Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Linfield and Crusaders will fancy a fast start in Premiership title chase

 

Old foes reunited: Linfield's first clash with Glentoran is on September 14
Old foes reunited: Linfield's first clash with Glentoran is on September 14

By Graham Luney

Now the Danske Bank Premiership fixtures have been released, the most pessimistic Irish League fans can figure out where it will all go wrong for their side.

Of course, for Linfield, Crusaders, Ballymena United and Cliftonville, who are gearing up for European action, domestic commitments aren't keeping them awake, and Coleraine have the small matter of a manager to appoint.

If any Bannsiders fans can suggest a name, give the chairman Colin McKendry a shout.

With the sun finally making an appearance, and the Reds and Sky Blues back in competitive action tonight, it feels like summer football has arrived and, with the release of the fixtures, we can at least say the official countdown to the 2019-20 season has started.

All we need now is for the Northern Ireland Football League to give us those all important dates for the European play-offs.

At least Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton can allow himself a wry smile now they've gone.

Before the fixtures were even announced, there were questions asked of why the season doesn't start on August 3 as the following weekend sees the start of the Premier League and Ulster Grand Prix.

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But Saturday, August 10 is the day when Irish League behaviour resumes with a vengeance.

Unfortunately, there's no real blockbuster to give us some early fireworks on the opening day, but a few of the games do whet the appetite.

Coleraine at home to Cliftonville stands out as a cracker and could it mark Oran Kearney's first competitive game in charge of the Bannsiders following an emotional return to the north-west?

The visit of Glentoran, under new ownership, to Glenavon is another tasty affair between two sides with European aspirations, but sadly there is no glamorous curtain-raiser for Championship winners Larne, whose first game in the top flight since 2008 is at home to Warrenpoint Town.

One of the big questions to be answered in the coming months surrounds how Larne will adapt to life in the Premiership and it won't take long to assess their character with early tests against Ballymena United, Crusaders and Linfield in August. Welcome to the big time!

Newly-promoted Carrick Rangers will know the feeling when they visit Irish Cup holders Crusaders on August 10.

The Blues' opener at home to Institute is not the toughest start the champions could have faced, and perhaps a welcome fixture on the back of at least four bruising European battles, but things get livelier three days later when David Healy's men are at Ballymena United and, on the same night, Carrick and Larne go head-to-head in an east Antrim derby at Taylors Avenue.

The Sky Blues kick off their league campaign at Dungannon Swifts. The first Big Two derby clash between Linfield and Glentoran will take place at Windsor Park on September 14 in round seven, which will also see Ballymena United hosting Coleraine.

North Belfast rivals Cliftonville and Crusaders meet for the first time when they play at Solitude on August 17.

There's some disappointment in the shadow of the Mournes with Warrenpoint Town away in the opening game and on their travels for the first three Saturdays, as well as on Boxing Day - when, in the absence of relegated derby foes Newry City, they'll tackle Glenavon.

Irish League predictions can be a dangerous game but supporters will look at the fixtures and guess who can make a fast start.

Crusaders stumbled out of the starting blocks last year and they were ultimately left with too much ground to make up.

Looking at how the fixtures have fallen, both the Crues and Blues will be quietly confident of making a swift start, even though Stephen Baxter's side do have to go to Solitude in August.

Title challengers also look to have a productive winter and the Linfield v Crusaders tie on December 21 should be another display of goodwill to all men.

And, just after the Boxing Day derbies, the champions have to go to Coleraine. Not an easy assignment just 48 hours on from a scrap at The Oval.

Among the feature matches on New Year's Day, meanwhile, will be the meeting of Ballymena and Larne at the Showgrounds, while Glenavon travel to Solitude to face Cliftonville.

Opening day fixtures (August 10): Coleraine v Cliftonville, Crusaders v Carrick Rangers, Dungannon Swifts v Ballymena United, Glenavon v Glentoran, Larne v Warrenpoint Town, Linfield v Institute.

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