Less than a week remains in the Danske Bank Premiership but with the league champions, European places and relegation battles already decided the attention of local football fans must now surely turn to the second tier, where several fascinating subplots are playing out.
At the top, there is a three-way tussle for the league title but more importantly, promotion to the top flight while at the other end, the final relegation place is going to be decided on the final day of the season.
Carrick Rangers lead the way at the top of Championship One having lost only once since August and finally clearing a fixture backlog which at one point saw them with six games in hand over long-term leaders Bangor.
The Seasiders had led the table since the first month and looked destined for promotion, with a string of sensational performances not just in the league but also two fantastic cup runs which saw them defeat (now champions of the top flight) Crusaders twice on their way to the County Antrim Shield final and a League Cup semi-final.
However, a shock defeat to relegation-threatened PSNI back in Mid-March was followed by draws against Carrick (which saw Garth Scates’ men score twice in the final five minutes to salvage a potentially-decisive draw) and Larne.
Both sides have two league games remaining, with Carrick facing PSNI - who could yet slide into the third tier - on Tuesday night before hosting already-relegated Dundela on the final day. Bangor’s run-in is decidedly tougher, on paper at least. Their chances of promotion, either automatic or via the play-off, look set to rest on their result away to high-flying HW Welders on Tuesday.
The Welders are 4th and in great form having routed Larne 5-0 on Saturday, a week after their 6-0 win at Lisburn Distillery which itself was on the back of them booking their place in the Intermediate Cup final with a 2-0 win over Bangor. The Seasiders final match of the season is at New Grosvenor and they will be confident of taking all three points against a Lisburn Distillery side who have managed only one draw amidst six defeats in their last seven outings in all competitions.
Sandwiched in between Carrick and Bangor in second spot are Ards, who have only one league fixture remaining, where they will host Ballyclare Comrades. Niall Currie’s outfit’s chances of the title look to have disappeared barring a Carrick collapse, but they will be hoping that a Bangor slip-up this week will give them the opportunity of taking on Warrenpoint Town in the promotion/relegation play-off.
At the other end of the table, basement dwellers Dundela will not be playing at this level next season with their inevitable relegation confirmed a fortnight ago.
However there will be another side relegated into Championship Two, and it will either be Donegal Celtic – who were competing in the top flight only two season ago – or PSNI, in their first season at this level.
The Police are one point clear of Donegal Celtic and have two fixtures remaining compared to the Wee Hoops’ one, but there are a number of reasons why fans of the West Belfast club remain hopeful.
Firstly, Nicky Maye’s men will travel to Loughgall who have had an unimpressive campaign which sees them languish in 11th, safe from the drop but it’s a fixture that the Suffolk Road outfit will feel they can win. PSNI’s two remaining games are against the league leaders Carrick before a final day trip to Inver Park to face 5th-placed Larne. Also, Donegal Celtic have a vastly superior goal difference to PSNI - they are 25 goals better off. That means that should PSNI lose both games and DC draw, the Hoops will stay up. (or the scenario where PSNI draw both matches and Donegal Celtic win)
It promises to be an enthralling run-in at both ends of the table, don’t miss all the action which will be covered comprehensively on NI Football Daily!
Tuesday 21st April (all 6.45pm):
Dundela v Dergview
HW Welders v Bangor
PSNI v Carrick Rangers
Saturday 25th April (all 3pm):
Ards v Ballyclare Comrades
Armagh City v Knockbreda
Carrick Rangers v Dundela
Dergview v HW Welders
Larne v PSNI
Lisburn Distillery v Bangor
Loughgall v Donegal Celtic