Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Exciting times on and off the pitch for Coleraine

Big plans: How the new-look Coleraine Showgrounds
would shape up if all goes to plan
Big plans: How the new-look Coleraine Showgrounds would shape up if all goes to plan
Up for the cup: Linfield’s Bastien Hery and Chris Shields of Dundalk with Pat Jennings OBE

By Billy Weir

Oran Kearney would be forgiven if a wry smile had spread across his chops when St Johnstone's defeat of Hearts last week saw St Mirren drop to the foot of the Scottish Premiership.

Having nonsensically dispensed with his services after saving them from relegation last season, Kearney has flourished on his return to his old buddies at Coleraine.

An unbeaten league run now stretches to 14 games this season - which reaches a nice round 50 if you add it to his record first time around - with a BetMcLean League Cup semi-final place also in the bag.

Added to that, the club this week announced exciting plans to totally transform The Showgrounds, the starting point being the installation of a 4G pitch after the last ball is kicked this spring.

There is much more in the pipeline - a training pitch, new changing facilities, a much-needed upgrade to the existing Jack Doherty Stand and plans to make the Ballycastle Road an exciting hub of activity, not just for the club but for the town as a whole.

Of course there is much work to be completed on and off the pitch. Coleraine have been here before when Kearney's first stint in charge ended with the highs of an Irish Cup win, but the disappointment of just falling short to Crusaders in the race for the Gibson Cup.

They are just one of the teams nipping at their heels in what is shaping up to the be the most exciting title race since, well, last year if we're being honest, but that says a lot about just how good the league is at the moment.

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Just six points separates the Bannsiders from fifth-placed Glentoran, with Linfield ominously sitting five points behind with two games in hand, which will become three because of their cross-border action over the next week.

The biggest challenge, though, could be to keep hold of Kearney, with other Scottish clubs impressed by his achievements at St Mirren, where he remains a popular figure amongst The Simple Digital Arena (awful name) faithful.

St Mirren Park isn't a much better name - certainly not a patch on Love Street, their former home - but Kearney is still much-loved across the Irish Sea, and with teams seemingly dispensing services with managers on a daily basis at the moment, his name is bound to crop up.

Interestingly, this week the man himself admitted that he feels he has 'unfinished business' with the full-time game and, in managerial terms, at 41 he is still a cub.

"Whether I get to finish that business I'll never know," he said.

"I'm not pining to go. I love where I'm at, I'm at a great club and we are in a real good place at this point in time."

Indeed they are, and interesting to note where they are in comparison to this week's visitors to The Showgrounds, Glenavon - another with a relative youngster at the helm in the shape of Gary Hamilton.

This time last year with 14 games played, Glenavon were flying, having had only two defeats and 10 wins in those matches, and led eventual champions Linfield by a point.

In contrast, Coleraine were sitting seven points behind in fifth spot, then under the management of Rodney McAree, but a depressing winter for both clubs saw them fall away.

McAree moved on at the end of the season, while Hamilton's men clinched third spot before tumbling out of the lucrative Europa League play-off after losing to the Glens.

The harsh reality of missing out on that cash bonus is all too evident this term.

A close season of very few arrivals and the loss of key personnel through injury or heading off to pastures new means that they are currently 10th with a meagre 11 points - some 21 fewer than this time last season, although they, like Linfield, have been playing catch-up in league fixtures due to their Tunnock's Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup run.

Kearney knows, though, that there is an awful long way to go this season and, touch wood, they have avoided any real injury concerns that would derail their ambitions.

It will be interesting to see that, with an awful lot of rummaging down the back of the sofa needed to help finance the stadium transformation, if there will be a few spare coffers around to try and bolster his squad come January to make that final push.

It is pretty evident that playing under shrewd operators such as Kenny Shiels and David Jeffrey during his playing career at Ballymena United and Linfield has had an effect, with his comments at the weekend coming straight from the latter's Big Boys' Book of Playing Things Down.

"We'll have training next week and then look to do the same next Saturday - it is as boring as that," he said. "Anyone who wants to believe any of the hype is very foolish."

And Stephen Lowry, another who is excelling on his return to the north-west, has taken those words on board, as was evident as the two-goal hero of Saturday's latest win at Dungannon was equally guarded.

"We are ticking along nicely but, as the manager says, there are only 14 games played, so there is a long way to go," he said.

"We've been there before and it's important we are there come January-time. It is about staying in and around the pack now.

"If we can stay free of injuries, we'll not be too far away, but we won't get carried away by any means."

Carried away? Maybe not. But would Oran be tempted away if, say, the likes of huge clubs like Hearts or Hibernian came calling?

Ironically, Alan Stubbs, the man he took over from at St Mirren, is in the running for the Hibs post, while two men with Northern Ireland links, Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson and Austin MacPhee - part of Michael O'Neill's international set-up and caretaker boss at Hearts - are being touted as possible successors to Craig Levein.

But for now the main aim is to heap more misery on Glenavon. What happens over the next few months will be fascinating to watch, but we'll take it one game at a time, shall we?

Border talk is leaving people cross

The Unite the Union Champions Cup. No, not an early election rallying call by Nigel Farage or Arlene Foster, this is the latest attempt at an all-Ireland competition.

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Up for the cup: Linfield’s Bastien Hery and Chris Shields of Dundalk with Pat Jennings OBE

A bit like Brexit, it probably seemed a cracking idea at the time but, as we've got closer to tomorrow's first leg clash between Linfield and Dundalk at Windsor Park, it seems no-one is hugely interested.

David Healy certainly has other things on his mind, still playing catch-up in the Danske Bank Premiership.

"Winning the Unite the Union Cup is certainly not going to keep me in a job," he said at the weekend.

"The most important game for us in that period is the league game with Institute the following Saturday.

"We will play the home game on Friday and assess after that how we will approach the game in Dundalk a few nights later. Of course we will go out to win."

How interested Dundalk will be after missing out on the treble last weekend when they were defeated by Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup is debatable too.

And talking of debates - no, not more election guff - the talks about talks to have an All-Ireland League look about as rosy as the Ulster Unionists' future.

With the IFA pouring cold water on Kieran Lucid's plans, the Kerry businessman, not used to hearing 'no' (but, then again, when he was dealing with Northern Ireland, he should really have been prepared), has a Plan B. Or maybe C, D or E, I am a bit lost.

The latest would seem to be if the All-Ireland League, in its many different coats of many colours, is put to the side, we'll have a cup competition instead. What appetite there will be for that is open to question too, with headaches galore as to when and how it would be played, so the future is far from lucid just at the moment.

A lot could depend on the next week. Let us all hope that the two games between Linfield and Dundalk go off without incident off the pitch and, to make things a lot simpler, the winner can decide where to put the Irish border.                                                                                                                    

Ballymena need a United front

Some of the natives at Ballymena are revolting, by all accounts.

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David Jeffrey

Thus far, David Jeffrey’s tenure at Warden Street has gone pretty well according to plan — baby steps and incremental strides seemingly taking things forward very nicely with a runners-up spot in the league last season, a first win in Europe and hopes to drive on.

However, things have hit a huge bump in the road, and there are plenty more bumps and bruises to see. Indeed, if such an injury toll was wheeled out on Holby City, they would be laughed out of town for being far-fetched.

Cathair Friel (collarbone) and Leroy Millar (broken metatarsal) are the two latest to succumb to the jinx, with 11 first team squad members currently out of action either through injury or suspension.

That is going to have an effect on any team in the league but, even taking that into account, I am reliably informed that Saturday’s 3-0 defeat by Larne was brutal.

“It’s probably the worst I have had in 20-odd years,” admitted Jeffrey at the weekend.

“There have been occasions when you lose a raft of players, but never to this extent. 

“It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reality, and you have to take that into account in your final analysis.”

He is, of course, 100 per cent correct in that, but some fans spoilt by the highs of last year are questioning why more wasn’t done to bring in new bodies during the summer.

A couple were, though no one could have predicted the casualty toll that has hit, but with so many teams able to offer more full-time football — and, therefore, full-time wages — the market for other clubs is getting smaller and smaller each year.

Tough times and they may get a little bumpier before they smooth out, but no better man at the helm to deal with a bit of turbulence. Time for a United front.

Final word

No doubting the eye-catching fixture in the fourth round draw in the Tennent’s Irish Cup with old Linfield pals Michael Gault and Stuart King going head to head as Ballymacash Rangers take on Banbridge Town. It is highly unlikely to be quiet on the touchline that day...

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