In front of the largest crowd here at a domestic match in a Covid-dominated 2021, Glentoran players delighted their fans in the ‘Boxing Day’ derby by showing they had the heart for this season’s Irish League title race, coming from behind with 10 men to draw 1-1 against champions Linfield at Windsor Park.
Earlier in the season those same supporters were fuming after losing 3-0 at home to their fiercest rivals and wanted manager Mick McDermott out of their club more than six-year-old kids want Santa to leave them presents on Christmas morning. Such is the rollercoaster ride of Northern Ireland football.
Glentoran were a great example of the highs and lows that existed last year in our beautiful, often barely believable and, at times, barmy game, which in 2022 will no doubt throw up many more twists and turns for all those involved.
The Irish Premiership title race has the potential to be a cracker. In the blue corner there is Linfield, the 2021 double winners and top team in the land for four out of five seasons, with legendary Northern Ireland goalscorer David Healy at the helm and proven winners in the dressing room like Jamie Mulgrew and Jimmy Callacher. Having lost some big hitters in the summer and going full-time, this is a period of transition for them, meaning an obvious vulnerability which others are seeking to take advantage of.
Such as Cliftonville in the red corner, the surprise package of the campaign so far, brilliantly led by Paddy McLaughlin with born goalscorers like Joe Gormley and Ryan Curran stepping up to try and spoil a Big Two party. Most feel they won’t go the distance but it will be fun seeing them try.
As for Larne, Crusaders and Coleraine, who threatened a charge, they appear to have too much to do at this point.
Not so Glentoran, my tip for the title before a ball was kicked. True, since the money men arrived, McDermott’s side have challenged for the Premiership crown only to fade when the heat was on, most notably last season, but this time should be different.
The expensively assembled squad isn’t just the biggest in the league, it’s the best, and owner Ali Pour, McDermott and assistant boss Paul Millar deserve credit for that.
Players like Shay McCartan, Jay Donnelly and Conor McMenamin have class on the pitch but it was the character of a more unsung operator, Joe Crowe, against Linfield in testing circumstances at Windsor Park in the Christmas derby which suggested this is a side that finally has what it takes to go all the way this year.
Linfield have shown under Healy that staying composed in Irish League title chases gets the job done and Glentoran must do that in 2022 to bring the Gibson Cup to The Oval for the first time in 13 years.
On that score, Glentoran supporters will be watching McDermott closely.
Ironically, for a man who likes to be in control, he can be prone to losing control with opposing managers, the media or his own fans when challenged in even the mildest form. That’s the sort of thing which could derail a title bid, not enhance it. McDermott’s New Year resolution should be ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ That attitude, combined with the quality of the players, ought to see the Glens crowned champions and be one of the stories of the year.
As for who will be relegated it looks like a fight between Warrenpoint, Portadown and Dungannon Swifts, while Newry City are primed to come up from the Championship, which can be every bit as eventful and, on occasion, more entertaining than the top flight.
So, all that to look forward to, and some history too on March 13 when the League Cup decider between Coleraine and Cliftonville will become the first final in Northern Ireland to be played on a Sunday. It promises to be quite the occasion at Windsor Park.
There’s also the Irish Cup final. Imagine the Blues and Glens facing off in that in the national stadium. They could fill the place!
In the coming weeks there will be plenty of transfer activity, as there has been for numerous windows, with hefty transfer fees, wages and signing on packages commonplace across the board, so if you hear any club crying poverty tell them ‘to pull the other one’.
The Irish League is awash with money right now, though that should not halt finance coming in this year from the government pledged many moons ago to help improve stadia across the country.
On the international scene the highlight promises to be the Northern Ireland women’s team competing in the European Championships and their first major tournament ever.
What magnificent manager Kenny Shiels, inspirational captain Marissa Callaghan and the rest of the players have achieved by reaching the competition has already made the nation sit up and take notice. When they play against hosts England, Norway and Austria in the Euros that will take things to a new level. Game changers they most certainly are.
As for the Northern Ireland men’s team, after failing to qualify for the World Cup and being inches away from beating Euro champions Italy in 2021, it’s hard to know what 2022 will bring under Ian Baraclough, who has been backed with a new contract by the Irish FA.
The Nations League doesn’t get the juices flowing like a World Cup or European Championship qualifying campaign but it will provide promising young players like Conor Bradley, Ali McCann, Daniel Ballard and Shayne Lavery more vital experience for when those bigger competitions come around.
Hopefully Rangers hero Steven Davis will continue his record breaking international career because his ability and quality, along with the likes of Premier League aces Stuart Dallas, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, can help the boys beside them become men at the highest level.
And one last thing... ticket prices for Northern Ireland home internationals. The IFA like to call the Green and White Army the 12th man. Well then, treat them as a valued member of the team and charge accordingly.
Happy New Year... here’s to fabulous football in 2022.