Bigger and better than ever- David Jeffrey's verdict on new Irish League campaign
David Jeffrey is convinced the Irish League is on the rise and believes the new campaign starting today will be bigger and better than last season which was one of the most exciting in local football history.
The Ballymena United manager takes his side to Stangmore Park this afternoon to face Dungannon Swifts.
It's just one of a number of intriguing opening day Danske Bank Premiership fixtures, with the others seeing Glenavon host Linfield, Coleraine at home to Warrenpoint Town, Cliftonville travelling to Glentoran and top flight new boys Institute and Newry City meeting at the Brandywell.
Champions Crusaders, now a full-time outfit, enter the fray on Monday night against Ards at Seaview.
Last season, the Crues pipped Coleraine to the title after a gripping campaign that went down to the wire and led to increased attendances and interest in the Irish League. The battle for Europe and to avoid relegation was also decided on the final day.
Former Linfield boss Jeffrey, a figurehead and stalwart of the local game, said: "I'd never known a season like last year in all my time involved in the game. In terms of drama it was incredible.
"The strides the Irish League has made are phenomenal and I think we will get even bigger and better this season. There is such a commitment to football here which bodes well for the future."
Jeffrey added: “The sponsors of the league, Danske Bank, deserve much credit, as do the different aspects of the media who have lifted the profile. The Irish League has become a marketable product.
“What pleases me most are the increased attendances and the fact more families are coming to see our games. Irish League football has become so inclusive and that is what we want.”
On this season’s title race, Jeffrey sees the top five from last term challenging for glory while his own Ballymena team have ambitions of their own.
“European money has dictated that Crusaders, Coleraine, Linfield, Glenavon and Cliftonville will be up there because they have benefited from that finance now for multiple years,” said Jeffrey, a winner of 32 trophies to date in his hugely successful managerial career.
“I have to applaud Crusaders in what they are doing by going full-time to try and progress further.
“Then there is the chasing pack trying to get that sixth spot. For Ballymena the targets are simple, we are looking for a top-six position for a third year in a row and to secure European qualification.”
Much focus will be on Linfield and manager David Healy, who knows better than anyone that the pressure is on after last season’s trophyless campaign following the treble he won in his first full season in charge of the Blues.
“Having been the longest serving manager at Linfield I know all about the pressures and expectations at the club,” said Jeffrey when asked about what is facing Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer.
“I know David very well on a personal level and he’ll always be that hero for Northern Ireland and for his service to the country.
“In his first full season at Linfield he won three trophies. Last season was a difficult year, but David has already proved he is more than capable to be Linfield manager, more than capable.
“Sometimes you have to go through a difficult year to recharge and the example is Crusaders. Look at the 2016-17 season when for so long Crusaders led the title race and Linfield ended up as champions.
“People said then that Crusaders threw it away. That’s rubbish because Linfield and David Healy won it with the run they went on.
“The hurt and disappointment of that was refuelled into Crusaders last season and they won the title on the final day. It’s that hurt that drives managers and good players on.”