Dankse Bank Premier League
January – April 2018
There’s a strange scent you can catch on the winds of fortune these days. Despite going through what I consider easily our worst patch of the season, we find ourselves four points clear in first place with two matches remaining.The first of those two matches is yet another derby against Linfield at the Oval. This season-defining moment will come in the next post, but for now let’s examine what’s happened the past few months.
Our first televised league match of the season came away to Crusaders, the club that handed us our first loss of the season. We had an even share of the ball but only managed half as many shots and shots on target as the opposition. The bounce back was almost as immediate as you can get with rising star Craig Faulkner finding the top right corner from 25 yards barely six minutes in to the next match with Carrick Rangers. Marcus Kane pounced on the rebound from a Croskery shot to make it two shortly before the break and we never looked back. The weaker team curse really seemed to be broken with another road win away at Cliftonville, only to reemerge in a different form with a dreadful scoreless draw at home against Ballymena.
Our second to last derby of the season came at a point where our form was starting to falter and Lindfield were only a single point behind us in the table. Things looked gloomy when we conceded not two minutes into the match. We couldn’t lose this. The team would go on a miserable downward spiral. I just knew it. The next ten minutes or so were the most tense in my time here so far. Approaching eleven minutes gone we won a free kick just outside the area. Faulkner stepped up and smashed an absolute rocket into the crossbar that rebounded almost straight down well behind the sprawling goalkeeper. Ruairi Croskery beat Linfield defender Mark Haughey in the footrace and looked set for the tap in when Haughey goes flying to ground and karate kicks Croskery INTO the ball. The fact that they were less than a yard out didn’t seem to factor into his 12 decision making and Croskery’s flailing limbs knock the ball across the line for what ended up being the final goal of the match.
Our stay at the top of the table was intact for the moment, but Linfield has been solid all season and were keeping right up with us. The newly evolved home curse struck again with a scoreless draw against relegation threatened Coleraine. Next came Ballinamallard in a rematch of our second loss of the season. The lads decided they liked replicating our first loss so much they did it again. Luckily for us Linfield picked a wonderful time to start slipping up and we held our single point lead in the league. At this point the league split for the ending phase of the season. The top six teams (including our league leaders, obviously) entered the Championship Group and will play each other once. Same story for the bottom six teams and the Relegation Group. This seems like a great point to end an update, but I was so excited I just went right on past. Our final five matches of the season would be as follows: Crusaders(A), Glenavon(H), Ballinamallard United(H), Linfield(H), and Carrick Rangers(A).
The Championship Group
The first (and potentially toughest) match was away to bogey team candidate Crusaders. They dominated the opening fifteen minutes and I was fearing they had our number yet again. Ruairi Croskery grabbed a loose ball around midfield and just smashed it long down the right for Ciaran Caldwell. Caldwell flashed past his man, took a perfect touch, and sent an arching cross in from right next to the corner flag. Aimed for the head of his opposite winger Redman (oh right, Kane tore his hamstring and he’s out for the year, ugh), the Crusader goalkeeper got a fingertip to it only for his defender to hip check Redman into the goalpost. I was furious and the referee wasted no time in pointing to the spot. Left back Matty Clarke did his best Leighton Baines and stepped up to the spot. Straight down the middle, right into the keepers hands…and into the side netting. We dropped into a counter and they came in wave after wave.
The match was fierce and tense as we entered the last ten minutes, and I could feel an equalizer coming. Seven minutes to go finds a long ball over the top to a wide open striker miraculously cleared by human pogo stick Calum Birney. As his header finds fill-in right back Jay Magee, the usual center back absolutely smashes a left footed clearance without even letting the ball bounce. Turns out it wasn’t a clearance. This mad genius of a man had spotted Kevin Amuneke on the shoulder of the last defender and sent the ball from the far right of the center line to just left of the penalty spot. Amuneke made his run perfectly and caught the keeper off his line with a header. What was nearly a breakaway scoring chance for Crusaders went 3/4 the length of the pitch and turned into a goal for us without hitting the ground.
Apparently we’re having a goals contest now. The next match was a 3-0 win over Glenavon that I’m going to sum up with this:
The second candidate for our bogey team came to the Oval next, as we saw yet another scoreless draw against Ballinamallard. Unbelievably, Linfield had been dropping points more than we had and we were to enter the final derby of the season with a four point gap of them in second place.
A terrible loss to lower league opponents sandwiched in the middle of three successive league draws. A terrible way to go out of a winnable competition.
Phew, sorry for the long update. Got carried away in the run in and forgot to take pictures at the league split. The next match against Linfield is in fact the title decider. A win or a draw for us sees a first championship in a decade. This is a rather young team, and we’re currently without our first choice left winger (who’s probably our second or third best player, our first choice right back, and forcing one of our CMs to play through an arm fracture. If this were just an important derby it’d be tough. If this were just a massive end of the season first/second place six-pointer it’d be tough. I’ve held a team meeting before the match to let the lads know we’ve done brilliantly in securing the Europa League and coming within a point of the title. Demanding we get the point is just going to heap on pressure they don’t need. They’ve all reacted well and are raring to go. We’ll be back soon with Big Two 4: The Biggest.