Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: It's a rare Gray day for Bannsiders as Town turn the table

Going to Town: Alan O’Sullivan celebrates one of his two goals for Warrenpoint against Coleraine on Saturday
Going to Town: Alan O’Sullivan celebrates one of his two goals for Warrenpoint against Coleraine on Saturday

By Billy Weir

People, mostly those of dubious character and questionable morals, often come up to me and ask why I am such a fan of Irish League football.

Is it the glamour, the desire to be surrounded by common folk bedecked in man-made fibres or simply any excuse to get out of the house on a Saturday?

Of course not, it is the sheer unpredictability of the whole thing that makes it as memorable as a night out at Pizza Express in Woking.

Last weekend was yet another classic example of the supreme madness that the Danske Bank Premiership can serve up.

Top losing to bottom, new leaders in Cliftonville, 10-man Larne winning, Linfield getting three penalties up at Institute and Crusaders somehow snatching victory with a last-gasp show at Carrick.

Back to the start, and it was that win by Warrenpoint Town over Coleraine that was the eye-catching result and necessitates the cliche that is trotted out by just about every manager each week, that 'there are no easy games in the Irish League'.

In fairness, games against Warrenpoint have been just that this term, far too easy, costing Stephen McDonnell his job a few weeks ago and opening the door for former boss Barry Gray to try and rescue the Mournemen.

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Up until Saturday they had shipped 54 goals in their 15 games thus far, so it didn't take a genius to figure out where to concentrate on first.

In Alan O'Sullivan they have a striker who always looks like he can pick up a goal if given a few opportunities and he did that on Saturday by bagging a brace, while the return of Lorcan Forde on loan from Linfield always looked like a shrewd move by McDonnell, but unfortunately he isn't getting the benefit of it.

But it is what it is, one win. They are still two points behind Institute who, like Warrenpoint, have picked up under their new boss Sean Connor and have a game in hand over Town.

Barry Gray is no mug. He knows that they have to produce Saturday's performance and more if they are to climb out of the mire, but with Dungannon Swifts in freefall and the injury woes of Glenavon and Ballymena United, the bottom six is still pretty congested.

Next up, Crusaders come to Milltown. They have been stuttering a little of late and were looking down the barrel of another defeat on Friday night when Guillaume Keke fired Carrick into a half-time lead.

They showed the fight of champions to roar back in the second period, nicking the win with two late goals, and with the armoury they have at their disposal they can do that more than most.

Gray made no apology for going back to basics on Saturday. He and Town rose to prominence with their free-flowing, pass and move football that was a breath of fresh air, but needs must when the wolves are howling at the door.

Hard work, defensive shape, some cuteness and finally making the most of their chances were the key to the success.

"If you look at the basics of what we did well, that needs to be the platform every week," he said.

"The weeks you do that and don't get a result, you can take it. I've only been here for three games and we haven't seen enough of that."

As for the Bannsiders? Well, it's hardly time for beating of chests and throwing your arms up to your deity of choice, it's one defeat, and if you are going to lose one, better to ship it to someone who isn't going to be nibbling at your ankles in the run-in.

That, though, will cut little ice with Oran Kearney. He has already had a wee grumble this season about the five draws that contributed to their unbeaten start to the campaign and ultimately it is those 10 dropped points that could hurt more come the end of the season.

Yes, they've had the headlining double triumphs over Linfield and Crusaders, but they have dropped points to Glentoran, Larne, Ballymena United, Institute and Cliftonville, and that will continue to nag away at Kearney.

The Invincibles are no more, although Moyola Park will rightly point out that they beat them earlier in the season in the North West Cup, but after 52 unbeaten league games spread over Kearney's two spells in charge, the run is at an end.

It was almost exactly two years to the day that they lost 2-1 to Linfield at Windsor Park, and from that they went unbeaten until the end of the season. But, despite just one reversal all campaign, they still lost out on the Gibson Cup to Crusaders.

The Irish Cup win was some solace and the unbeaten league run continued at the start of the next campaign before Kearney's move to St Mirren, and the Bannsiders just couldn't reproduce that form for Rodney McAree.

"Am I disappointed now because the run has ended? No, I'm disappointed because we've dropped three points that should have been within our grasp," explained Kearney on Saturday.

"Where these three points could take us in a matter of months' time I don't know, and that's the overriding emotion at this time.

"It's never been about preserving a run. It's never been about setting whatever records are out there. It's been about trying to get three points on the board every time.

"Maybe over the last few weeks we've carried the odd player here and there, but we just had too many passengers.

"I watched Carrick against Crusaders. If we're in and around that level of performance, Carrick will chin us next week."

This is a big test now for Coleraine. At the start of the season I doubted whether they would have enough depth in the squad to deal with the workload and the inevitable injuries they would pick up.

They've been without skipper Stephen O'Donnell and Josh Carson, James McLaughlin is back from his hamstring pull, while Aaron Jarvis and Ian Parkhill have also been hampered with niggling problems.

Typically, the defeat came when the Bannsiders picked up both the Manager of the Month and Player of the Month awards, the law of sod being shown yet again.

The match with Carrick this week is a huge one for them, against a team that is running through walls for Niall Currie, but I think it's a little too early to start with the 'Coleraine in crisis' headlines.

Ports are finding the going tough

If there’s one thing even harder to predict than the Danske Bank Premiership then it’s the Bluefin Sport Championship, or the B Division to you and me.

While Warrenpoint’s win was rightly the talk of the town, there was another result in the division below that almost passed everyone by.

Loughgall 0 Knockbreda 3. Okay, it’s not USA 1 England 0, Costa Rica beating Scotland or Carrick toppling Linfield in the Irish Cup final, but for a team that had won just one other game thus far it is monumental.

And no mean feat to do it at Lakeview Park. Few teams go down there and win, never mind banging in three goals without reply for good measure.

It is a major dent for the Co Armagh men, who had topped the division for a while but have slipped down to third behind Portadown and Ballinamallard United. Harry McConkey is working his magic again down at Ferney Park, a 4-0 thumping of Dundela at Wilgar Park showing the Ports that they face a tough fight for a return to the Premiership.

Matthew Tipton seems to have steadied the ship on the pitch for a club that has lurched from one disaster to another in recent times, some of them self-inflicted, and the fight for survival continues.

Despite their lofty league position, the numbers coming through the turnstiles, which tailed off after relegation, have continued to fall, a point club chairman Ronnie Stinson raised recently, praising the loyal fanbase who continue to follow the club but wondering why they can’t get more bums on seats.

“Interest from the casual fan continues to fall, and you have to wonder, does the town even want a football club?” he told the Portadown Times.

“We can appreciate attendances have been falling over a number of years due to the club not being competitive for major trophies or because of relegation. We have worked hard to clear our historical debt and continue to build our sponsorship support, but the current financial gap on a week-to-week basis is crippling.”

Local football needs a strong Portadown, they would add much to the Danske Bank Premiership and certainly their spell in the Championship is helping boost the coffers of the sides they visit.

However, there should be a bumper crowd at Shamrock Park this Saturday when Loughgall come for the mid-Ulster derby, so if you’re in that neck of the woods, why not go along and support your local team?

Blues show sign of intentions

The sign of any successful team is their determination not to stand still, and Linfield have shown that again this week.

  With three games in hand over new leaders Cliftonville, and still basking in last season’s title success and subsequent European adventure, David Healy could have been forgiven for sticking with what he has.

  Not a bit of it. Kyle McLean, who impressed on loan from St Johnstone last season, has signed a permanent two-and-a-half-year deal and will be available from January.

  Perhaps an even bigger signal of intent, though, is the arrival of Ethan Boyle, formerly of Shamrock Rovers.

  At only 22 it is a superb acquisition by the Blues, made possible through the mercurial work of Willie McKeown, and to pinch him from under the noses of Derry City is quite a boost for Healy.

  “It’s an exciting new challenge for me. Linfield are a very big club on this island and will be challenging for major silverware,” said the Wexford native.

  He can play right wing back or in the centre of defence and is another boost following the recent new contracts for a clutch of first-team regulars.

  It is unlikely to be Healy’s last piece of business as he gets to work climbing to the top of the table, another striker likely to be top of his shopping list just in case vultures swoop in to grab Shayne Lavery in January.

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