Belfast Telegraph

Comment: What can we draw from the classy top two clash between Glenavon and Coleraine?

By Billy Weir

I had the pleasure of covering the match of the season on Saturday, the rip-roaring white knuckle rollercoaster ride that was the 2-2 draw between Coleraine and Glenavon at Mourneview Park.

Even before a ball was kicked in anger there was something in the atmosphere, and I don't mean a heady mix of burger and Buckfast fumes hanging in the autumnal air.

The delayed kick-off due to crowd congestion - music to the ears of any true Irish League fan - just added to it, the excited murmurings of both sets of fans gave way to a roar of expectation as first and second walked out onto the pitch at 3.12pm.

We weren't to be disappointed. The game far exceeded the hype, an early strike, a sending-off, a rousing fight-back, quality goals, a controversial penalty and end-to-end stuff before, at 5.03pm, Raymond Crangle's whistle signalled the end of a classic.

What the point apiece will mean come the end of the season remains to be seen. The facts, as they stand, are Coleraine remain unbeaten after 14 games, eight points ahead of Glenavon, who have a game in hand, with Crusaders and Linfield breathing down their necks.

So are Coleraine and Glenavon ready to upset the natural order of things?

Former Northern Ireland international Sammy Clingan neatly swerved the question on Saturday.

"It would be good to have somebody different from Linfield or Crusaders, wouldn't it?" he said, and it's hard to argue, but here's my take on where they are at.

Saying all the right things

Both managers have leather-bound editions of the Big Boy's Book of Things Managers Must Say in their bookcases as the lack of title talk is deafening.

For Oran Kearney it's making sure that his young players learn from what will be inevitable bumps on the road, such as letting the lead slip twice on Saturday.

"It's probably naivety, and that's still the part of the game that we want them to be learning, and even during the spell of games we've been in we have been critical of them," he said, or loosely translated, don't be a bunch of Bertie Big Balloons, work hard and you'll get your just rewards.

As for Gary Hamilton, he's as cool as Pingu's posterior.

"We are just aiming for Europe, anything else is a bonus. If we're in that position at the end of January we can maybe start talking about that, but we have to keep our feet grounded." We hear you, title challenge it is then!

Be careful what you wish for

We have heard much of the young talent that both teams are blessed with - Jamie McGonigle, Brad Lyons, Ciaron Harkin, Lyndon Kane for Coleraine and Glenavon have Mark Sykes, Bobby Burns, Rhys Marshall, Josh Daniels and James Singleton to name but a few.

Both managers, and many others in the camps, bang the drum for scouts to come and pluck their prize assets. It's the way of local football, we love to have these talents but sometimes if you love them, you have to let them go.

Any scouts there on Saturday will have had a bulging notebook, and if they return with bulging bags of cash then both camps will have a dilemma.

Injuries, loss of form and suspensions

Both have managed to cope with what has been thrown at them so far, many predicting that with the Bannsiders losing the likes of Eoin Bradley and Lyons for a lengthy spell and with Kane on the road to recovery they would splutter, but there hasn't been a hint of a hiccup thus far.

Glenavon will be without Singleton now after his sending off on Saturday, but Burns was exceptional when he filled in at the back, and the Mourneview jigsaw seems to be still intact no matter what pieces Hamilton is left with.

Goals and goalies

Andrew Mitchell is a class act, his lone display on Saturday was incredible. His work-rate, tenacity and willingness to run himself into the ground shows he is more than just a scorer of goals. If they can keep him fit and players keep chipping in around him it will make all the difference.

Bradley is a different animal, nowhere near the goal threat but takes so much heat off all around him and could start a row in a graveyard. McGonigle needs to keep playing in his instinctive way, while Darren McCauley and Ian Parkhill need to weigh in with their share of goals to take some of the pressure off him.

The keepers have a big part to play, Jonny Tuffey just seems to make big saves when they matter and Chris Johns is the best young keeper in the league, although whether or not he fouled for the penalty on Saturday, I still can't tell.

So, who is going to win the title?

Crusaders! Okay, okay, I'm winding you up. I still think they will have a huge part to play, their squad is unbelievable and they are still cheesed off after last season. Linfield will also go on a run and Cliftonville's goal threat means it could be the most exciting title run-in ever.

I still think whoever finishes above Crusaders will win the title but will that be Coleraine or Glenavon? Have you read my predictions this season? Aghh, go on then, I'll go for Coleraine. Nurse, fetch the medicine!

Health and safety - the double act that nobody finds funny

THERE have been many dodgy double acts down through the ages — French and Saunders, Keith Harris and Orville, Les Dennis and Dustin Gee, The Krankies, to name but a few — but the least smile-inducing of them all must be Health and Safety.

In the spirit of trying something a little bit different, Ballymena United brought forward their game with Linfield to Friday evening and prepared themselves for what they hoped would be a bumper gate at Warden Street.

Then stepped in our intrepid duo as the Showgrounds is owned and run by Mid and East Antrim Council, who decreed that it came under their ‘careful now’ guidelines for matches that could bring pestilence, plague and potential disaster to the good folk of Ballymena and its sheep-strewn environs.

As a high-risk game it means it has become all-ticket — well, I say all-ticket, but only for home fans as Linfield fans using the Warden Street Stand can come in and pay by whatever means they like, cash preferably, but bartered goods may be considered.

Sky Blue followers have to purchase a ticket, with 1,600 up for the opposite stand, and this has gone down about as well as Jimmy Nesbitt dandering through the Fairhill Centre bedecked in blue and white stripes.

I have been attending matches at the Showgrounds for the best part of 35 years, in times when conditions were somewhat less salubrious than now, and remember standing below the old clock in conditions as slippery as penguin poo on an ice floe and emerged relatively unscathed.

Making people buy tickets dissuades the casual floating fan who sits on a Friday and thinks, ‘You know, I might nip down to the match’ only they can’t pay at the gate. Yes, we need safety guidelines, it would be churlish and flippant to argue otherwise, but stop killing the game.

Hot rods hurtle around the Showgrounds some evenings, which to me would be slightly more dangerous than someone handing over £11 at a turnstile or making people with season tickets go and buy a ticket.

Ballymena’s Supporters’ Liaison Officer has sent a letter to the Council asking them to spell out why these measures are needed when it is unlikely that 1,600 brave souls will venture out. I hope the initiative proves a success and everyone has a healthy and safe evening, but maybe a bit of common sense would be better rather than nanny state interference of the daftest of kinds.

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