How Glenavon and Coleraine proved the English Premier League should be jealous of the Irish League
Comment: Gareth Hanna discusses Saturday's top two clash
I've been to two matches this season that have been built up to being free-flowing football festivals. Only one has lived up to the billing.
The first was Liverpool v Manchester United and the second was the Irish League's own Glenavon v Coleraine on Saturday.
At 0-0 and 2-2 respectively, it's not hard to guess that it was the latter that did the pre-match press coverage justice, but the scoreline is only part of the reason I enjoyed the Irish League clash A LOT more. If that game had taken place across the water, people would be tripping over themselves to tell you how it proves the EPL's place as 'the best league in the world.' Maybe the Irish League should steal the tagline. Here's why:
You can't beat the real thing
Mourneview Park was packed to the rafters (bar half of the away stand) and had the atmosphere to match. These fans are watching their teams - the teams many of the same supporters have forked out hard-earned cash to finance. These fans make a tangible difference to their clubs and rightly feel ownership over it. And so the passion emanating from the stands was far more evident at Mourneview than it had been in the Kop at Anfield.
There's a connection between supporter, manager, board and player. One family. And so it was authentic, pure passion. Listen when the visiting supporters stood up for the Bannsiders or when the Glenavon fans joined in unison to roar their team, unsuccessfully, to a late winner. I'd estimate about 99% of the support was on its feet, bellowing out the chants as loud as they could. Anfield didn't come anywhere close to that.
In many, many ways, the Irish League is what English Premier League fans wish their clubs still were. There were no half and half scarves in the Crescent End anyway. The same couldn't be said for the Kop. I kid you not.
The Irish League DOES have quality
Alright so Liverpool and United's players are better than Glenavon and Coleraine's.
But I'm afraid I simply have no more time for lazy claims that the Irish League is devoid of any true quality. Anybody who turned up at Mourneview Park on Saturday afternoon would never consider uttering such nonsense.
Both teams showed they boast squads that are PACKED with pure skill. For the hosts, Mark Sykes stole the show. Think about his first-half equaliser - a move he started himself and then got forward to ghost past the defence before tucking home. The pace, power and ability shown in that one movement encapsulated all that is great about the 20 year-old. If he's still playing Irish League football next season, I'm not the only one that would be astounded. Get out and watch him while you still can.
⚽️ GOAL! 10-man Glenavon are level against Coleraine! Mark Sykes slots past Chris Johns to pull the Lurgan Blues level! Live text➡ http://bbc.in/2lQiwiFPosted by BBC Irish Premiership on Saturday, November 4, 2017
Sykes was by no means alone in the Glenavon panel - Josh Daniels gave poor Adam Mullan a torrid time from the wing, jinking his way past his marker several times with skill many of the critics would tell you doesn't exist in the Irish League. Then there's Andrew Mitchell who worked from start to finish, showing the fight that fans love, and at the other end Andrew Doyle delivered a defensive master-class.
For the Bannsiders, Josh Carson is increasingly staking his claim as one of the league's best midfield players. His cutting through-ball for Ian Parkhill lured James Singleton into a foul that earned a red card. Such was the quality of the pass, it was undefendable. And his goal speaks for itself.
⚽️GOAL! The goal to send Coleraine 11 points clear? Josh Carson fires past Tuffey to put the Bannsiders back ahead Live text➡ http://bbc.in/2lQiwiFPosted by BBC Irish Premiership on Saturday, November 4, 2017
Jamie McGonigle's lively performance up top was typical of the NI U21 international - he's combining his speed, skill and increasing experience to torture opposition defenders.
And of course we have to mention Ciaron Harkin's inch-perfect rabona through-ball in the first half. Just because he can.
Sykes, McGonigle, Daniels - they're a long way from international level yet but stranger things have happened. Look at Gareth McAuley, let go by Linfield to West Brom and NI hero. Who knows? We might just be watching some of NI's stars of the future.
Edge of your seat stuff
Lukaku is better than Jamie McGonigle. Roberto Firmino might just get the nod ahead of Andrew Mitchell if the pair found themselves in the same squad. But it was the Irish League versions and their team-mates who displayed their abilities in a more enticing fashion. Four goals and more chances besides, it was hard to whack. It bears little resemblance to Liverpool's couple of fluffed efforts and one Manchester United shot. We may be able to blame Jose Mourinho's negative tactics for that on this occasion - but on the whole the Irish League is by far the more exciting. Over 81 games this season, the Irish League has seen 264 goals. That's an average of 3.26 goals per game.
In 110 Premier League fixtures so far this term, the net has rippled 283 times. That's an average of 2.57 goals per game. You tell me which gets the juices flowing.
So that settles it for me
If you want actual entertainment rather than Sky Sports pouring for hours over a 0-0 draw, switch the TV off, get your coat on and get out to the Irish League.
For authenticity, quality and entertainment, it's the best league in the world - honest.
Belfast Telegraph Digital