Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Let's toast 2018 Irish League winners with a vintage red (and black)

By Billy Weir

I have to say, one of the highlights of covering Crusaders' title win at Ballymena United was taking a trip down memory lane with Roy McDonald.

The big goalkeeping coach is calling it a day right at the top. He will be sorely missed around the Irish League, and the Crues dugout just won't be the same without him.

He has been a giant of the game, a 50-year association with local football and seven league titles as a player in the Seventies, and as coach under Roy Walker and Stephen Baxter in the Seaview side's other Gibson Cup winners.

Back in 1995, Walker's first came, ironically at Ballymena, when a certain Baxter scored, with a second crown two seasons later.

Of course there have been lows too, none deeper than the albeit brief sojourn to the Championship, where they swept all comers aside and clearly acquired a taste for silverware that has become more and more voracious each year.

s_conference06.png
Roy McDonald

For Baxter, the class of 2018 is the best he has assembled.

"This team should be lauded and it's probably the best one we've built," he said on Saturday.

"Our football has been unbelievably good, and to score 106 goals in 38 games is phenomenal. I can't speak highly enough of them and to do it the way we have is fantastic."

The pride was etched on the face of the manager, who, be afraid everyone, is now going to have more time to get things right as he takes over on a five-year professional deal as he aims to take Crusaders, and the league, to a new level.

"Brian Jensen has been brilliant for us all year," he said.

"Billy Joe Burns is the best right-back in Northern Ireland and Ireland. He has been superb. Sean Ward has been magnificent for us.

"Philip Lowry has been outstanding the last few weeks. He is a footballer who really knows the game.

"Then you have (Jordan) Forsythe, Matthew Snoddy and Declan Caddell and the others, who are work-horses and drive the game on. We also have the two outstanding wingers in this league (Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley) and we have Jordan Owens up front, who has been amazing for us. That is some team, and I can tell you that I am glad they are playing for me every Saturday."

It is a team that is likely to go down in Shore Road folklore, but is it the best team in red and black to have graced the game?

That's a tough one to call. People of a certain vintage will tell you the team that played Liverpool in the European Cup was a class act.

I remember being at the Showgrounds back in 1995 when Walker won the title for the first time.

What a team that was - like today, an imported keeper with experience of the professional game in Kevin McKeown, and a defence with the likes of Trevor McMullan, a man with thighs of finely hewn oak, the classy Aaron Callaghan, Gary McCartney, Mick Deegan and the Lawlors, cajoled and inspired by the imperious Glenn Dunlop.

The midfield wasn't half bad either, a bit like some of today's team. Sid Burrows was let go by Linfield and boy did he make them pay.

He maybe didn't have the pace of a Whyte or Heatley but, to coin a phrase, he left defenders with twisted blood.

In the engine-room there was the likes of Liam Dunne, Martin Murray, Donal O'Brien and Stevie Livingstone, and up front was a who's who of striking excellence.

Baxter himself, the guile and experience of Jim Gardiner, the lethal Glenn Hunter and the force of nature that was Kirk Hunter and a youngster called Chris Morgan cutting his teeth in the game.

The '97 vintage was much the same, with a bit of Alan Dornan and Gavin Arthur thrown into the mix, but I'd go for the '95 side just because they broke the mould.

How do they compare to Baxter's boys of 2018? It's almost an impossible task, like comparing apples and oranges, as Roy explained.

"It's a different ball game now, the players are fitter, they are more skilful. They're athletes now, they look after themselves. They've got the right attitude. They're so into the game," he said.

It is impossible to compare eras, nostalgia and red and black-tinted specs take over, but you can't argue with the points and goals that this team has accumulated in what has been the most competitive league campaign I can remember.

I can't wait until next season to do it all again. Can Coleraine go again, will David Healy spend big to revitalise Linfield, can Gary Hamilton hold onto the young stars in his side and can Barry Gray get that consistency he so wants for Cliftonville?

Throw Glentoran into the mix with whoever eventually becomes manager, while a certain David Jeffrey will be determined to keep his Sky Blues on an upward trajectory.

But the final word, fittingly, goes to big Roy - who else? "A couple of the other ones we had the thing won, but that went to the last game, the last half of the match. Crazy," he said.

It certainly has been. Everyone wishes Roy a long and happy retirement, and I dare say he may have a bit more to cheer from the Seaview stand in the coming years.

Oran deserves to end season with cup glory

I know Crusaders supporters and those in sky blue around the Braid will probably disagree, but your heart really goes out to Oran Kearney and his Coleraine side.

Only one league defeat all season and they were still pipped to the Gibson Cup — only the extremely bitter and Cliftonville fans would begrudge them the glory they deserve in this Saturday’s Tennent’s Irish Cup Final.

It speaks volumes for Oran that he was one of the first to congratulate Stephen Baxter on Saturday — he has been a class act on and off the pitch in all the years I have known him, stretching way back to when he was making his mark as a marauding midfielder at Moyola Park.

The team he has put together is super to watch and he faces a huge task in resting those tired limbs and lifting spirits ahead of what, on paper, promises to be a cracking game at Windsor Park.

Which Cliftonville team turns up remains to be seen — the good, the bad or the ugly — but with Joe Gormley and the Donnellys they have match-winners capable of turning any game.

There is also the tale of cup woe for them, the end of that hoodoo stretching back to 1979.

Personally, I think whoever wins the midfield battle will prevail, but here’s hoping for a cracking game, no trouble, and please let us not even notice the officials.

pe_00744936 (2).jpg
Coleraine manager Oran Kearney

Choka chalks up two big wins in a week

Congratulations to retiring Dungannon Swifts’ defender Terry Fitzpatrick who bowed out in style at the weekend with a fairytale finish.

Not only did he score a last-gasp penalty to give his beloved Swifts a 4-3 win over Ards in his last game, even more importantly — and something that will keep him going in his frail, dotage years — he beat me in the final predictions of the season.

His prediction that Crusaders would win the title with a 2-1 win at Ballymena United was right on the button to collect a full three points, and that was enough on a day of crazy last-day results to secure a win over yours truly.

In truth that isn’t much to boast about, and completed a 17-9 rout for the players, and I really am going to have to take a long, hard look at myself in the close season.

A huge thank you to all the players who took part over the season, it was genuinely a joy to speak to you all!

pe_00717011.jpg
Terry Fitzpatrick has retired after a long career with Dungannon Swifts.

Final word

Desperately sad to see Ballinamallard United take their leave of the big stage but under Harry McConkey they have a safe pair of hands who can guide the club through choppy waters, but well done to David McAlinden and Carrick Rangers for securing a place in the play-off game, the first leg at Newry on Friday evening. Let the madness commence!

2018-04-28_spo_40491896_I1.png
Ballinamallard United manager Harry McConkey

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph