Keith Bailie's 2014/15 Championship One Review
As this is our final edition of The Park of the season, it's a good time to reflect on the 2014/15 campaign.
In my opinion this has been the most exciting season of Championship football since the second tier of the Irish League was downgraded to Intermediate status back in 2003.
Carrick Rangers' incredible intermediate treble was certainly the season's main talking point, but they didn't have everything their own way. Ards and Bangor kept Carrick honest until the final day of the season, while the Welders and Larne also enjoyed successful seasons. Even the relegation battle kept us on the edge of our seats until the final few minutes of the season, with Donegal Celtic just sneaking past the PSNI.
If next season is half as good as this year, then it will be another belter.
Carrick Rangers have been nothing short of sensational this season. Gary Haveron's side completed a treble of trophies, putting them alongside the Crusaders side of 2006 and the Loughgall side of 2008 as one of the most successful sides the Championship has ever seen. The manner in which they won the league was both dramatic and impressive. To play 12 league games in two months was a massive ask, but Carrick held their nerve and picked off their opponents one by one.
The big question now is, do they have enough to avoid relegation? Carrick fans know only too well how difficult the task is. Three of the last four Championship winners have been relegated the following season, but with a few additions, this Carrick team are capable of bucking what is becoming a worrying trend. Hanging on to Conor McCloskey, who has been linked with a move to Cliftonville, could prove vital.
Highlight: Completing the treble by beating Harland & Wolff Welders 3-1 in the Intermediate Cup final, thanks to a sensational extra time brace from Conor McCloskey.
Low point: A heavy defeat to the Welders in August was an early hammer blow, but they bounced back in style.
Bangor can consider themselves incredibly unfortunate not to be a Premiership club. To lose the promotion play-off on a penalty shoot-out must be one of the cruellest experiences in football. But Bangor shouldn't be too downbeat, as they've a lot to be proud of. Their County Antrim Shield run was more than memorable thanks to wins over Glentoran and Crusaders. Losing Jordan Forsythe is a blow, while it's well known that Glenavon are keeping an eye on Andy Hall. Regardless, you can be sure Garth Scates and Jeff Montgomery will put together another strong team for next season. They've proved to be canny operators in the transfer market.
Highlight: Beating Crusaders at Clandeboye Park to reach the semi-finals of the League Cup. They won 4-2 after being 2-0 down.
Low point: Losing 2-1 to the PSNI at Newforge. Ultimately, it cost them the title.
Ards finished this season feeling a little sorry for themselves. To score 56 and to only lose two league games all season is quite an achievement, yet it was only enough for third place. Still, Ards can look back on this season with pride. They scored some sensational goals and recorded wins over each one of Bangor, Carrick Rangers, the Welders and Larne. Draws against the likes of DC and Ballyclare cost them promotion.
Highlight: Ross Arthurs' last minute winner against Bangor means December 27 will always been known as 'Arthurs' Day' in Newtownards.
Low point: Losing to Cliftonville Olympic in the Intermediate Cup. Ards have a dreadful record against reserve teams.
Harland & Wolff Welders were sensational on occasions this year, but a few defeats in the last month of the season cost them the chance of silverware. Mark Magennis, Scott Davidson and David Rainey were all marvellous, but the main man was striker Michael McLellan, who bagged 48 goals over the course of the season. They also enjoyed three impressive cup runs and they were unlucky not to beat Ballymena United in the Irish Cup.
Highlight: Beating holders Glenavon in the Sixth Round of the Irish Cup.
Low point: Losing 4-1 to Carrick in the Steel & Sons Cup final on Christmas morning. They froze.
Larne were the surprise package of the season. They had an outside chance of winning the league right up until March. David McAlinden can lay claim to the find of the season in the form of Ciaran Murray. His strike partnership with Paul Maguire is one of the best in the league.
Highlight: A fine 3-1 victory over the Welders at Tillysburn in October.
Low point: Scott Irvine's devastating head injury. Thankfully Scott is well on his way to recovery.
Dergview have built a reputation for being one of the most difficult teams to beat away from home. They were unbeaten at Darragh Park for over a year, until Bangor beat them 3-0 last month. Richard Clarke's side can be very proud of their sixth-place finish.
Highlight: A 3-2 win over Larne at Darragh Park in March.
Low point: The 3-0 defeat to Bangor in April ended their incredible unbeaten run.
Armagh City finished in the top half of the division, despite this being their first season back in Championship One. While there was no glorious cup run this year, the Holm Park side proved themselves to be well worthy of a place in the second tier.
Highlight: A 2-0 win over the Welders at Tillysburn in April helped shoot Marty Rice's team up the table.
Low point: A 4-0 away defeat to Ballyclare in November was hard to take.
Knockbreda had a season of two halves. Before Christmas they competed at the top end of the table, claiming victories over the likes of Ards, but the second half of the season was incredibly frustrating. An eight-game run without a win threatened to pull them into a relegation scrap before two wins in April saved their season and gave them an eighth-place finish.
Highlight: October's 3-1 win over Ards was a stunning display.
Low point: A 5-0 home defeat against Carrick started the losing streak.
Ballyclare Comrades had a season of ups and downs, with manager Eddie Hill replaced by David Dorrian in March. The Dixon Park men did enough to avoid relegation and eventually secure a ninth-place finish. The discovery of talents such as Kyle Buckley and Joel Cooper gave the Comrades something to shout about.
Highlight: A jaw-dropping 6-2 win over Distillery at New Grosvenor.
Low point: Losing 4-1 on the first day of the season to Larne left Ballyclare fans fearing a long, hard season.
Lisburn Distillery had a similar season to Knockbreda. Before Christmas, the Whites looked like a strong Championship One side, but they really struggled to pick up points after Christmas, despite a good run in the Intermediate Cup. The Whites took just one point from their final nine games.
Highlight: The Whites beat Dundela to reach the Intermediate Cup semi-finals.
Low point: A 6-0 home defeat to Harland & Wolff Welders was hard to take.
Loughgall also endured a season of two halves, with Brian Adair in charge until Christmas before Noel Mitchell stepped in, in January. A number of high-profile departures in January hurt the Villagers but Mark Carson helped inspire Loughgall to a few wins, which ultimately kept them in the division.
Highlight: Winning the Bob Radclife Cup by beating Annagh United on Boxing Day.
Low point: Brian Adair quitting straight after the Bob Radcliffe Cup success.
Donegal Celtic finished the season with their best performance, a resounding 3-0 win over Loughgall that kept them in the second tier. For those who don't know the details, a 12th place finish for team that was in the Premiership just two seasons ago looks terrible, but manager Nicky Maye worked a minor miracle with a tiny budget. With Danny Wallace and Emmet Templeton set to depart, hanging onto manager Maye is vital for DC.
Highlight: Beating Loughgall 3-0 at Lakeview to stave off relegation.
Low point: Switching the fixture with the PSNI to Newforge was a difficult time for the West Belfast club.
PSNI may have been relegated to Championship Two but they can take the step down with their heads held high. In November, the Police conceded 23 goals in just four games but manager Jamesie Kirk turned things around, securing 18 points after Christmas. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.
Highlight: Beating Bangor 2-1 at Newforge in April.
Low point: The 8-0 defeat to Bangor at Clandeboye Park in November was humiliating.
Dundela had a terrible season. There's really no way to sugar coat it. The Duns claimed just 13 points and three wins all season, which is desperately disappointing for a team that challenge for the title the previous season. New manager Darren Lockhart will be hoping to inspire the Hen Run club to better things in Championship Two next season. They're a proud club who will bounce back.
Highlight: A 4-0 opening day win over Loughgall took the Duns top of the league. It didn't last.
Low point: A bad tempered 2-1 defeat at the hands of Knockbreda was a difficult day.