Belfast Telegraph

Why it's going to be another rollercoaster ride we will never forget


Stephen Baxter lifts the Gibson Cup after Crusaders clinched the title on the final day last season
Stephen Baxter lifts the Gibson Cup after Crusaders clinched the title on the final day last season
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The days have been long, the nights even longer since Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana blew his final whistle to bring the curtain down on the marvellous, magnificent, memorable World Cup in Russia.

Okay, it's only been 480 hours or so since Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann were the French toast of the happy, heaving Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow and the rest of the planet to boot.

But that football-deprived interval has seemed like an agonising eternity for obsessives of the beautiful game like me who've been counting down the calendar to today's start of a new season, which hasn't come quickly enough to stop the craving.

Yes, our Danske Bank Premiership mightn't be in the same league as Fifa's extraordinary global extravaganza, but our wee country's offering is definitely a whole new ball game from the old days.

Crowds have been on the rise in recent years. A modest rise, admittedly. But even ridiculers of the local game who spend an inordinate amount of time getting their knickers in a twist about a league in which they profess to have no interest can't argue with the figures.

The increasing attendances are clearly due to the fact that there's an increasing number of teams who are vying for glory. Like never before.

And that competition has sent the excitement levels for the new season soaring.

In years gone by, pre-season pundits knew if they predicted that either Linfield or Glentoran would win the league, they would hit the back of the forecasting onion bag.

Blue-eyed supporters like yours truly and friends I've grown up with in Windsor Park lived with a swaggeringly arrogant belief that there was a divine right for silverware to end up at the Shrine. And if it didn't come, the question was why not?

Nowadays the Big Two may still - just about - have the biggest fan bases, but appalling performances on the pitch ensured they were also-rans last time out.

For this season, an under-pressure Linfield manager David Healy has recruited so many new players that it would have been no surprise to see Uncle Tom Cobley putting pen to paper.

At The Oval, a new management team who've been gathered around veteran boss Ronnie McFall haven't had quite so much cash to splash.

But supporters like my ex-brother-in-law, who celebrated his 50th birthday by running out for a Linfield game as the Glens' mascot for the day, live in hope.

However, the days of blue and green domination are over. Reigning champions Crusaders have so much money raining down on them that they're talking up the possibility of full-time football.

Their north Belfast rivals Cliftonville have a fearsome strikeforce to be reckoned with.

Outside of Belfast, Irish Cup winners Coleraine have never had it so good. And their savvy, straight-talking manager Oran Kearney has even been on the radar of clubs across the water, particularly St Mirren.

Glenavon also have an astute boss in Gary Hamilton, a man that opposition fans love to hate but secretly, very secretly, admire for his passion and commitment to the Mourneview Park cause.

And don't bet against Ballymena United and their ebullient manager David Jeffrey going places, just so long as errant stock cars don't go places they shouldn't across the Showgrounds playing surface.

Modern day managers like Oran, David and Gary would have known very different times in the Irish League.

Football insiders - and football outsiders in the stands - may moan about it, but coverage of the Irish League in newspapers and on the telly has reached unprecedented levels.

Previews of games on UTV and the BBC are notoriously and shamefully shallow and, while the Beeb's Final Score programme has a habit of getting things wrong, more often it gets things impressively right, broadcasting highlights of games just minutes after they've finished.

But it's on the internet and on social media that the Irish League has been scoring big time. The BBC's highlights are re-edited into an online programme with analysis from former Linfield and Glentoran star Chris Morgan, while there are a growing number of internet shows focusing on the game.

Online, too, fans of all the clubs exchange views, banter and sometimes bile in a lively Irish League supporters forum.

And while they may disagree vehemently, heaven help the poster who pokes fun at the local game.

Rival fans will unite to round on him or her with a protective venom that says a lot about their love of the Irish League.

However, the same forum also illustrates the yawning gap that prevails in the Premiership.

For some clubs' individual sites on the forum have little or no interaction, an illustration that a number of the smaller sides from smaller towns have very few supporters coming through their turnstiles.

But on the plus side, following an Irish League club is no longer a magnet for mockery.

Just look at the who's who of celebrities who are happy to nail their club's colours to the mast.

Boxer Carl Frampton is a heavyweight supporter of Crusaders, and once came close to joining them.

Comedian Tim McGarry isn't joking when he cheers on Cliftonville and May McFettridge is another Reds man, though he wears his mate John Linehan's clobber in the stands.

Guardian journalist Henry McDonald is another self-avowed Red, as is UTV's political correspondent Ken Reid.

One of his opposite numbers at the BBC, Stephen Walker, votes with his feet for Ballymena United, while rock guitarist Ricky Warwick regularly rolls in with fund-raising concerts for his beloved Glentoran.

Down Glenavon way, they could fill a press box with supporters who work in the media, though their fanaticism doesn't stop them maintaining an unbiased approach to what they write for public consumption.

It was the same with the late, lamented doyen of football reporting here, Malcolm Brodie.

He always laughed off accusations that he was a Linfield supporter but, in quiet, private moments, I could sometimes see the mask slipping. It took one to know one, I suppose.

BBC commentator Alan Green always insisted that claims of favouritism towards this English club or that one were nonsense, saying the only club he ever supported were Linfield.

Before he went to work in England, Alan was a regular in Windsor's South Stand at the side of his father Billy, who was a fanatical Blueman.

And once during a commentary on national radio, Alan reported that Glentoran had been heavily beaten in a European game before adding: "That'll make my father happy."

Actor Sir Kenneth Branagh supported Linfield in his boyhood, and another actor who is devoted to the team of his youth is James Nesbitt, who puts his money where his mouth is by sponsoring his hometown club Coleraine.

And don't believe anyone who says he's a Jimmy-come-lately. I once spent two and a half hours in a late night debate with him in the bar of the Europa Hotel.

We didn't discuss Shakespeare or Pinter. We yarned about Linfield and Coleraine; about Dessie Dickson and Sammy Pavis; about Ivan Murray and Dessie Cathcart. If my taxi hadn't come, we'd probably still be talking...

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