Sunday Life

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It’s time for my annual review of the Irish Premiership campaign – and what a year it was

Liam Beckett


Jordan Stewart and Linfield toasted yet another Gibson Cup triumph

Jordan Stewart and Linfield toasted yet another Gibson Cup triumph

Jay Donnelly had an impressive campaign with Glentoran

Jay Donnelly had an impressive campaign with Glentoran

Billy Joe Burns and Jordan Owens celebrate Crusaders' Irish Cup triumph

Billy Joe Burns and Jordan Owens celebrate Crusaders' Irish Cup triumph


Portadown's play-off relief was evident

Portadown's play-off relief was evident



Jordan Stewart and Linfield toasted yet another Gibson Cup triumph

With the main gongs and trophies for the season done and dusted, it’s time for my annual review of how I feel each team performed over an absolutely superb year of top notch football and entertainment. It’s been great for the neutral and for that I would like to offer my congratulations to each of the 12 clubs who have contributed to making this such an exciting and nail-biting campaign.


My Sunday Life tip as Champions before the season started and, once again, it’s the Blues who have lifted the biggest and most prestigious trophy in our game, the Gibson Cup.

The best team will always win the League because it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and, despite the odd wobble, it was Linfield who showed the rest how it’s done.

Yes, it was tight, and for the neutral it was one of the best and most exciting title races over the last decade — it was absolutely brilliant right up until the very end.

It’s also important to remember that this was deemed as something of a transition season at Windsor Park with so many experienced players having moved on to other clubs and lots of new faces coming in, plus the move to adopt a full-time policy, but David Healy once again showed his managerial and recruitment expertise by incorporating the new blood and still winning the League in the process — and no one can argue with that.


It’s difficult to find the words to describe just how superb the Reds have been this season.

Already winners of the BetMcLean League Cup, they just missed out by a single point on winning the much-coveted Premiership title itself.

I’ve got to be honest and admit that, at the outset, I didn’t see them being the main threat to Linfield this season, but they confounded me and many others by matching all of the big boys virtually blow for blow every step of the way.

The burning question all year was ‘Can they stick the pace at the top all season?’ and by God they didn’t half.

Right up until the last ball was kicked, Cliftonville were in with a genuine chance of winning the League, but Linfield are made of stern stuff and so it wasn’t to be this time.

Nevertheless, a major trophy in the Solitude trophy cabinet, European football guaranteed and runners-up in the League merely tells the story that the Reds had a fantastic season.


So near yet so far for a team who I genuinely felt would be a major threat in every competition they were part of this season.

A really impressive player panel to choose from and a team who, at one crucial stage of the season, were top of the League and looking extremely good. But I’m afraid that’s as good as it got and, over the last few weeks, the Glens were quite simply playing well below par and all of those early positive signs slowly but surely melted away.

Many will point to the fact that, despite lodging a high-profile appeal to arbitration, the club were still disqualified from the Irish Cup for fielding an ineligible player and, while you must always stand up for what you feel is right, that whole scenario undoubtedly had its effect on the players and the club.

For a season that initially promised so much, it’s now pretty much back to the drawing board for the men from the east after finishing some 12 points behind Champions Linfield.


A good, solid start to the season for the Shore Road side but, for whatever reason, they lost their way somewhat which proved to be costly in their quest for League title honours.

The Hatchetmen were, however, one of the form teams in the final third of the campaign and of course enjoyed a superb run to Irish Cup glory.

European football is crucial for clubs like Crusaders with their full-time model and for that reason they will surely hope to secure vital automatic qualification much earlier next time.


Still a very creditable season for the East Antrim side and winning the County Antrim Shield proves that, on their day, the Inver Park men are more than capable of beating anyone.

However, I sense that expectations are rising and that’s what can happen when a club enjoys a steady yet meteoric rise in fortunes. I suppose in many ways it’s the nature of the beast and goes with the territory.

Nevertheless, the transformation in the club’s team, stadium and infrastructure means this club is geared to win big prizes and therefore anything short of that will have been seen by some as failure — but not for me.


Another team who, despite a bright start, stuttered somewhat and flattered to deceive as the season progressed.

There are several talented players at The Showgrounds and early signs were good, but the final third of the campaign saw the Bannsiders really struggle for form and they subsequently dropped into mid-table obscurity.

If truth be told, at the beginning of the year, of the part-time clubs, it was Coleraine who I thought would provide the biggest threat to the full-timers but I was wrong.


Yet another provincial club who struggled all season to find that essential ingredient needed to mix it with the big boys at the top — consistency.

Sometimes brilliant, sometimes well short of that, but with a good mix of youth and experience.

I’m quite sure the Mourneview outfit would have been eyeing a top-six place at the start of the season so, from that respect, perhaps they will feel it was another chance missed.


Despite a superb Irish Cup run, the Sky Blues still finished the Premiership season some 30 points behind Champions Linfield.

The Warden Street club have an excellent Cup pedigree, particularly over the last number of years, but knowing the management at the Showgrounds, I would be fairly certain that they would swap all of those Cup runs for one League title — and this season I am also sure they would have been aiming for a top-six finish, but came up short.

The state of the pitch has again become a contentious issue and, although it certainly doesn’t help, it is what it is and so they will have to find a way to break into that top half of the table next year.


A decent season in many ways for a club with a limited budget and a small yet loyal fan base.

The emphasis at Stangmore Park since the days of Joe McAree is clearly placed on discovering and developing good, young players capable of cutting it at senior level and the Swifts seem to be very good at it.

The club seem to have perfected a cost-effective plan for survival at Premiership level and they have to be commended for that.

Incidentally, as a traditional grass pitch fan, I am somewhat disappointed to hear that it now looks odds-on that Dungannon will soon dig up what I always considered to be a really good playing surface to replace it with plastic.

I suppose that’s the way it all seems to be going nowadays and it may well help the Swifts to perfect that smooth passing game they like to play.


Terrific start to the season for the Carrick men but then, particularly since Christmas, it was as if someone had let the air out of their tyres.

Suddenly, from being a team on the up, they became one in freefall to such an extent that they ended up flirting with the drop zone and the real possibility of relegation.

But just when the alarm bells were beginning to sound, the Gers reignited and managed to secure the necessary points to ensure Premiership football again next season.


They never really got going all season and, once their top young player Lee Bonis was transferred to Larne in January, I feared for them.

A change of manager during the season still struggled to arrest the slide and so the Ports ended up in the dreaded promotion/relegation Play-Off slot before edging out brave near-neighbours Annagh United 4-2 to retain their Premiership status.

A huge sigh of relief will have been felt all around Shamrock Park on Friday night but it was much too close for comfort and they will want to do a lot better next time.

Portadown are geared for senior football with an excellent stadium and infrastructure, but it’s on the pitch where they’ll need to improve.


It’s never nice to see any club relegated but the ’Point can have few complaints because, as both their manager and the League table confirmed, they simply weren’t good enough this season.

They gave some top teams a real run for their money in certain games but just didn’t have enough quality or strength in depth to sustain life in the top flight.

However, while the club will be very disappointed, they need feel no shame whatsoever — in fact, given their meteoric rise from junior to senior football in such a short space of time, I think they have been an absolute credit to the top tier.

Senior football needs clubs like Warrenpoint, they bring so many qualities to the table — qualities that some others completely abandon once they become established.

I wish them every success in the Championship next season and don’t be in the slightest bit surprised to see them back at the top table in the not-too-distant future. There’s always a place for a good club with good people.

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