Great teams need great leaders and there are a host of worthy contenders for the Manager of the Year accolade in the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.
MANAGING JUST FINE: Stephen Baxter celebrates Crusaders’ Irish Cup triumph and (below) Armagh Minors won the All Ireland title under the guidance of Paul McShane
The award went to Linfield boss David Jeffrey last year and this time around local football has produced two outstanding contenders.
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Stephen Baxter has led a rejuvenation of cash-strapped Crusaders, culminating in an Irish Cup triumph with a 1-0 win over Cliftonville in the final.
The Shore Road club’s success was reflected in international call-ups for skipper Colin Coates and winger Martin Donnelly, both playing for Northern Ireland against Italy in the friendly in Pisa.
The demands of the local game mean that the other contender is currently under severe pressure to hang on to his job as manager of Glentoran.
How different things were just a few short months ago for Alan McDonald — one of the heroes of Northern Ireland’s last successful World Cup qualifying campaign in 1986. McDonald broke Linfield’s three-year domination of the league championship by steering Glentoran to their first title since 2005.
The Glens followed up that Irish League title triumph by stunning the local game with the high profile signing of Keith Gillespie, who had starred for the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle as well as earning 86 Northern Ireland caps in the process.
In rugby, it was a fantastic season for Ballynahinch, the club winning every competition contested — a feat dubbed the ‘Hinch Grand Slam — under the leadership of head coach Derek Suffern, assisted by Brian McLaughlin, who has since taken the reins as Ulster coach, and Daniel Soper.
Flanker Willie Faloon has progressed from that highly successful Ballynahinch side to hold down a regular place with Ulster, while up and coming ‘Hinch stars Paddy McAllister, Nevin Spence and David McGregor are pushing hard for full Ulster contracts.
John Breen has been in charge of the leading professional boxing stable in the country for many years and he currently boasts a fine crop of fighters such as Paul McCloskey — who clinched the European light welterweight title last weekend — and Neil Sinclair as well as a host of rising stars.
GAA has produced several candidates this year for this prestigious award.
Tyrone boss Mickey Harte targets the All Ireland crown at the start of each campaign but this time the Red Hands fell to Cork at the semi-final stage after picking up the Ulster title by beating shock troops Antrim in the final.
For the Saffrons that was a first Ulster Final since 1970 and much of the credit for a surprise run to the decider must go to manager Liam Bradley who has moulded a young side capable of great things in the years ahead.
The future also looks bright for Armagh after the county’s minors landed a first All Ireland title for 60 years. Paul McShane was the man behind that success and players from his young side look set to underpin the Armagh senior side for years to come.
Bobby Platt has helped churn out numerous rowing champions over the years. The Coleraine-based coach has produced a host of international oarsmen of which Alan Campbell could prove the pick of the bunch.
Campbell has emerged as possibly the world’s finest single sculler and is tipped to win Gold at London 2012.