Last season saw Crusaders storm to their first league title in 18 years, a mere decade after suffering relegation to the second tier. Stephen Baxter’s side were deserving title winners, ending the dominance of North Belfast rivals Cliftonville who after winning successive titles, slipped to a hugely disappointing fifth position.
Injury strewn and short of confidence, the Reds season fell apart in the last few months and have lost record-breaking striker Joe Gormley to Peterborough United. Linfield will as always be right in the title mix, desperate to take the title back to the south of the city for the first time in four seasons. Warren Feeney has once again yielded his axe, with a number of high-profile departures but he has also signed impressively – five new arrivals who he will hope will bolster their hopes.
Mid Ulster duo Glenavon and Portadown will once again fancy themselves as title contenders. In keeping with the quiet summer transfer window, neither has significantly altered their squad. Seven successive wins in spectacular fashion saw the Lurgan Blues finish third last season, while Portadown faltered in the final weeks and cruelly lost the Irish Cup decider. They had differing fortunes in keeping hold of their star strikers, with Guy Bates pushing through his move to Linfield from Mourneview while Portadown (at time of writing) stay resolute in their desire to retain Darren Murray from the clutches of Cliftonville.
Glentoran will again be confident of a top six finish, that is despite both Ballymena United and Coleraine reshaping their squads over the summer months. At the bottom, Warrenpoint Town will be delighted with their business. They have held on to attacker Daniel Hughes, who signed a new contract at Milltown despite Linfield’s closest attention, as did Stephen Hughes. Several arrivals, including that of Armagh City goalscoring sensation Stephen Murray, should be enough to see Barry Gray’s side once more sustain their top flight status. Carrick Rangers replace Institute in the division, and have to date made six signings with experience at the top level. Ballinamallard United and Dungannon Swifts have both been busy in the market, but survival will be their aim.
Title race: 1) Crusaders 2) Linfield 3) Portadown
Little to change at the top, which was impossible to call up until March of last season. Don’t be surprised to see a bigger gap develop between the top two and the rest with Crusaders and Linfield, already the two frontrunners, the only top clubs to significantly improve their squads over summer.
It would take a wise man to bet against the Crues retaining their title, but the Blues could yet make important additions before the close of the transfer window. Joe Gormley will prove impossible to replace for Cliftonville, but a better injury record should see them improve on last season’s finish. If Portadown keep hold of Murray and their thin squad doesn’t get stretched by injuries, they’ll be confident of a top three finish.
Relegation battle: 10) Dungannon Swifts 11) Ballinamallard United 12) Carrick Rangers
It will be a tough year for Carrick, as it would be for any club coming up from the Championship. They have made some canny additions in the transfer window, and their home ground of Taylor’s Avenue (which has also been rebranded as the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena) being passed fit for Premiership action is a bonus. Any chance of survival hinges on strong home form and new striking duo Gary Browne and Mark Miskimmin finding form. Dungannon, Ballinamallard and Warrenpoint will also set out with their aim of staying in the division for a further year.
Most significant signings: Guy Bates (Glenavon to Linfield) is a quality striker at this level and on his day is the best in the league, his strength partnered with pace of Andy Waterworth is potentially devastating. Crusaders triple-signing of Michael Carvill, Andy Mitchell and Jordan Forsythe should ensure yet more flair and attacking options, which is a frightening prospect for their rivals.
Kristian Gibson, arriving at Glentoran via Rangers, is very highly rated and tipped to be a big hit in the local game, while William Faulkner (Ards to Ballymena) and Rodney Brown (Linfield to Coleraine) could both prosper with regular gametime in the top flight.
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