What a title race, what a League Cup final, what an Irish Cup final, what a European play-off final – what a season.
Irish League football, bloody hell. After a crazy summer of spending, we will be back for more. So, who were the winners and losers?
1. Sporting theatre
If you aren’t following the Irish League give your head a wobble.
Four goals from a substitute to see Larne home in the European play-off final was a fitting climax to a pulsating season.
The title race went to the final day, we had a League Cup final on a Sunday played in front of an 11,103-strong crowd won in extra time, an Irish Cup final settled at the end of extra time and if that wasn’t enough we’ve had the predictable high profile eligibility case and a manager shouting off on Twitter.
More than anything else, the league is special because of the commitment and dedication of part-time footballers.
It remains a largely part-time league and the standard of football produced as well as the production line of young talent is astonishing.
2. Paddy power
Should the manager who wins the league always be crowned Manager of the Year? I don’t believe so.
Huge respect to David Healy who steered his Linfield side across the line first after overcoming several hurdles along the way, but you could argue that the Blues were expected to challenge for the title.
Cliftonville, still a part-time side, won the League Cup and challenged for the Gibson Cup until the final day.
Paddy McLaughlin has conducted clever transfer business and helped instil a spirit and togetherness in the squad.
It was a close call but given how big a punch the Reds packed this season, Paddy edges the manager’s prize for me.
3. Shields of honour
A lot was made of Linfield’s loss of experience with big name performers such as Andy Waterworth, Joel Cooper, Mark Stafford and Mark Haughey leaving, but Chris Shields has been a huge presence on and off the pitch at Windsor Park.
The former Dundalk midfielder has been a serial winner in his career and he’s a cool head in the heat of battle. He’s the complete midfielder, an intelligent and wonderful footballer. It’s a team game, but his calm and classy displays in the centre drove the Blues to another championship.
4. Fan trouble
The Irish League is an entertaining product, boasting an impressive 32% increase in attendances this season.
That’s despite the fact the game has been neglected by politicians and grounds have not been upgraded due to the unacceptable delay in the long awaited sub-regional stadia funding, but there has been some disturbing behaviour from supporters that threatens to drive families away. There have been pitch invasions, fireworks set off, flares thrown and sectarian chanting, leaving clubs at risk of playing matches behind closed doors.
This needs to be eradicated or the league will be held back by morons. If you’re intent on causing trouble, stay way.
5. Glentoran misery
So many of us thought this was going to be Glentoran’s year. Wealthy owner, full-time set-up, strong squad and marching towards a first league and cup double since 1988.
In the end it was a case of no trophies, thrown out of the Irish Cup and a heartbreaking European play-off final defeat.
The sun isn’t rising in the east this summer. The Irish Cup debacle isn’t to blame for the title challenge going up in smoke. If there’s an Irish League orchestra, Glentoran are at the back playing the triangle.
6. Sharp shooters
It’s hard to believe that Jay Donnelly and Conor McMenamin finished the season with no trophies when they banged in more than 50 goals between them.
The deadly duo were let down by a fragile defence.
The Glens have the most feared strikeforce in the league, but the team still found a way to keep hitting the self-destruct button.
7. Sunday service
There doesn’t appear to be much of an appetite for Sunday football in the Irish League so it’s ironic that March’s League Cup final attracted a bumper crowd of 11,103.
The Northern Ireland Football League, under the guidance of CEO Gerard Lawlor, played a blinder and it was a reminder of what can be achieved when the game is marketed right and fans aren’t ripped off.
8. Bannsider blues
A lot has been said about Glentoran’s pain this season, but we also have to ask the question where has it all gone wrong for Coleraine? A sixth-place finish, 32 points behind champions Linfield – they were well off the pace. Other than the bright spark provided by the promising performances of teenage midfielder Patrick Kelly, the team was too easily swept to one side.
9. Play-off thrills
Regardless of what you think of the end-of-season play-offs you cannot deny they capture the imagination. That final between Glentoran and Larne was a real thriller and one of the most incredible comeback stories of the campaign. Ronan Hale could have left Larne in January, but he stayed put to, in the end, fire his side into Europe again.
10. Welcome Newry
It’s great to have Newry City and Darren Mullen back in the top flight.
Their Championship success was hard-earned after a late charge from Annagh United.
The border boys will ruffle a few feathers next season as they look to consolidate and build. Welcome to the madhouse.