Cliftonville retaining title hunger
Published 29/06/2013 | 08:00
One brief look at the fixtures for the new season was enough to tell Tommy Breslin just how hard retaining the Irish League title is going to be.
Not that the Cliftonville manager was ever in any doubt, but if he had been then it would have been wiped out very quickly – by looking only as far as the second week of matches.
"I had a quick glance at the fixtures. Ards at home, Linfield away ...," said Breslin.
Then he stopped.
It wasn't so much what he did say as what he didn't. His silence spoke volumes.
A clash between the champions and the team that will be their chief challengers just a week into the new campaign won't decide the title, but it will lay down a marker.
A victory either way will send out a strong statement of intent. Defeat, even at such an early stage of the season, could be a hefty blow. Having another thirty six matches to overcome the loss of three points may sound fine, but if confidence is shaken and belief is knocked then that might not be enough.
The big games will come thick and fast once the first ball is kicked, particularly for Cliftonville who have a massive Champions League tie against Scottish giants Celtic to come before they even start to think about the defence of their title.
"I tend to break things down into one-month or six-week blocks to see where we can get points and the first thing that struck me is that they all look difficult," said Breslin.
"The challenge for us is to get the players up again – although the Celtic games will help on that score.
"The biggest challenge though is to try to retain the title and everyone at Cliftonville should know how hard that is because the last time we won the league the team ended up in a relegation play-off the following season.
"It's a question of whether the hunger is still there, but all the players have come back in good shape and they have looked sharp so far in pre-season training.
"I know that the ability is there in the squad, now it's all about their heads being right if we are to challenge again.
"We know it will be tougher because everyone will try to strengthen, but we broke Linfield's dominance and that's forced others to go out and strengthen their squads."
Linfield like to make sure that their actions always speak louder than their words and in signing Andy Waterworth, Mark Haughey, Sean Ward, Johnny Tuffey, Matthew Clarke and now James Knowles they have ensured that is the case.
If Breslin thought that his start was tough, he should be glad that he isn't Linfield manager David Jeffrey, who has been handed the most difficult start of all.
"I've just seen the league fixtures for the new season and certainly, we will face a most exciting opening set of four games, with tough games against Portadown, Cliftonville, Crusaders and Glentoran before August is over," said Jeffrey.
"These games will be real battles and challenges, but they will be games the players and I will really relish."
The competition will run under the new banner of the Northern Ireland Football League – a company that is independent of the Irish FA – but you won't really notice the difference.
Danske Bank have agreed a 12 month extension to their sponsorship deal and the 12-team format, with three meetings before the top six/bottom six split will be the same.
There will be one change though; the name of Warrenpoint Town has been added to the mix after their promotion from the Belfast Telegraph Championship and manager Barry Gray is now getting a flavour of what awaits him over the next 10 months.
"When the fixtures come out and you see home matches against Cliftonville and Linfield in the opening five weeks of the season you get a sense of reality," said Gray.
"There is a buzz around the local area and the fixtures coming out will add to that."
And the excitement will grow when Town bring Premiership football to their Milltown home, which is anticipated to be before Christmas.
"The planning application has been lodged and the finance secured to develop the ground," said Gray, whose team will start the season with a 'home' game against Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park.
"Hopefully the builders will be on-site within the next few months, although I don't know the exact time scale, but we're looking at getting back to Milltown in November or December – certainly in this calendar year.
"We want to play Premiershp football in Warrenpoint as quickly as possible."
Gray has been busy signing players, with former Sunderland trainee Liam Bagnall, his biggest capture.
The 21-year-old – who was capped at under-21 level by Northern Ireland – has been out of football since leaving the Black Cats a year ago and has been playing GAA for his local club.