Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Nightmare on Warden Street will have Crusaders sleepless at Seaview

Groundhog day: Stephen Baxter and Crusaders have bad memories of last year’s trip to the Showgrounds
Groundhog day: Stephen Baxter and Crusaders have bad memories of last year’s trip to the Showgrounds

By Billy Weir

If you like a good solid eight hours kip of an evening and live anywhere close to any of the protagonists in the last day jamboree that is the Danske Bank Premiership, then I would keep the bedroom window shut or invest in a good supply of earplugs.

There could be uncontrollable outbursts of sudden screaming and wailing as we have gone far beyond squeaking posteriors as everything is up for grabs now, as Brian Moore once said, on the final day.

At the top, for those who have been hibernating, the situation is simple - Crusaders and Coleraine have 88 points apiece but Stephen Baxter's men have a vastly superior goal difference, so basically if they match or better Coleraine's result on Saturday they will regain the Gibson Cup they chucked away last year.

And here begins the sleeping with one eye open and nervous twitching.

They travel to Ballymena United with the date April 22, 2017 probably still meaning Nytol sales in the Seaview area are still pretty healthy on the Shore Road.

A year ago, the Crues looked to be sailing to the title, a couple of wins and it was all theirs and Linfield, despite their plucky efforts, would be gallant runners-up. Not so fast.

David Jeffrey loves nothing more than upsetting carts festooned with Granny Smiths and so it came to pass that the Sky Blues turned the Crues over, handed the title advantage to the Blues and the rest is history.

Of course, Baxter is too wily an old fox to let that come into his mind but players, despite contrary beliefs, are only human, and those who trotted off at the Showgrounds last year will remember it all too well.

"I don't know if it matters that we are at Ballymena because all these teams are very difficult," Baxter said after last weekend's rollercoaster series of results that gave us the final day D-Day.

"Nothing is handed to you easily in this league. Don't forget Glenavon are going for a European spot so that won't be easy for Coleraine either," he added with a smidgeon of mind games that Sir Alex would have been proud of.

Ballymena fans will also be in turmoil, like having to choose between an errant woolly thing and a loose fiver, wanting to see their own team win but knowing that if they do they could hand the league to them'uns up the A26. You can picture it now - it's the 93rd minute, the teams are level, Coleraine are winning at Glenavon, and up comes Crusaders-bound Kyle Owens and it's there. Doctor, fetch the Night Nurse!

I took my life in my hands last week to ask Mr Jeffrey would Kyle be playing in the game. "Do you want to manage Ballymena United Football Club?", was the response and with that, he was gone.

There's also the Howard Beverland factor. Coleraine through and through, he left his boyhood club to try his luck with the Crues and, lo and behold, this has happened. It is indeed a funny old game.

And situations do funny things to people. Look at Oran Kearney, usually as mild-mannered as the janitor in Hong Kong Phooey, he opened a can of whoopass on his players last weekend when they appeared to be crashing out of the title race with a whimper rather then a bang.

Trailing 2-0 at Linfield, he made the huge call to withdraw his strike-force of Eoin Bradley and Jamie McGonigle, a move that had eyebrows standing to attention across the country. Watch Skinner come back on Saturday to score the winner at Mourneview.

"I ranted and I raved and I gave my four barrels and everything else that went with it," revealed Kearney.

And that lock, stock and four smoking barrels paid dividends as the Bannside Bard Darren McCauley hit a brace to snatch a draw and keep the spirit of 1974 well and truly to the fore.

No need for hype, the final day is going to be incredible, the Gibson Cup could be going up and down the M2 like Zebedee on a bouncy castle but, at the other end, there is no silverware up for grabs - just survival.

Carrick Rangers' incredible win at Glentoran saw them leapfrog Ballinamallard United and means that, going into the final game, they are locked together on 20 points, but David McAlinden's side has a better goal difference of five.

They are both on the road on Saturday, United off to the Oval, while Warrenpoint - who I was delighted to see appoint Stephen McDonnell as boss this week - play host to the Gers, and how those games will end up is enough to give anyone a sleepless night.

And there is also the small matter of third place to be decided too, Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton giving a masterclass in mind games when he said: "We know that Linfield won't get beaten by Cliftonville next week because, at the end of the day, Cliftonville's got an Irish Cup Final at stake." Textbook stuff, absolutely brilliant work.

But perhaps the wisest words of all came from Baxter, a man who has suffered the highs and lows of title chases, saying: "A team that scores over 100 goals like ourselves deserves to win a league title, and a team that loses only one game of football over the course of a season like Coleraine also deserves to win the league."

That would be the best result but it isn't going to happen. So what direction will that sporty Skoda of the NIFL be heading come 4.45pm on Saturday - north or south?

Earlier in the season, I said that any team that finishes above Crusaders would win the league and tipped Coleraine to do that and, there, I said it, I'm backing the Bannsiders!

Kyle, over to you to make that dream become a nightmare before I take over as boss at Warden Street.

Gavin gets gong before joining the Lilywhytes

Gavin Whyte picked up the Ulster Footballer of the Year award on Monday night and it looks certain that we will be saying goodbye to his tantalising tootsies soon, with a move to Leeds United in the offing.

He will be a big loss not just to Crusaders but the league as a whole, and what a role model he will have at Elland Road in another Seaview old-boy, Stuart Dallas, who made the same move, albeit via Brentford, and has gone on to be a regular in the Northern Ireland squad.

I have no doubt that Whyte can follow in his footsteps and join another cross-channel export from here, Paul Smyth, in dribbling his way into Michael O’Neill’s thoughts.

Much the same could be said of the winner of the Young Footballer of the Year, Mark Sykes, who, perhaps hasn’t reached the heights of the earlier part of the season but on his day is one of that rare commodity — a player who has everyone off their seats.

But the last word, as it so often does, goes to Jackie Fullerton MBE, who was awarded the Dr Malcolm Brodie Lifetime Achievement accolade at the same ceremony at the Titanic Hotel.

There is still no one who can hold a candle to him for his knowledge, passion and love of the  game and we should really cherish him while we have him. If questioned, I will deny having said any of this, but well done, Jackie, it’s only a matter of time before the Knighthood.

Slap all fighting fans with lifetime bans

I am not sure of the ins and outs of the disgraceful scenes that marred last Friday night’s draw between Newry City and Portadown.

Too much booze in the spring sunshine was more than likely the contributing factor no matter what accusations and counter-accusations fly about between the two camps as to who did what and to who.

These scenes have no place in the game, from people who, judging from the videos I have seen, should have a bit more wit, but well done to Portadown for slapping the culprits they have identified with lifetime bans from Shamrock Park.

I could be flippant and say they probably wish the club had banned them long before this, but this isn’t the time or place and hopefully Newry will follow suit and chuck them out. We don’t need you and we certainly don’t want you.

Final word

Well done to Institute for clinching the Championship but I owe Harland & Wolff Welders a wee apology for suggesting last week that they ‘had no desire’ to play at a higher level. They have been in touch to say that is not the case and they have ambitious plans afoot. Happy to put the record straight and I promise to be there for your Premiership bow.

Billy tackles Terry Fitzpatrick

It's the final week of the season and that means it’s the last set of predictions of the campaign too and, with that in mind, who better to sign off with than an Irish League legend who is also bowing out?

Dungannon Swifts’ Terry Fitzpatrick will hang up his boots after Saturday’s  game with Ards so, in one last hurrah, he pits his wits against me, which isn’t an exacting task.

Glenavon’s Andy McGrory was the latest player to show me up last week, picking up three points for tipping Ards and Ballinamallard to draw one-apiece and that was good enough to see me off.

 The same rules apply as always, three points for an exact scoreline and one for the correct outcome.

Ballymena Utd v Crusaders: Saturday (3.00pm)

That is not a given. Davy (Jeffrey) will have Ballymena chomping at the bit I would think to hold Stephen (Baxter) back from another league title, but I will go for the Crues. But there’s a lot of pressure on Crusaders and Ballymena have nothing to lose, but I think they will do it.

Fitzpatrick prediction: 1-2

Weir prediction: 1-1

Glenavon v Coleraine: Saturday (3.00pm)

Coleraine have been outstanding this season, where they’re sitting in the league and to reach the Irish Cup Final, they’ve been magnificent. To be honest, I would love to see them win it.

Fitzpatrick prediction: 2-3

Weir prediction: 1-2

Linfield v Cliftonville: Saturday (3.00pm)

This is never a dull one and there’s a lot of pride to play for. David Healy (below) knows his side has massively under-achieved this year and I’m sure he’ll want to end on a high but I fancy a draw.

Fitzpatrick prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 2-1

Warrenpoint Town v Carrick Rangers: Saturday (3.00pm)

We played Warrenpoint last week and they try to get the ball down and play the proper way. They go into the game with no pressure on them, it is all on Carrick, and everything is at stake for them but I will have to go for Warrenpoint.

Fitzpatrick prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 1-1

Glentoran v Ballinamallard Utd: Saturday (3.00pm)

It’s the same scenario as Carrick as Ballinamallard know they are going there needing a win and I would love to see them staying up as I have been involved with Harry McConkey over the years and he’s a gentleman. He has worked wonders with them so I’ll go for a draw.

Fitzpatrick prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 1-2

Season’s standings: Players 16 Weir 9

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