Linfield legend Tony Gorman says he doesn’t believe one side will run away with the Danske Bank Premiership title and he views Cliftonville as serious contenders.
Much of the title focus will be on the Big Two, who are leading the charge and expected to strengthen their squads in January — with Glentoran closing in on Portadown frontman Lee Bonis — but the Reds are only two points adrift with a game in hand.
All the indications are that this could be a battle right to the finish line and Gorman knows what it’s like to win and lose championships.
In fact, he was in the Portadown team in 1994 when three sides were involved in a title shoot-out on the final day with Linfield snatching glory from the Ports and Glenavon.
Gorman’s old club Linfield, where he won two titles, are at Stangmore Park on Saturday but the Dungannon Swifts assistant boss won’t be there as he’s self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19.
There are a few positive cases at the Swifts and their game at Warrenpoint Town on Monday was called off but fans are hoping there will be no further disruption to the fixture programme.
With Cliftonville asking questions of a rejuvenated Glentoran and Linfield hungry to retain the prize, the race for the Gibson Cup is gathering pace and it’s no surprise Monday’s matches featured bumper crowds.
“It’s a difficult league to call,” said Gorman, whose son Dale used to play for the Glens.
“You would rarely bet against Linfield because of their experience. They have the quality, as do Glentoran but their big issue could be keeping everyone happy.
“They have a big squad and they need to find the right balance. You can have all the quality in the world but you must find the right balance to get the most out of what you have.
“Cliftonville are challenging and they have really impressed me.
“I would not rule them out. From what I have seen, the Reds were brilliant and they are as good a team as we have faced.
“The pressure and expectation is with the Big Two but Cliftonville have been very good. The rotation of their front players makes them difficult to pin down.
“The deliveries from Jamie McDonagh are dangerous and Paddy McLaughlin deserves massive credit for the way they are playing.
“Paddy might not like to admit it but they are in with a serious shout of winning the league.
“No doubt they will try to strengthen in January too. Cliftonville will be right up there.”
With the title chasers so close together at the right end of the table, a repeat of the thrilling climax in 1994 could be on the horizon.
“The 1993-94 season went to the last day and we played Glenavon when Linfield played Glentoran,” recalled the Letterkenny man.
“We just needed to beat Glenavon and they needed to beat us but we drew and the Blues won it.
“Something like that could happen again.
“At the Swifts we feel that we can be competitive against anyone but the top six can beat each other and you might say Coleraine or Larne won’t win the league but they could well still have a big say in who does.”
The 51-year-old teamed up with Swifts boss Dean Shiels in April and he’s confident the club can move in the right direction.
“I’ve enjoyed being at the Swifts,” said the former Coleraine ace.
“We are young and inexperienced but I came in for the last six games last season and Dean faced a big rebuilding job.
“The big thing for us this year is that, apart from Crusaders away, Coleraine at home and Glenavon away, we feel we have been competitive in every game.
“The football has been good and we have enjoyed large spells of possession in games.
“We are lacking a little experience and Dean has only really had the one transfer window to improve the squad.
“January is an opportunity to address that and they are a good group of lads.
“The dressing room is a good place to be, there’s a good atmosphere and there are no bad eggs The players are united and all behind the manager.”
Gorman has had his booster jab but is currently trying to shake off the virus.
“I tested positive but with no symptoms,” he added. “My son Zach tested positive so we all did the tests.
“That’s me self-isolating until Sunday and unfortunately I won’t be at the game on Saturday.
“I don’t think we want to see depleted teams playing against rivals because is that fair when teams going for the title could go up against weakened sides?
“The new variant seems to be a milder strain but clearly more infectious. Coming into the New Year we could see more postponements but the league has done well so far.”
The spike in Covid-19 cases raises concerns over a return to restricted attendances and Gorman would consider a winter break if fans were shut out.
“I think it’s important the fans are there for the games,” he said.
“Attendances have been impressive and it shows the appetite there is for the league.
“We also have the Big Two challenging for the title and the crowds on Monday were big.
“It would be a shame if we faced restricted crowds or no fans at all.
“I’d be in favour of a break rather than playing in empty stadiums but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”