Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Fasten your seatbelts for a thrilling ride, this will be one special season

New dawn: Crusaders ace Paul Heatley and Larne’s
Chris Ramsey will be out to make their mark this season
New dawn: Crusaders ace Paul Heatley and Larne’s Chris Ramsey will be out to make their mark this season

By Steven Beacom

Another Irish League season is underway and this one could be one of the most compelling yet. There are plotlines everywhere you look. Will Linfield retain the title? Will Crusaders be their biggest challenger?

Will Ballymena United be up there again with David Jeffrey? How will Oran Kearney do back at Coleraine? Can Paddy McLaughlin make a big impact with Cliftonville? And what about Larne and Glentoran with major investment behind them?

You can guarantee there will also be fascinating stories involving Glenavon, Dungannon Swifts, Warrenpoint Town, Institute and Carrick Rangers.

There's also the summer football debate which will rage on and determined and ambitious people behind an all-island league project which is set to make more headlines in the weeks and months ahead.

Throw in controversy that always occurs in club football here and there will be many tales to tell.

No wonder Irish League fans have been counting down the days to the new campaign which kicked-off last night with Glenavon versus Glentoran at Mourneview Park.

Today there are more intriguing games with champions Linfield hosting Institute, Crusaders at home to Carrick, Ballymena at Dungannon, Larne against Warrenpoint at Inver Park and Cliftonville travelling to Coleraine.

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The encounter at the Showgrounds will be emotional with all connected with the Reds sure to have the great Tommy Breslin in their thoughts before, during and after the match.

The tributes have poured in for Tommy since his sad passing earlier this week.

A brilliant footballer, he proved to be an even better boss inspiring Cliftonville to back to back title triumphs and a host of other trophies.

Better still he was a wonderful man with a warm personality, sense of fun and a kind heart. Tommy loved to see entertaining and enterprising football and there should be plenty of that on show this season.

Take Larne's game with Warrenpoint this afternoon for example.

That ought to be one for the purist with managers Tiernan Lynch and Stephen McDonnell, who attempt to play the beautiful game, going toe-to-toe.

Larne were one of the most talked about teams in Northern Ireland football last season when they won the Championship.

Now comes their chance to shine in the top flight.

When the first whistle blows at Inver today it will be a proud moment for owner Kenny Bruce, who has invested millions in the club on and off the pitch.

New recruits like Mark Randall, Johnny McMurray, Albert Watson and Conor Mitchell will be crucial to Larne's hopes in the Irish Premiership.

Don't forget quality performers like Jeff Hughes, Davy McDaid and Ben Tilney either.

The ultimate dream for Bruce is one day to hear the Champions League music played at Inver Park.

That is highly unlikely to happen next summer but this season Larne will be keen to make a statement of intent that they can become genuine title challengers in years to come.

If there is excitement oozing through Larne fans, Glentoran supporters also carried a feeling of hope on their way to Lurgan last night.

Entrepreneur Ali Pour's takeover is now complete and like Bruce he has made funds available for new players.

Keeping influential midfielder John Herron was just as important.

There is an expectancy that the Glens will compete much more with the big boys this season.

To do that their gifted front line of Curtis Allen, Robbie McDaid and Darren Murray will have to fire. Talented youngster Paul O'Neill is another to watch.

Glentoran's chances of trophy success for the first time since 2015 won't come in the Danske Bank Premiership though but they are a good bet for cup glory after a turbulent few years on and off the pitch.

It's so tight and hard to call between Larne, Glentoran, last season's runners-up Ballymena United, Cliftonville, Glenavon and Coleraine that any of them could finish in any position between third and eighth.

Nineth and 10th spots in the table will be decided by Warrenpoint and Dungannon with Institute and Niall Currie's Carrick set for a bottom two battle.

That leaves Linfield and Crusaders to fight it out at the top. Respective managers David Healy and Stephen Baxter have signed superbly in the summer with French midfielder Bastien Hery and striker Shayne Lavery improving Linfield.

For Crusaders Chris Hegarty and Jamie McGonigle are very clever acquisitions.

If both teams play to their capabilities, the title race could go down to one of those final day thrillers we love.

Bring it on. We should be in for a special season.

Belfast Telegraph

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