Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Winning the Irish League's mini leagues will be clubs' new year goals

 

Squeaky bottom: Dungannon and Institute face each other this weekend
Squeaky bottom: Dungannon and Institute face each other this weekend

Billy Weir

The festive period is now well and truly upon us, turkeys are looking nervously over their shoulders and a big fat man is hanging around suspiciously with a sack.

It could almost be the Irish League, the pressure now starting to tell on the teams at the bottom and a packed Christmas programme could well make or break a couple of them.

There are certainly no turkeys at the helm of the four sides at the basement but the need to cut out any stuffings and gobble up some much-needed points won't be lost on them.

As expected, the Premiership has turned into three leagues, Linfield looking favourites for the Christmas No.1 slot but with four teams nipping at their heels in the hope that they slip up.

In the middle, there is Larne, coping very well on their return to the big time, with - and if the bottom four excuse me - Ballymena United and Glenavon, after their horrific injury problems, finally looking as if they are getting back on track.

That is a tad harsh on Carrick Rangers, I know. After all, they have recently just beaten the two previously mentioned clubs, but they recognise that the league they must win is the four-team mini one at the bottom.

Those wins against the 'big-boys' are all well and good but for Carrick, Dungannon Swifts, Institute and Warrenpoint Town, taking points off those in and around them will be key for their hopes of survival.

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Niall Currie, speaking earlier in the season, was well aware of what lay ahead.

"I look at the Premiership and see leagues within leagues, with the gap only growing between certain clubs," he said. "But we've got to look at our mini league of three or four clubs we feel we can prove competitive up against week in, week out."

And, to their credit, Carrick have done just that. Of the six matches they have played in those bottom three positions, they have picked up an impressive 15 points, the vast bulk of what they have on board the Danske Bank Premiership table.

Niall Currie
Niall Currie

Dungannon, with also five games played, come up next, with three wins and two defeats, so this Saturday's home clash with Institute is a huge game for both teams.

A win for the Swifts and they could put some daylight between themselves and Stute, but if the men from the Brandywell were to win, then they'd be just two points behind Kris Lindsay's side.

It is a massive couple of weeks for Sean Connor's outfit. They have picked up just two wins all season, one of them against Warrenpoint, but their next three games see them face all their closest rivals.

They have picked up since the new manager came in, as have Warrenpoint, but both teams desperately need to win those games against those just above them to even give them a chance of automatic preservation. The pressure is even more intense with that safety net of the 11th place finish and a play-off against the Championship runner-up no guarantee of survival.

After a great start, Dungannon had an horrendous run of form, but things look to have steadied a little with their defeat of Warrenpoint a fortnight ago and Saturday's unlucky reversal by Ballymena.

I was at that game and, cliche alert, they certainly look too good to go down. The return from retirement of Terry Fitzpatrick (more on him elsewhere) may be a masterstroke and there is even talk of the boss pulling the boots back on.

Oh, incidentally, he has asked me to point out that he is not and had never been auburn, as may have been suggested in last week's column. After some intense negotiations between our respective legal teams, we have agreed that, from henceforth, his hair is to be referred to as sheugh-water blonde. Glad to clear that up!

Anyhow, back to the matter in hand, and that mini-league could well have him ripping his hair out by the end of the season.

"There are a number of managers down there who have talked about it, and the gap in terms of quality and budget, but the gap between the top teams and the bottom ones is massive and it's getting bigger," he said.

"Make no bones about it, we are in a mini league with ourselves, Institute, Warrenpoint, Glenavon are still down there and Carrick. It is still pretty close down there, Ballymena are six ahead of us, so it's really, really tight, so it means you have to pick up points against the teams around you and then you try to pick up some against everybody else."

The sides - apart from Institute who have five games - face each other four more times in the regular season and, unless there is some sort of miracle, they will meet again after the split, so it's still all to play for.

So never mind the action at the top of the league for the major prize, the mini one at the other end promises to be just as fascinating.

Out on the wing

Video nasty throws up an interesting point

Referees — loathe them or hate them, we can’t do without them and what else would we have to moan about on a Saturday evening without the evil men in black?

I wouldn’t do the job for all the money in the world, but, and whisper it very softly, I had a certain degree of sympathy for Tim Marshall at the weekend.

His decision to send off Glentoran striker Cameron Stewart for an ‘elbow’ on Crusaders defender Howard Beverland was a huge talking point from what was, by all accounts, a cracking game.

Now, I have watched the incident about a dozen times and still can’t decide if there was any malice involved or not.

Glens manager Mick McDermott insists it simply isn’t in his player’s nature.

There certainly appears to be contact, hence why the felled player went down and, having known him for many years, I certainly don’t think he would go down to try and get a player sent off.

To me, it looked like Stewart was looking to shove him away and he appeared to catch Beverland but, as for intent, well, only he will know.

But McDermott, still upset at losing his player, made a very good point, about the standard of refereeing in general and how it must improve.

“Everyone is demanding more of us as managers and players, clubs are urged to go full-time, there is pressure to get into Europe,” he said.

“There is pressure on everyone. If everything is being upgraded, then every department in football must be upgraded, which includes the officials.”

Now, I think that is something we would all agree on.

Final Word

There's been a bit of a baby boom this week with defensive duo Aaron Traynor of Coleraine and Crusaders’ Sean Ward both celebrating new arrivals. Aaron and other half Shannon welcomed Remy and Ward and his wife Sarah also have a bouncing baby boy in the shape of Caleb. I hope all six are doing well.

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