First and foremost, I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you Sunday Life Sport readers a very happy and healthy new year — although I know your football team are likely to dictate precisely how enjoyable the upcoming 12 months are for you.
It is, however, the next five or so that are in my sights today as I take a look at what all 12 Danske Bank Premiership clubs will be hoping for in the business end of the season...
One of the League’s in-form teams as we said goodbye to 2021, Ballymena will be hoping that they can bring in the New Year showing the same kind of form they have shown in the last few weeks of the old one.
Another sizeable turnaround of players saw the Sky Blues struggle early on in the season and at one time they were right down among the relegation candidates, but a top-class manager will always find a method for success and now the Warden Street outfit are back in touch with the top six teams they will definitely be looking for more of the same as we enter 2022.
The season started so well for Carrick under new manager Stuart King with some very impressive results but, for whatever reason, the wheels began to come off and the latter weeks of 2021 saw the east Antrim outfit enter freefall and plummet down the table.
I still, however, believe they have enough quality and experience to survive but they will need to somehow re-capture that early-season form in the months ahead if they are not to get dragged into the relegation battle.
I just have the feeling that players such as Jim Ervin and the like will know what it takes to reach safety.
What a credit Cliftonville have been all season as, despite the odds, they continue to fly the flag for the part-time clubs at the top end of the League.
I have no doubt manager Paddy McLaughlin’s New Year wish will be simply “More of the same please” because if the Reds can perform in 2022 the way they have done in the 12 months just gone, then they will have a big say in every competition they enter.
Consistency and togetherness is the key and Cliftonville have been exactly that all season. They play as a collective team, not a group of talented individuals — always a good recipe for success.
I like what I see at Solitude and without doubt, the Reds are still a major threat to the Blues and the Glens.
A disappointing end to 2021 for Coleraine, who had started the season so well.
A loss of form has proved costly and the club now find themselves stuck in mid-table with Glenavon and derby rivals Ballymena United as they battle for a top six slot.
Nevertheless, the Bannsiders are still doing well for a ‘part-time outfit’ and that’s no mean achievement given the strength of the league, however I have no doubt the club and its passionate supporters will be hoping 2022 brings a rapid return to form and if they can rediscover that early season momentum then a European slot is still not beyond them.
While they’re still not out of the race for the title as they still have games in hand on the front runners, realistically I think European qualification and a good run to the latter stages of the Irish Cup is the best Crusaders can hope for.
I feel 2021 was something of a transitional period for the Hatchetmen with the likes of seasoned frontman Jordan Owens playing more of a cameo role and Adam Lecky being the preferred main striker, plus a few defensive changes were tried as well.
The loss through injury of the two experienced centre midfield players Phillip Lowry and Gary Thompson also had an impact so the Shore Road men will surely be hoping that 2022 is kinder to them than last year was.
Dungannon have lost the vast majority of their Premiership games so far this season and will be keeping their fingers crossed that 2022 brings a swift change to their fortunes and League position.
Renowned for playing pretty and attractive possession football, that sadly counts for little if there’s no end product.
Goals are crucial but sometimes if it’s not working, it takes a Plan B or maybe even a Plan C and if that entails going route one more often, then so be it.
There’s no point in persisting with pretty football if it’s taking you towards the Championship.
I sincerely hope the Swifts stay up but they will need to improve if they are to climb out of trouble.
Glenavon find themselves in a disappointing League position as we enter the New Year but there are enough signs for Gary Hamilton that they are capable of climbing the table if they can just find the recipe for that all-important ingredient called consistency.
The manager must be pulling his hair out with the knowledge that, on their day, the Mourneview Park club are more than capable of beating any team in the Premiership — but therein lies the problem, for whatever reason they follow every brilliant performance with a couple or more very mediocre ones. Do the maths and you’ll see that simply doesn’t stack up when you are gunning for success.
Gary has just reached the magical decade in charge of the Lurgan Blues and I believe he is one of the best the club has ever had, plus he’s a character which is always to be welcomed.
I see Glenavon climbing the table in 2022.
Glentoran are without doubt the biggest threat to Linfield retaining the Gibson Cup.
I can well remember telling my friends at the beginning of the season that I really liked the look of the Glens and that I felt they had the firepower and overall quality to pip the Blues to the title.
However, my prediction looked well offside when Mick McDermott’s men started poorly and at one stage even a top-four place looked beyond them.
Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, the cream always rises to the top and, slowly but surely, the men from the east began to string some good results together. As their confidence grew, so did their points tally to the extent they are now right up there at the top and looking extremely capable.
They have a top-quality squad with an embarrassment of riches in the striking department and that could well be the deciding factor as the race for the title really hots up.
I must admit I really do like the look of the Glens right now and their improvement in form and recent signings have come at just the correct time for me.
This year could well signal the return of Glentoran to the top perch.
Although not the formidable force they were last season, Larne have still enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and remain a breath of fresh air to the Irish League.
Last year saw even more stadium improvements and the club’s custodians will strive for more progress both on the pitch and off it in 2022.
Last night’s vital win over Glentoran means they’re still in with a great chance of a European qualification slot and who could ever forget their continental debut last summer? It was truly magical for the club and its community.
Linfield were my tip for the title at the beginning of the season and they are still the team to beat — but, oh boy, do they face one almighty battle to keep hold of their crown.
Suddenly, the seemingly imminent departure of highly talented young full-back Trai Hume to cross-channel football looks to be happening at the worst possible time and, although on the outside it may seem like a terrific piece of business by the club (and it’s always great to see really gifted young players get the chance to carve out a career in England), there is no doubt whatsoever he will be a big loss.
Obviously manager David Healy knows his squad much better than I do and feels he has the perfect replacement for young Hume but I still feel he’ll need to add a couple of experienced signings in this transfer window just to spice competition up a bit but, as always, the proof of the pudding will come in May.
Portadown have a great strike force in Adam Salley and Lee Bonis, plus a really talented young goalkeeper in Jethren Barr, but for some reason they struggle to win football matches.
They’ve won two from 20 which is is unquestionably relegation form.
However, I watched the Ports a few weeks ago and I thought they were excellent, but time will soon run out as we enter 2022 and they will have to start getting points on board — and quickly — if they are to survive.
I am in no doubt that Warrenpoint could not wait to see the end of 2021.
It has been a season of toil and one that sees the club rooted to the bottom of the Premiership.
Manager Barry Gray has already started introducing reinforcements and if they can strengthen properly, then there’s still plenty of points to play for, but they really need to hit the ground running in the New Year.