight brief. 12th.
Finished last season: 5th
Players in: Sean O’Neill (Ballymena United), Nial Henderson (Newry City), Johnny Topley (Portadown), Brian Somerville (Dungannon Tigers).
Players out: Neil McCafferty (Portadown), Alvin Rouse (released), Chris Morgan and Rodney McAree (retired).
Strengths: Dixie Robinson has gone about his business very quietly, but transforming a team that was on the cusp of relegation two seasons ago into top half finishers shows that he has got something about him as a manager.
Weaknesses: They have lost arguably their top two performers from last season in goalkeeper Rouse and McCafferty and two other big players have retired. Impossible to replace all four.
Key players: Dermot McCaffrey, Nial Henderson, Timmy Adamson.
Hopes for new season: Doing any better than last season’s fifth placed finish will take some going, so the Swifts would settle for emulating that and getting to another semi-final or better in the cups.
Prediction: Will find it very hard to have anything like as good a season as the last one. 8th.
Finished last season: 8th.
Players in: Kyle Neill (Glentoran), Mark Miskimmin (Linfield), Lee Windrum (Cove Rangers).
Players out: Eamonn Murray (Ballymena United), Gary Liggett (Lisburn Distillery), Rory Hamill (Bangor), Paul Carvill (Donegal Celtic), Mark Gracey and Tuda Murphy (released).
Strengths: Having a fully fit Hugh Dickson back in the squad after last season’s serious head injury will be a big help to Glenavon, because without him their team lacked leadership on the pitch. They are, however, capable of getting results anywhere, just look at the demolition job they did against Linfield back in March.
Weaknesses: There are question marks over goalkeeper Andrew Plummer and Marty Quinn has too many players who don’t live up to expectations.
Key players: Hugh Dickson, Ryan Harpur, Trevor Molloy.
Hopes for new season: Marty Quinn will be wanting to bring an end to the mediocrity that has hung over Mourneview Park since they finished second a decade ago. He’ll be determined to make the top six and at least match last season’s Irish Cup quarter-final.
Prediction: Tough season ahead in Lurgan. 10th.
Finished last season: 3rd.
Players in: Rory Patterson (Coleraine), Neal Gawley (Lisburn Distillery).
Players out: Michael Halliday (Crusaders), Kyle Neill (Glenavon), Ryan Berry (Ballymena United), Rory Patterson (Plymouth Argyle), Dean Fitzgerald and Keith Gillespie (released).
Strengths: A manager who, despite his inexperience in the dugout, has never settled for being second best — and he won’t start now.
Weaknesses: Virtually no investment in a squad that wasn’t good enough to even finish in the top two last season. If Elliott Morris has as bad a season this time it could be a long one at the Oval.
Key players: Paul Leeman, Richard Clarke, Gary Hamilton.
Hopes for new season: A lot of Glenmen won’t care about the circumstances surrounding the club, they will demand pretty football and the Gibson Cup at the end of the season. They’d be better off settling for grinding out a few results — especially away from home — and some sort of silverware to soften the blow of not winning the league.
Prediction: A tough time at the Oval with the Glens needing to win the Irish Cup to reach Europe. 4th.
Finished last season: 11th.
Players in: Philip Carson (Ballymena United), Andy Hunter (Portadown), Gary Liggett (Glenavon), Gareth McConachie (Limavady United), David Cushley (Ballymena United), Tomasz Mach (Cartusia Kartuzy - Poland), Scott Davidson (Preston North End).
Players out: Gareth McConachie (Limavady United - loan), Gavin Melaugh, David McAlinden, Austin Friel, Aaron Nash and Aaron Callaghan (released).
Strengths: They can’t be as bad as they were last season. Signing Andy Hunter will bolster them at the back.
Weaknesses: There is still a fair degree of uncertainty off the pitch at New Grosvenor.
Key players: Philip Matthews, Andy Hunter, Andy Kilmartin.
Hopes for new season: There are those around Ballyskeagh — possibly including Tommy Wright — who will hope for a top half finish. Anything better than last season’s escape act that Harry Houdini would have boasted about will do for others.
Prediction: Better than last season, but not by an awful lot. 9th.
Finished last season: 1st.
Players in: Peter Thompson (Stockport County), Chris Casement (Dundee).
Players out: Johnny Harkness (Coleraine), Conor Hagan (Newry City), Mark Miskimmin (Glenavon).
Strengths: A talented young squad that is now a year older and better off for the experience of a title win. Peter Thompson returning on a permanent deal two years after he left for Stockport County a stronger, fitter and better player than when he left.
Weaknesses: David Jeffrey has so many players he probably doesn’t know what his best 11 is. He did in 2005-06 and the Blues ended up with the Grand Slam.
Key players: Robert Garrett, Jamie Mulgrew, Peter Thompson.
Hopes for new season: Bluemen will expect the County Antrim Shield to be lifted first, before a large lead is built up in the title race, then the Co-operative Insurance Cup being won followed by the Irish Cup. Then, such is the expectation level at Windsor, after that some fans will be wanting to win the Champions League next season. They probably won’t be far off achieving the first four targets.
Prediction: Champions again. Nobody else has the strength or the depth of quality.
Finished last season: 9th.
Players in: John Convery (Portadown), Conor Hagan (Linfield), Conor Downey and Francis Murphy (both Cliftonville), Darren Murray (Newington).
Players out: Niall Henderson (Dungannon Swifts), Stephen Garrett (Cliftonville), Kevin Keegan and Niall Gallagher (released).
Strengths: Four very solid signings to raise the level of quality in the squad, it’s just a shame they aren’t all four or five years younger, but then four or five years ago those players wouldn’t have entertained a move to Newry.
Weaknesses: Newry regularly flatter to deceive and the loss of Stephen Garrett has left them without a serious enough goal threat to be a major player.
Key players: John Convery, Conor Downey, Steven Ferguson.
Hopes for new season: Gerry Flynn has been adamant from the day he took the job that Newry are a top six team. That’s what he’ll be looking to prove, as well as a cup run or two.
Prediction: Improvement, but not by much in a tightly packed mid-table. 7th.
Finished last season: 6th.
Players in: Chris Ramsey (Ballymena United), Neil McCafferty (Dungannon Swifts), Henry McStay (Morecambe).
Players out: John Convery (Newry City), Gary McCutcheon (Ballymena United), Andy Hunter (Lisburn Distillery), Ryan McCluskey and Neil Teggart (released).
Strengths: Ronnie McFall might not have signed quantity, but he has signed quality. Almost every club in the league would have loved to have added Ramsey, McStay and McCafferty to their squad.
Weaknesses: McFall will have his own reasons for the decisions he made in the summer, but letting Gary McCutcheon go without having an adequate replacement secured seems a strange move when the strikers he’s left with — other than Kevin Braniff who played a lot in midfield last season — is still very young.
Key players: David Miskelly, Darren Kelly, Kevin Braniff.
Hopes for new season: After a pretty solid return to the top flight — top six and Irish Cup final place — the Ports will want to kick on and seriously challenge for the league and win a cup competition.
Prediction: Possible return to the Irish Cup final, but title bid will fall short. 3rd.