14 October 2020 16:39

Carlingford, County Louth Ruth Maguire Greenvale Hotel & Restaurant

Jimmy Callacher's Linfield were four points ahead of Eoin Bradley's Coleraine when the 2019-20 Premiership campaign was halted with seven rounds of games remaining Since then there has been much debate around how the 2019-20 league season, which had seven sets of games still to be played, should be concluded, and subsequently under what circumstances the new campaign should commence. Manager Healy has strengthened his squad by bringing in goalkeeper Chris Johns from Coleraine, French forward Christy Manzinga from Motherwell and most dramatically ex-Glentoran players Conor Pepper and Navid Nasseri, their captures announced the day after their Belfast rivals had won the Irish Cup final. The return of manager Oran Kearney from St Mirren prompted a revival in the Ballycastle Road club's fortunes last season, their consistent form helping them put together a sustained challenge at the top of the table that saw them come within sight of a first league success since 1974. Coleraine did pick up silverware in the form of the League Cup but were denied an Irish Cup final appearance when they lost out to derby opponents Ballymena United on penalties in their semi-final in July. Defender Howard Beverland returns for a second spell at the club following his switch from Crusaders.

Crusaders' third-place finish in the Premiership last term saw their run of nine consecutive years of involvement in European competition come to an end. A relatively disappointing season, by their own previous high standards, also saw the Seaview side come out second best to Coleraine in the League Cup decider and relinquish their hold on the Irish Cup. With many of their playing staff on full-time contracts, the resulting loss of revenue will come as a blow to the north Belfast club who will look to achieve more consistency in their pursuit of honours in the upcoming year. The club's stated intention has been to reduce the average age of their squad and, with that in mind, manager Stephen Baxter has recruited ex-Rangers defender Aidan Wilson and Northern Ireland Under-21 international Ben Kennedy. The Crues will hope that star forward Paul Heatley can capture the top form he struggled to find last season as they aim to regain the league title they won three times in four years between 2015 and 2018. Cliftonville improved their league position by one place last term, coming in fourth after at one stage looking like potential champions as they headed the table late in 2019.

It has been a fairly quiet close season on the transfer front at Solitude, with ex-Ballinamallard United defender Ryan O'Reilly, 21-year-old ex-Stevenage midfielder Mark McKee and teenage midfielder Ethan Devine the new arrivals. The remarkable revival of Larne continued in 2019-20 as their improved form in the second half of the season yielded a coveted top-six finish in their first year back in the top division. Sean Ward moves to Glenavon having previously played for Glentoran, Linfield and most recently Crusaders The regular stream of talented players moving from Mourneview Park to pursue a career in full-time football continued during the summer with Josh Daniels' move to League One Shrewsbury Town on a two-year contract. Joining Gary Hamilton's squad are experienced utility player Sean Ward, ex-Northern Ireland midfielder Michael O'Connor, winger Peter Campbell from Loughgall and forward Matthew Fitzpatrick from Coleraine. The Lurgan Blues struggled last time out to find the form which earned them a third-place finish in 2018-19, the revival of the likes of Coleraine, Glentoran and Larne seeing them overtake Hamilton's men in the league positions pecking order. The Glenavon manager has a new assistant at his side in former Ballymena United chief scout Paul McAreavey but a failure to qualify for Europe over the last few seasons has meant a struggle to match the relative financial might of other clubs going down the full-time route in the local game. The Taylor's Avenue club will hope to consolidate their Premiership status, having had a tendency to yo-yo between the top division and the second tier Championship in recent years. Lindsay has drafted in attacking player Lorcan Forde following his release by Linfield and also midfielder Dylan O'Kane, who has recently returned from America after spending four years at college. Following their runners-up finish during 2018-19, last year's league campaign turned out to be a massive disappointment for Ballymena, who struggled to find any kind of rhythm in the face of a lengthy injury list. If their league form was indifferent to say the least, the Sky Blues continued to make an impact in the cup competitions, losing to Cliftonville in heartbreaking fashion in the County Antrim Shield final and in extra-time to Glentoran in the delayed Irish Cup final. Having already become the Braidmen's longest-serving manager, David Jeffrey has agreed to extend his stay at the club and has been busy in the transfer market, recruiting new players for the campaign ahead. Defender/midfielder Trai Hume comes in on a one-year loan from Linfield, while Ryan Waide joins from the Blues after having spent last season on loan at Dungannon. Experienced left-back Ross Redman and Crumlin United wide midfielder Owen McKeown are other new recruits, while central defender Ciaran Kelly comes in on loan from Bohemians. Gray's second spell in charge saw him steer the County Down club to safety after Point parted company with former boss Stephen O'Donnell following a lamentable sequence of early-season results. Aaron Burns returns for his second spell at Portdown and has previously played for Linfield, Coleraine and Ballymena United Portadown's promotion to the top flight as Championship winners marks their return to the big time of Northern Ireland senior football after a three-year absence.