Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Five key games in the Danske Bank Premiership run-in

By Billy Weir

I can't be sure, but I am taking a stab in the dark that Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton is not a student of Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch, who was knocking about Rome back in the days of Julius Caesar.

It was Plutarch who foresaw that poor old Julius would meet his demise before the Ides of March were through and, what do you know, poor old Caesar did indeed come a cropper.

Fast forward 2000-odd years and the muse of Mourneview gave the soothsayer of yesteryear a run for his money with an all-too prophetic vision of apocalyptic doom following his side's Tennent's Irish Cup defeat by little Loughgall (it is a legal requirement that 'little' must be inserted before all giant-killers).

"We really need to lift our standards in terms of what we did on Saturday and how we played on Saturday," said Hamilton.

"If we don't, and if we play like that - and I'm not exaggerating - it will be six or seven to Crusaders."

So, let's take the positives. At least it wasn't seven, and with that foresight I wouldn't be worrying about my formation to take on Glentoran on Saturday, I'd be picking my Euromillions numbers.

Of course, Julius Caesar was ambushed by an angry mob, but he'd probably have had no answer to the even more lethal attack of Jordan Owens, Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley who ripped poor Glenavon to shreds on Tuesday night.

I'm no ancient seer, but I think we can safely say now that Glenavon are no longer involved in the fight for the Gibson Cup and, with their Cup exit, it will be a tough end to the season.

With eight games to go now for most teams, it is down to the business end of affairs, with pretty much everything still up for decision.

The Crues still head Coleraine who, remarkably, have only lost one Danske Bank Premiership game all season, but still find themselves five points behind Stephen Baxter's men who have now notched up a quite simply ridiculous 91 goals so far.

They haven't lost in 20 league games and look unstoppable, and let's hope that Plutarch has landed himself a job in NIFL to help out with the post-split fixtures so that the one clash left between the leading protagonists will mean something.

At the other end of the table, there's still a lot of togas in serious danger of needing a good dry clean, with Ballinamallard United seven points behind Carrick Rangers but with a game in hand.

And Carrick have an horrendous run-in to the split, with games against Linfield, Cliftonville and Coleraine.

It will be interesting to see just how Warrenpoint Town react following the exit of Matthew Tipton to Portadown, and with only four points separating them and Carrick, their clash in the final five-game split will be a huge match.

Of course, something that all the soothsayers that have ever been couldn't have predicted was the arrival of a septuagenarian that divides opinion taking over in the Oval Office.

No, not Donald Trump, Ronnie McFall who has suddenly turned the Glens around with two wins on the bounce to put them in prime position to take the final top six place.

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Ronnie McFall

Ballymena United are five points behind and have two games in hand over the Glens, and the two meet on the last night of the regular season, scheduled for Friday, March 23, but the way things have been going, this will be played in early September. Year to be confirmed.

So, here are my key games to settle things, but with no dates set yet for the post-split encounters, these are subject to change and cataclysmic weather forces.

Cliftonville v Crusaders (Saturday, March 10): A massive day for the leading duo in the league and, with Cliftonville in the middle of one of their baffling dips on Barry's roller-coaster ride, will it be another 50 shades of anger from Gray or a red-letter day? The Crues, of course, were pummelled on their last visit to Solitude in the Irish Cup and will be out for revenge but, more importantly, the three points.

Ballymena United v Coleraine (Saturday, March 10): The second parochial battle of the day and featuring Ballymena United, the baby elephant of Irish League sides. Yes, they are fun, entertaining and good to be around, but you just know that one day, one day, they will poo all over the living room carpet. This is what Oran Kearney - who, any day now, will concede that the Bannsiders are involved in the race for the title - will be keen to avoid. Last year the wheels came off Crusaders at Warden Street, the Bannsiders will be determined not to suffer a similar fate. Bring a shovel.

Linfield v Glentoran (Saturday, March 17): The Big Two, or possible fifth v seventh if results go very badly for the pair of them over the next couple of weeks. A huge game for David Healy, and what a difference a year has made for him and the Blues, while across the city a win for big Ronnie and they'll probably commission a statue for Mersey Street.

Carrick Rangers v Ballinamallard United (TBA): The joy of the post-split is that any team can beat each other in the final five games of madness, with one eye cocked nervously over their collective shoulders as to who is in the running to come up from the Championship, whether automatically or by the nail-biting magnificence of the play-offs. These two don't like each other very much, so can you imagine them facing off on the last day needing a win for survival?

Linfield v Crusaders (TBA): It could well be a meaningless fixture by the time it comes around, but can you imagine how pleasing it would be for the Crues, so hurt after having their pockets picked last year by the Blues, for them to walk past a guard of honour at Windsor Park?

Of course, there could well be repeats of this weekend's derby games to throw into the mix as well, while teams progressing in the Irish Cup who may have little to play for in league terms could well take their eye off the ball in the Premiership.

Whatever happens, it doesn't take Plutarch, or me, to tell you that there are bound to be a few more twists and turns before it is all over.

In Lurgan they think it’s all Rover, it is now

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the hordes of Glenavon fans who braved the cold and snow to make Mourneview Park playable for Saturday’s Irish Cup clash with little Loughgall.

Dozens of people of all ages were out on the pitch to get it ready, including the bizarre sight of cars parked on the turf, although this is a regular occurrence at the Ballymena Showgrounds, but at least they took a little more care.

It was just a shame that it didn’t have the happy ending they deserved when they were dumped out by Dean Smith’s team.

Congratulations to them for what was a thoroughly deserved win, with goals from Gary Liggett and Dale Montgomery and a dream come true for teenage goalie Craig Robinson, who found out he was playing on the morning of the game and performed heroically.

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Loughgall's goalscorers Gary Liggett and Dale Montgomery celebrate. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

It’s D-Day as league banks on new scheme

Yet another date to add to your diary, with the first ever ‘Danske Day’ taking place this Saturday. No, not an opportunity to go and harangue your local bank manager about your overdraft, a chance to shout out your love for the greatest wee league in the world.

NI Football League Development Manager, Steven Mills, explained: “We wanted to celebrate a day for everything good about our local game.” Presumably referees are not invited then? Only joking.

Let’s hope it is a big success and, who knows, with BBCNI set to lose the PRO14 rugby games there is a big sport-shaped live hole just crying out to be filled on a Friday evening.

Never mind D-Day, let’s make it FNF Friday Night Football on the Beeb. I’ll not hold my breath on this one, they’ll be too busy with Barra Best’s World of Clouds, a really unfunny comedy programme or some oul political garbage no one gives a monkey’s about.

Billy tackles Jamie McGonigle

Now thawed out after the deep freeze and enforced Cup lay-off, the predictions return this week with birthday boy Jamie McGonigle next up.

 The Coleraine striker hit 22 (years, not goals) this week and will be looking to celebrate in style when the Bannsiders travel to Ballymena United this weekend. We’ll just park that there...

Anyhow, he has taken time out from his studies at uni to do a much bigger assignment and, let’s face it, he only has me to beat, so it should be first class honours all the way for him.

The usual rules apply, three points for a spot-on prediction and one for guessing the correct outcome.

Jamie McGonigle.

Cliftonville v Crusaders: Saturday (3.00pm)

I think Cliftonville are going through a tough patch at the moment and will be out with a point to prove but Crusaders are scoring goals for fun at the minute and I think they may just have too much.

McGonigle prediction: 1-3

Weir prediction: 2-2

Glenavon v Glentoran: Saturday (3.00pm)

Glenavon have had a couple of poor results and need a positive reaction, so they will be out to pick themselves up. However, Ronnie McFall has Glentoran going well since he has come in as manager so I’m going for a draw.

McGonigle prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 3-1

Linfield v Carrick Rangers: Saturday (3.00pm)

Linfield played well in their last game which shows their form is picking up. Carrick have had some good results also though, but I’m going for a Linfield win.

McGonigle prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 3-0

Ballinamallard United v Ards: Saturday (3.00pm)

This is a tough game to call. Ballinamallard are fighting and have picked up a couple of decent results at home and are hard to beat at Ferney Park. Ards also have lots of quality in their team but in this occasion I’m going for a Ballinamallard win.

McGonigle prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 3-2

Dungannon Sw v Warrenpoint Town: Saturday (3.00pm)

Dungannon are coming off the back of a defeat to Ballymena and Matthew Tipton has left Warrenpoint so will be interesting to see how they respond. I think Dungannon are one of the best footballing teams in the league and therefore I’m going for them to sneak it.

McGonigle  prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 1-1

Season’s standings:

Players 12 1/2

Weir 6 1/2

Final word

Some sad and some happy news to end with this week, I was really sorry to hear of the passing of Cliftonville stalwart Freddie Jardine, a true gentleman who will be greatly missed. But on a happier note, congratulations to Dungannon winger Ally Teggart who became a proud daddy to Sophie Jennifer Jane at the weekend.

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