Liam Beckett predicts the Danske Bank Premiership table ahead of big kick-off
It's difficult to believe that we’re already on the cusp of an all-new Danske Bank Premiership season but, if the next nine months are anything like the campaign just passed, then we’re all in for a treat.
In addition to the title race — where a number of clubs will have their sights set — there’s serious competition among all the other mini-battles that will unfold up and down the table, be that the push for Europe, the jockeying for the top six or the scrap against relegation.
It’s a tough, tough league to call but I’ll do my best. Here's how I reckon the teams will fare, ordered by last season's finish:
I normally find it customary to start with the current Champions but already, even before a ball is kicked, I’m getting the feeling that the retention of the Gibson Cup has not been made any easier for the Shore Road men and I have two reasons for saying that.
Firstly, they have lost their Ulster and NI Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Gavin Whyte, to Oxford United and also their principal out-and-out striker Jordan Owens to a hamstring problem, which will, I’m told, take weeks to mend.
Losing Whyte could be so reminiscent and have so many similar consequences to the previous champions Linfield when they also lost their main playmaker Paul Smyth to QPR with the result that the Blues werbut a shadow of themselves last season.
Now add the loss to injury of big ‘Chicken’ (Jordan Owens) up front and already I see two crucial areas where the Crues may well struggle to replace with like for like, but they’re the Champions and they’ll still be the team to beat.
What a fantastic season the Bannsiders had last time out and boy did they give Crusaders a real run for their money in the race for the title.
In fact, so tight was it that with 13 minutes to go in the final game of the campaign, it was Coleraine who were in pole position to lift the Gibson Cup but, as we all know, it’s never over til the big lady sings.
However, Coleraine did go on to lift the second biggest prize on offer when they won the Irish Cup to cap what was a brilliant season.
What’s most crucial is the fact that they have managed to keep their squad, including all of their key players, together and that is vital to continuity and progress.
It’s the Bannsiders who I think will carry the biggest threat to Crusaders for this season’s League title.
I think the Lurgan Blues will have it tough this season simply because they’ve lost a few really decent players and therefore only time will tell if their replacements have what it takes to step up to the plate.
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Glenavon, like some others, do have defensive concerns and the loss of the versatile and extremely talented Bobby Burns (below) to Hearts will leave a big role to fill.
Nevertheless with the likes of Jonny Tuffey, Sammy Clingan, Mark Sykes and Andy Mitchell etc, they still have the nucleus of a very good side.
A huge improvement is required this time around from the biggest club in the country.
They endured a poor season last time with too many players either not consistent enough or, if the truth be told, not good enough — take your pick.
Without doubt the loss of Paul Smyth to QPR was a much bigger blow than I suspect even Linfield imagined it would be.
But that loss was even more compounded by the absence of their most influential midfield player Jamie Mulgrew to injury for a long part of the season. His fetch-and-carry expertise and vision is the best in the Premiership and any team in the country would miss that quality.
Big goalkeeper Roy Carroll also had lengthy injury problems and his sheer presence and winning mentality left a massive void.
Several new signings will have given the Blues faithful renewed hope for this campaign but they will have to hit the ground running early to have any realistic chance of lifting the big one.
There’s a really good collection of talented players currently at Solitude but they were a squad who, at the outset of last season, struggled to play as a team.
However, towards the end of the campaign, the Reds really began to look the part as the team selection became a little more settled and subsequently consistency began to improve.
They’re packed with proven goalscorers but, for me, still a tad suspect defensively.
Very good in the knockout competitions last time and got to a couple of Finals but Ballymena’s Premiership form was somewhat disjointed.
It’s crucial that they keep their front two, Johnny McMurray and Cathair Friel, fit because they’ll score goals.
But for the past few seasons and despite several permutations, it’s been the defence that has been United’s Achilles’ heel.
Shipping far too many goals has resulted in some new defenders arriving at The Showgrounds and, if they can succeed in keeping the back door shut a lot more than they have been, I do get the feeling United can be top six material again.
At last there’s some renewed hope and possible light at the end of the tunnel for the men from the east.
It must be great for the club’s fans to see a new management team which is instantly identifiable with all that is good about Glentoran Football Club.
Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman together with father figure (he’ll kill me for saying that) Ronnie McFall will know exactly what is needed to get this east Belfast institution back up and running again and back to where they want to be — and that’s disputing all the major trophies at the end of each season.
But that won’t happen this year nor perhaps even next season either.
No, this campaign will be more about laying the proper foundations and attending to major player squad improvements for the long-term future and that won’t happen overnight
The current BetMcLean League Cup holders always epitomise what can be achieved by the — dare I say it — smaller clubs in Irish League football.
The Swifts don’t have the big fan base enjoyed by some others, which inevitably deprives them of the necessary financial clout to employ the player personnel required to win the League title but, as they proved last season, they have enough about them to give all the knockout competitions a good run for their money.
I have been more than impressed by just how these Irish League nomads have managed the yearly burden of having no real home to call their own and God knows that can’t have been easy, particularly in the Premiership.
I have also been mightily impressed by the manner and expertise with which the management team have negotiated their loan signings and acquisition of free agents while managing to mould a solid team which always appear hard to beat.
I fully expect Ards to survive again this term.
Despite suffering a managerial change towards the end of last season, the Point deserve tremendous credit for not only surviving but actually doing so reasonably comfortably.
As happens at most of the smaller clubs, some players have been picked off and some new ones have come in as replacements, so it’s pretty much a case of how quickly they can gel and become hard to beat, which I always feel is essential for these teams who will play most of their football in the bottom half of the table.
I like what I see at Warrenpoint and I admire what they’ve achieved in such a short time.
It’s great to see my old side back in with the big boys after what can only be described as the mother of all catastrophic seasons any club could ever possibly imagine — a horrible nightmare which actually came true when their home was destroyed by flooding and they found themselves with nowhere to play.
Stute have a really good young manager and some good people behind the scenes, but that’s never enough on its own at Premiership level and because of that I feel it will be really tough for them to survive.
The top flight is a big step up from the Championship and history proves that some of the players may well struggle to perform consistently well at the top level.
Survival has to be the order of the day and, as a side note, isn’t it great to see Irish League football back at the Brandywell Stadium again?
Not too dissimilar to Institute in many ways and one of those similarities is how refreshing it is to see a Newry side back in the Danske Bank Premiership.
What this club has achieved in coming from nowhere to reach the Premiership in just a few years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
But again, just like Stute, survival has to be top of the club’s wish list and to achieve that it is essential that the people of Newry get out and show their support which befits the club’s incredible achievement.
Increased supporter numbers and additional sponsorship will hopefully provide that extra revenue and that’s critical to what their excellent young manager Darren Mullen will be able to achieve with regard to improving his player squad — and they’ll have to do just that to survive in what is a tough League.
Liam Beckett's Danske Bank Premiership table prediction
6. Ballymena United
8. Dungannon Swifts
10. Warrenpoint Town
12. Newry City
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