Danske Bank title decider draws to no conclusions
This was the one that would settle it, the title decider, D-Day (although technically it was evening), the point of no return. Or not.
I had feared that the wisdom of the powers that be in bringing together the top two in the first of the post-split games in the Danske Bank Premiership would backfire and it did.
Casting aside the quite ridiculous fact that Crusaders get to play four of their last five games at home, can you imagine the excitement and chatter had the Bannsiders been scheduled to travel to Seaview on the final day of the season needing a win for the title?
All credit to the two teams, they put on a rip-roaring encounter in front of a bumper Easter Tuesday crowd, but let's be honest, it wouldn't have mattered when this one was played, they would still have packed the ground to the rafters.
Always good to see the 'full house' signs put up at any Irish League ground, but shame on BBC NI for not recognising the interest there was in the game, not just from fans of Coleraine or Crusaders who couldn't get a ticket or go to the game, but from thousands of local 'neutral' fans who would have tuned in to watch.
It beggars belief that our main broadcaster can't see the market out there, although perhaps Uefa intervened and said they couldn't show it in case people switched over from Juventus playing Real Madrid and Bayern Munich against Sevilla.
Then again it's that time of year on local telly, it's holiday time and that means there's a skeleton staff on and who knows, you might even get a weatherman reading the news or some reporter who has been left in a cupboard for years gathering dust is unearthed to help fill the void.
A goal apiece meant a point apiece, David Cushley, who must detest being called super-sub, coming off the bench to score one of those goals that David Cushley isn't supposed to score, a scrappy tap-in, not an outrageous volley from 45 yards.
It also chalked up another remarkable statistic - it was the Crues' 100th league goal this season, a quite incredible achievement and while other teams rely on a main goal-getter, Stephen Baxter's team ethos is shown with three players - Gavin Whyte, Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens - all in double figures.
Local football's man with the stats and who should maybe get out a bit more, Marshall Gillespie, tweeted on Tuesday evening that it was just the fifth time in Irish League history that a side had chalked up a century of league goals and the first since Glentoran away back in 1939/40.
For the record, the century-makers are: Linfield (1891/92, 106 goals in 18 games), Belfast Celtic (1927/28, 101 in 26), Belfast Celtic (1928/29, 116 in 26), Glentoran (1939/40, 104 in 26) and now Crusaders this season with 100 in 34 games so far.
So now four games remain and the managers are saying all the right things, as you would expect from two wily foxes such as Baxter and Oran Kearney, with quotes straight from the Big Boy's Book of End of Season Sayings.
"There are still four massive games of football left - they could all go either way.
"At this moment in time, we have only a two-point lead, so there is a long way to go," said Baxter, tucking away a book into his tracksuit.
"My message to them now is there is a huge amount of football left. We are trying to chase down a league title, so we don't expect it to be handed to us," said Kearney, spotted earlier lifting a book out of Baxter's tracksuit.
Baxter may have three of his side's four remaining games at home but, psychologically, he will hope things are wrapped up before the only away trip on his schedule - a final-day visit to Ballymena.
It was at Warden Street last year where things unravelled and allowed Linfield to nip in and pinch the Gibson Cup from under their noses but, of course, there is still plenty of potential for the odd banana-skin before then.
What keeps the pot boiling is the great jostle for third place where Tuesday night's results have really stoked the fire again, with Linfield's 3-2 win at Glenavon meaning they are now level on points with the Mourneview men, while Cliftonville are just two points in arrears.
At the other end of the table, the do-or-die battle between Ballinamallard United and Carrick Rangers was washed out, while Warrenpoint are still that one agonising win away from securing Premiership survival and surely ensuring Stephen McDonnell stays in the hotseat.
Who comes up is another matter. Institute, who for so long looked like securing the Bluefin Sport Championship (B Division) title, are wobbling like a chubby child eating jelly on a bouncy castle, with Newry City (Town) breathing down their necks and whisper it quietly, Portadown are doing very nicely under Matthew Tipton.
So in the end nothing was decided, both sets of fans went home to nuzzle at the last remnants of crumpled Easter eggs and wonder what might have been, counting down the seconds until a manager says 'we have four cup finals remaining'.
Billy tackles Darren Henderson
After my much-deserved week’s holiday to warmer climes, it is time for us all to cast our minds back before the recent ice age to the last set of predictions with Linfield defender Mark Haughey.
We couldn’t be separated with an entertaining 3-3 draw ensuring both sets of fans went home happy, content in the knowledge that there were plenty of cup finals to be played before the end of the season and there are no medals handed out in March.
And so on to April and this week I am up against the much-travelled (you are legally bound to use these words) Darren Henderson, currently hoping to produce the goals to keep Carrick Rangers in the top division.
More importantly, though, he gets to predict the five games his side, who play the already seemingly on holiday Dungannon Swifts this week, are not involved in, with three points for an exact scoreline and one for the correct outcome.
Crusaders v Glenavon
I’ve played against Crusaders twice this season in my first games for Carrick and I couldn’t believe how good they were. They are a great side and Glenavon are struggling a bit at the minute, so I have to go for the Crues.
Henderson prediction: 3-1
Weir prediction: 2-2
Coleraine v Cliftonville
It’s another big game. To be fair to Crusaders, they deserved a point on Tuesday but I didn’t think Coleraine would push the Crues as much as they have. Cliftonville are coming into a bit of form and it could be a close affair. I might be being a bit biased but I have to stick by my old team.
Henderson prediction: 2-1
Weir prediction: 2-1
Linfield v Ballymena United
Cathair Friel being sent off for Ballymena on Tuesday night will be a big blow for them with Johnny McMurray already out injured. I don’t think they can get higher than sixth and might have an eye on the European play-offs, while Linfield will be looking to get that third place for an automatic spot so I have to go for them.
Henderson prediction: 2-0
Weir prediction: 3-1
Ballinamallard Utd v Warrenpoint T
We have 10 points to make up on Warrenpoint so in a funny way it would probably be better for us for them to win and keep Ballinamallard down! But Harry McConkey seems to have stopped them conceding as many goals and changed things around.
Henderson prediction: 1-1
Weir prediction: 2-0
Ards v Glentoran
Ronnie McFall has done a good job since he has come in but the Glens will be gutted with that run Ballymena put together to get sixth. Colin Nixon seems to have Ards playing quite well and scoring a few more goals, so I’ll go for them.
Henderson prediction: 2-1
Weir prediction: 1-1
Season’s standings: Players 14
Out on the wing
Red-hot duo proving the doubters wrong
There have been many marvellous double acts down the years — Morecambe and Wise, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, The Krankies, Tate and Lyle, the list goes on, but there are few better than Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly.
As Cliftonville stuttered at the start of the season, there was considerable eyebrow elevation that Barry Gray’s much-vaunted strike force looked like having all the firepower of the Swiss Army.
But things have certainly clicked into place, Gormley notching up his 150th and 151st Cliftonville goals this week, while Donnelly, like Bobby Ball, bagged himself a pair of braces against Loughgall and Ballymena respectively.
The fact that both men have come back from full-time football speaks volumes, however it also shows that it takes time to readjust to life and football back here and now that patience is being rewarded handsomely.
Invermen will Larne from cup adventures
It may not seem like it right now, but Larne’s defeat by Coleraine in Saturday’s Tennent’s Irish Cup semi-final may be a blessing in disguise.
Despite the efforts of club backer Kenny Bruce and chairman Gareth Clements, there are rumours of discontent among some ‘supporters’ but did we think we’d ever see the day again when Larne could muster 1,500-odd fans?
Those sniping at the men breathing life into a club that was in the doldrums and dying slowly should take a step back and count their blessings.
But it could also be good for the Invermen that they won’t be distracted from their main aim — promotion to the Premiership — and that can now continue with another season of building.
In Tiernan Lynch they have a young manager who wants to play the game the right way and with Bruce’s backing he can bring in new players to fit the bill but more importantly, bring the next generation through.