Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Bigger isn't necessarily better in our derby duels

By Billy Weir

In typically understated Ronnie McFall fashion this week, the Glentoran manager ruffled a few feathers when he claimed that the Big Two match is still the biggest in the game.

The Glens play host to Linfield in Monday's offering on Sky in what will be his latest taste of the derby again in his second coming at The Oval.

"Glentoran versus Linfield matches are always special," he said earlier this week.

"It's a game that still gives me a buzz and I'm sure anyone that has been involved in it over the years would say the same. It's still the biggest game in Irish League football."

But is it? Yes, it will certainly generate the biggest crowd of the season so far, as it does every season apart from cup finals, but in recent times it would be hard to argue that it is now the most important game on the local calendar.

Indeed, given the rise of Crusaders, a convincing case for saying the Big Two game isn't even the biggest game in Belfast anymore could be made, as the title showdowns between the Crues and the Blues have become the season-defining clashes of late.

Traditionally the Big Two have battled it out at the top of the Irish League. The history books don't lie - well, not all the time - but Linfield have won the title a quite frankly ridiculous 52 times, while the Glens are up next with 23 crowns.

No one else even comes remotely close. After that in the pecking order come Belfast Celtic, Crusaders and Lisburn Distillery, and, no disrespect, but the odds on two of that trio adding to their tally any time soon is slim. I mean, the Crues are in freefall...

Talking of history, a trip down memory lane, via Wikipedia, shows that the original Big Two, when Ronnie was in short trousers pre-1949, was Linfield and Belfast Celtic, the Glens taking up the challenge after Celtic's controversial departure from local football.

Incredibly, it has been 10 seasons since Glentoran lifted the Gibson Cup, that success under the late, great Alan McDonald, coming in the first season of the new Premiership.

Since then it has been slim pickings, especially in clashes against the old enemy from the south of the city. In 38 league meetings, the Blues have won 20 to the Glens' seven, with 11 draws, and in all cup meetings it hasn't been any better, with the standings 7-3 in Linfield's favour.

However, under McFall, with the help of two Mersey Street legends in the shape of Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman, there have at long last been the green shoots of recovery sprouting in the east, and this is the first major test of where they are at the moment.

Linfield have been brilliant this season. Defensively sound, they have the player of the season thus far in Joel Cooper and the additions of Michael O'Connor and Daniel Kearns have helped take the weight off Andrew Waterworth.

Much was made of the Glens' summer buying, or the lack of, until the dying embers of pre-season, but in the likes of John Herron and Conor Pepper, what they have lacked in quantity has certainly been made up for in quality, and how sweet would it be for Curtis Allen to complete his century of goals against the Blues?

The league as a whole, and certainly in the top six/seven, is much stronger than it has ever been. Cliftonville and Crusaders have emerged as real forces since the Premiership's inception, while Coleraine last season and Glenavon this have shown the country cousins are in no mood to be swatted aside by the city slickers anymore.

Crusaders play host to Cliftonville in tomorrow evening's first live game to be shown on BBC2 Northern Ireland, and Jordan Owens picked up on McFall's assertion of Big Two superiority.

"When I was coming through at Crusaders, Linfield and Glentoran matches were always the biggest, and they still are in terms of support, but the Reds and ourselves have won league titles and other trophies, so the north Belfast derbies have taken on another dimension," said Owens.

"The Big Two games always attract big crowds but the atmosphere at the north Belfast derbies has also got a lot better in recent seasons."

The Ballymena United v Coleraine derby is also a belter, while we've been denied the Mid-Ulster version with Portadown's demise, and the Middleclasico in North Down between Ards and Bangor is now just a distant memory.

If the old master McFall can silence the noisy neighbours then it could well be another step closer to restoring the Big Two game to the top of the pecking order, but knowing Ronnie, he'd happily take three points and not give a damn about top billing.

Ref justice as DJ wants to change the record

Ballymena United earned plaudits and put the first dent in Linfield’s previously unblemished goals-conceded column, but that was of no consolation to David Jeffrey.

The Sky Blues boss was fuming after referee Tim Marshall’s decision, or lack of, for what looked a stonewall penalty when Josh Robinson shoved over Cathair Friel in the box.

He should have also have given one at the same end for the Blues when Scot Whiteside kept the ball out with his hands, but, as always, two wrongs don’t make a right and the DJ wants to change the record.

“It’s interesting that managers are called to account, coaches are called to account and players are called to account. But I wonder when we are going to have a day when officials are sitting in front of the press answering independent questions.

“I had three phone calls last year from referees apologising for decisions they got wrong. I appreciate that, but I would have appreciated it more if they got the decisions right on the day.”

He’ll hope that a first home outing of the season will go a bit better, with no mention of referees or stock cars, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Mr Cliftonville’s never been an ordinary Joe

Two more goals, the levelling of a record and a new name — all in a day’s work for the goalscoring machine that is Cliftonville’s Joe Gormley.

Or rather that should be ‘Mr Cliftonville’ according to Reds boss Barry Gray, who saw the striker rescue his side after a simply sensational goal from Michael McLellan gave Ards the lead at Solitude on Saturday.

Gormley scored either side of Conor McMenamin’s effort to join Kevin McGarry as the club’s leading marksman on 170 goals, and what a way it would be to break it with a trip to north Belfast rivals Crusaders on tomorrow night.

“He loves playing for Cliftonville, he loves scoring for Cliftonville and to have equalled the club’s goal record is fantastic, he deserves all the credit,” said Gray.

“I call him Mr Cliftonville. I don’t think he really likes it but that’s what he epitomises to me. He’s so humble, so nice, always willing to work hard and do his bit for the team.”

Mind you, the record should be in the bag already after he missed a sitter on Saturday. But, then again, he’s Mr Cliftonville, not Mr Perfect.

Final word: There is absolutely no truth in the scurrilous rumours that Etch-a-Sketch are to become the new sponsors of Coleraine FC because they are so good at drawing! Still no defeats, but sharing the spoils on six occasions won’t help their designs on the Gibson Cup. Glenavon come calling on Saturday. I fancy a draw...

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