Billy Weir: Cliftonville could still have a say in most open title race in recent memory
Apologies for my absence for the last couple of weeks, I've been away to Latvia on an exchange trip and things didn't go altogether ticketyboo.
I enjoyed my brief stay at the Baltic Bugle (this is a made-up newspaper, not a medical complaint), but I was in a strange culture, had a basic grasp of the lingo, didn't know anyone or anything, and the harder I tried, the worse it got.
Still, I don't think I missed much refereeing news here and, while I am looking forward to my next posting in Uzbekistan, it's nice to be home.
And talking of that (warning, tenuous link approaching) Cliftonville's eighth win on the bounce at Solitude on Saturday, a madcap 4-2 success over Glenavon, means that out of the 32 points Barry Gray's men have plundered this season, only seven of them have been away from home.
It took them to fourth in the Danske Bank Premiership table, but on home form alone they lead the way, closely followed by Linfield and champions-elect Ballymena United (okay, I got carried away there, small, incremental steps and all that).
If the Reds could produce some of that home form on their travels they would be real contenders for the title, especially now that Rory Donnelly seems to have rediscovered his scoring boots and the over-dependence on Joe Gormley's goals is no longer such an issue.
The return of Conor McDonald is also a key factor, he gives the Reds a much-needed midfield thrust going forward, but we all know we've been here before with Cliftonville.
They have more blips than a Pac-man convention and there is also the small matter of the most open title race in my memory coming up nicely to the boil.
David Jeffrey, who collected a quite remarkable 35th Manager of the Month award this week, has banged on since arriving at Warden Street that he wanted it to become a fortress.
To be honest, I have heard these words before - Kenny Shiels, Tommy Wright, Roy Walker, Glenn Ferguson... need I go on? But on current evidence there is indeed a warm welcome awaiting teams in the shadow of Slemish, but woe betide anyone who tries to pilfer points.
Due to the resurfacing work at The Showgrounds, the Sky Blues didn't play a home game until the start of October, but having returned to home soil they have picked up 19 points out of a possible 21, made it through to the League Cup Final decider and face Linfield next week in the County Antrim Shield semi-final, also on their own patch.
After having 12 games away, they have done remarkably well to notch up 22 points, and with the season moving into the second stage they will hope to make those extra home games count.
"Playing so many games away from home at the start of the season certainly was a challenge, but one we all positively embraced and the players responded to it," Jeffrey explained.
"We are trying to make The Showgrounds something of a fortress and the players are certainly buying into it."
Home success certainly goes a long way in homing in on success, as the league table of home matches alone shows.
One of the startling revelations is that Coleraine would be down in seventh spot on their displays at Ballycastle Road, only three wins from nine outings under Oran Kearney and Rodney McAree a major factor in their stuttering campaign thus far.
On the road it has been different, with only one defeat and 16 points collected, and with a team built to play football how it should be played, you have to wonder just how big an effect playing on the poor surface at the Showgrounds is having?
As you would expect, Linfield are up there near the top too, the Crues are still a real handful at Seaview and, after an horrendous spell at Mourneview Park, Gary Hamilton seems to have finally got Glenavon playing well in Lurgan.
Institute have the worst home record and that is perhaps no real surprise. It was always going to be hard to adjust to life at the Brandywell, the novelty value for teams playing at the home of Derry City an unwelcome attraction for Paddy McLaughlin's men.
Two wins and a draw in their first three games at 'home' promised good times to come. But since that great start, last Saturday's sharing of the spoils with Glentoran is as good as it has got, and they have taken some big beatings too.
Institute are one of the few teams to have taken more points on their travels - they would be sitting sixth in an 'away' table.
As for the other teams in that bottom five, Ards, Newry City, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town, it is only their home form that is keeping them afloat.
So, now in the mouth of Christmas, as Chris Rea may have said, it's all about driving home that advantage to get the biggest present of all.
Just don’t tell Paddy about lovely football
This is advanced warning of an icy blast coming from a north-westerly direction.
Nothing to do with the weather, but if one more person tells Paddy McLaughlin that Institute play some lovely football, they’d better hotfoot it over Glenshane Pass before he catches up with them.
Stute seem to have taken over the mantle that belonged to Dungannon for so many years, but while the Premiership new-boys do indeed knock the ball around superbly well, McLaughlin, a no-nonsense defender in his playing days, will be hurting at how many goals they have conceded so far.
And some crucial late ones among them too, goals that cost them points against Glenavon and Crusaders, and with 37 shipped in already, he knows he can’t rely on his side’s exciting attacking play to always bail them out.
“We knew coming down here that Institute were going to play good football, get it out from the back and pass the ball well,” said Ronnie McFall after Glentoran’s 3-3 draw at the Brandywell.
McLaughlin was last seen heading over Glenshane with a bag of salt, some polar bear repellent and a copy of The Big Boy’s Book of Lovely Football on the way to Ballymena for a game that could end up any score.
Great to see that Kane is able to play again
Far be it from me to admit that Coleraine defender Steven Douglas can talk a bit of sense at times, but he did just that at the weekend and on a great subject — the return of Lyndon Kane.
Possibly local football’s unluckiest player, the talented full-back made his return from injury on Saturday against Ards and things couldn’t have gone much better with a clean sheet and three points.
More importantly, Kane played 80-odd minutes of the match and showed no ill-effects from the broken metatarsal that left him on the sidelines for eight months, including missing out his hometown club’s Irish Cup triumph.
“There was no sign of him taking things easy,” said Dougie. “He put in some shift and was absolutely spent when we finally managed to get him off before the end. It speaks volumes for the calibre of the man that he has come through such an ordeal a second time yet remained so positive.”
Indeed it does, let’s hope he gets nothing but lucky breaks from now on.
Or perhaps this should be called Final Chance as the nomadic striking talent that is Darren Murray heads to the Glens to try and save his career. No better man than Ronnie McFall to try and do that but it is up to the player, a fantastic one on his day, to knuckle down and prove the doubters wrong.