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The Irish League half-term report: Who are the star pupils so far?

By Billy Weir

With most teams having completed the opening round of fixtures in the Danske Bank Premiership, plus a fair few cup games thrown in for good measure, it's as good a time as any to take stock as to where we are.

School half-term is just around the corner, so what better excuse then for me to pretend to be a teacher (without the obscene holidays) and give an early season report on the teams.

And yes, I do realise that some teams have only played 10, but I was useless at maths, so give me a break and come in and see me in my classroom after the bell.

LINFIELD (W8, D3, L0, F21, A3, PTS 27)

Things couldn't really have gone much better for David Healy's remodelled Blues. Unbeaten in the league, they have been at their bullying best, scoring goals for fun and only conceding three. The big difference is that they are banging them in from all over the pitch rather than the huge over-reliance they have had on Andy Waterworth in recent times and that makes them major contenders.

Star pupil: Joel Cooper. He has been simply sensational since his summer move from Glenavon.

Mark: A. A return to the top of the class is imminent.

Prediction: 1st

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Joel Cooper

GLENAVON (W8, D1, L1, F26, A10, PTS 25)

Having waved Cooper and Bobby Burns off to pastures new in the summer, many thought Gary Hamilton's Class of 2018-19 would struggle. Not a bit of it. They have been fabulous, the only blip an opening day defeat by Linfield, a game where they certainly deserved at least a share of the spoils. Josh Daniels has come to the party, while Caolan Marron and Dylan King are forming a hugely impressive partnership at one end, and at the other Andrew Mitchell and Stephen Murray are scoring for fun. If they stay clear of injuries, they have a real chance.

Star pupil: Caolan Marron. The best young defender I have seen in the Irish League and surely destined for a career across the water.

Mark: A. If they can keep out of trouble there's no reason why they can't keep up the good work.

Prediction: 3rd

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Caolan Marron

CRUSADERS (W6, D1, L4, F23, A9, PTS 19)

The report would have read somewhat differently a couple of weeks ago when the champions were in crisis. Three wins on the bounce and things seem to have been nipped in the bud, but with four defeats already - one more than the whole of last season - a bit like a blazing torch juggler on an ice floe, they can't afford any more slips.

Star pupil: Ross Clarke. Has been their most impressive and consistent performer and has bagged some great goals from free-kicks.

Mark: C. Form is temporary, class is permanent. Let's wait and see.

Prediction: 2nd

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On target: Ross Clarke celebrates his goal against Ballymena United last weekend

BALLYMENA UNITED (W5, D2, L3, F22, A 16, PTS 17)

A huge number of new boys enlisted into the Braid Academy this summer and they have surprised with their results and displays, especially with nine of their matches on the road due to their pitch being out of commission. Scoring goals from all over the pitch and have started to become more frugal at the back, they could be this season's surprise contenders and will go close again in the cup competitions. Need to pick up more points against their nearest challengers.

Star pupil: Jim Ervin. Despite the new arrivals it is old head boy Ervin who has proved to be a calming influence. Unless you're Eoin Bradley...

Mark: B. Good work and progress and extra homework can only improve things.

Prediction: 4th

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Jim Ervin.

COLERAINE (W3, D6, L1, F16, A12, PTS 15)

Playing like boys who have had their conkers confiscated. They've lost their principal in Oran Kearney and prize pupil in Brad Lyons and are struggling to cope, while too many of last season's hits have gone missing to date. Good news on the arts front as their drawing remains remarkable but have to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get on with taking on board the new master Rodney McAree's philosophy.

Star pupil: Jamie McGonigle. Hasn't produced the form we all know he can, but still has the potential to turn a game on its head.

Mark: D. Have to stop pining for what they've lost and get back to basics.

Prediction: 6th

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James McGonigle celebrates one of two goals against Crusaders earlier this season.

GLENTORAN (W4, D3, L3, F15, A13, PTS 15)

Tough to say whether the glass is half full or half empty at The Oval, have they over-performed or are they letting a good start slip away? The grand old master Ronnie McFall has welcomed back two of the Glens' glittering alumni in Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman, but is there a danger like an over-crowded Domestic Science lesson that too many cooks will spoil the broth?

Star pupil: Curtis Allen. Once again the 'go to' man for the Glens and the sooner he gets that 100th goal so he can stop worrying about it the better.

Mark: C. Need to buckle down for a long, hard winter's work.

Prediction: 7th

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Milestone looms: Curtis Allen

CLIFTONVILLE (W4, D2, L4, F17, A14, PTS 14)

Barry Gray reminds me very much of my old woodwork teacher who, try as I might, I could never please and I often got a mallet lobbed at me for my efforts. He has hurled a few metaphorical ones at his under-performing players this season and, without Joe Gormley, the wheels would have fallen off completely. There also needs to be a lot less whinging by the club. They have the potential to go on another great run, now is the time for game not blame.

Star pupil: Joe Gormley. Who else? At times he seems to be fighting a lone battle, needs more support to help share the load.

Mark: D. They could do better, an awful lot better.

Prediction: 5th

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Cliftonville striker Joe Gormley celebrates his 171st goal for the club.

INSTITUTE (W3, D2, L6, F10, A20, PTS 11)

For a long time they weren't sure where they were going to be playing their games never mind how they would do, but have adapted well to life at the Brandywell and in the Premiership. In Michael McCrudden they have something a lot of the other teams don't have in this half of the table - a born goalscorer - and if they can keep hold of their prize asset then should survive and start to worry where they'll be playing next season.

Star pupil: Michael McCrudden. The skipper has led by example and his goals have been crucial.

Mark: C. Have refused to be bullied by bigger boys, long may it continue.

Prediction: 10th

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Big stage: Michael McCrudden is loving life in the top flight

WARRENPOINT TOWN (W3, D2, L6, F11, A25, PTS 11)

After six games were in serious danger of being marked 'absent' and the nickname Warrenpointless was in danger of sticking. Then the elders started listening to a younger voice and manager Stephen McDonnell's message hit home. Since then, three wins and two draws, crucially picking up points from teams around them and playing some pretty good football into the bargain. How they fare against the bigger teams the second time around will be very interesting but at least they now have a chance.

Star pupil: Ciaran O'Connor. Like his brother, Michael, at Linfield, he has proved a lot of doubters wrong with some great displays.

Mark: C. Plenty of hard work, dedication and lessons learned are certainly paying dividends.

Prediction: 9th

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Ciaran O'Connor has three Premiership goals to his name so far this season.

NEWRY CITY (W2, D2, L7, F8, A21, PTS 8)

A bit like a fluent Latin speaker, once they leave Newry no one seems to understand what they are on about. As good on the road as a clown car with banana skin wheels, they have to hope they can turn good displays into something tangible soon and can't rely on picking up a few points here and there at the Showgrounds. Scoring goals is also a problem and not an easy one to solve, with Mark McCabe a big miss.

Star pupil: Andy Coleman. Purely and simply for his quite stupendous one-handed save at Windsor Park last Saturday. And the fact that he is wearing a kit that makes him look like a Fruit Salad chew.

Mark: D. Have to learn to love cross-country and not yearn for home time.

Prediction: 12th

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Andy Coleman and his amazing technicolour kit.

ARDS (W1, D3, L7, F8, A15, PTS 6)

There is an ugly rumour going around at the moment that there's more chance of a cow scoring its bovine behind on a broken bottle than Ards hitting the net, but there have been very few udder reason to cheer of late. In fairness, the goal Michael McLellan did score was a clinker and, while they aren't shipping in too many at the other end, as manager Colin Nixon says, they aren't going to win a lot of games by scoring no goals.

Star pupil: Sam Johnston. The young keeper has been different class and has needed to be to try and keep his side in games.

Mark: E. We're approaching Halloween but it's goals not ghouls they need.

Prediction: 11th

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Safe hands: Sam Johnston has been impressive for Ards

DUNGANNON SWIFTS (W1, D3, L6, F7, A16, PTS 6)

Just what is going on? Like Harry Potter leaving for Grange Hill, their most famous pupil has gone and last season's League Cup heroics are becoming, like Rodney McAree, a fond but distant memory. The old cliche 'too good to go down' is sure to be bandied about soon, but their masterstroke could be in bringing in Kris Lindsay as manager, someone who will give a cliche a good kicking. I think they are too good to go down. Hang on, here comes a cliche-kicker...

Mark: F. Have lots of ability, now is the time to show it.

Star pupil: Chris Hegarty. A classy operator who has been somewhat over-worked so far this term but a man very much in the Lindsay mould to carry them forward.

Prediction: 8th

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Hands on: Chris Hegarty keeps a close watch on Linfield star Joel Cooper

Final Word

Sorry to hear this week that former NI goalkeeper Alan Blayney has hung up his gloves after calling time on his career. He served several Irish League sides with distinction and was a popular figure in the game. I wish him every success for the future.

Belfast Telegraph

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