North West Premier Division sides return to league duty this coming Saturday as the race for honours, and indeed survival, heads into the home straight.
Thankfully the recent glorious weather means that only one match- Brigade v Ardmore- remains outstanding, and that will be played this Sunday at Beechgrove (12 noon).
It’s a massive game for both teams, indeed a very big weekend for the pair as well, given that they’ve both slipped to the bottom of the table after troubled recent runs.
Brigade have now lost their last four league outings after looking impressive in their opening two wins- the problem no doubt down to a poor run of form with the bat. There is no shortage of quality in there, but the confidence looked to have seeped after a bit of a mauling from Donemana earlier in the season.
Andy Britton’s men returned the favour in the senior cup semi-final at the Holm and maybe that will provide the springboard to turn it around in the second half, however with one eye now clearly on the Bank of Ireland trophy, Brigade’s realistic title chances are hanging by a thread.
The Beechgrove boys start their weekend on the north coast as they tackle a Coleraine team who have had the exact opposite first half of the summer. Scott Campbell’s team may be punching slightly above their weight but look a very live threat at the turn, sitting just a handful of bonus points off the top of the table.
Five wins from seven games means any pre-season thoughts of the Bannsiders in a relegation scrap have been well and truly banished. In fact, skipper Campbell can reasonably now start to think that a top four finish is now a minimum goal for his young troops. North West Warrior call-ups for Rishi and Varun Chopra and Marcus Poskitt only serve as testament to the good work going on at Sandel Lodge.
Given the current league form of both teams, Brigade would have preferred something a bit handier than this as they bid to end that win-less run, however they will start favourites on Saturday.
The same comment applies to Sunday’s match although Ardmore will be no soft touch either. Desperate for points themselves, Gary Neely knows his team need to win at least once this weekend or it will be a very long way back for them. They have won at Beechgrove a couple of times in recent seasons, so the Waterside venue holds no fears for them, however realistically, Neely will be eyeing up the arrival of Strabane first up.
The Red Caps are so difficult to weigh up this season but there is no doubt that there is a much better balance to their team than has been the case for a couple of years. They look a little vulnerable at the top of the order, but then boast a middle as good, and maybe better, as most in the league.
Strabane’s problem is a bowling attack that concedes heavily too often and on a track as good as the Bleachgreen, Tommy Barr wouldn’t want the home side getting into a rhythm.
On their day either side is more than capable of claiming the points however key to this could be the arrival of the hosts’ new “pro” Azeem Ghumman. The former- Glendermott overseas player has been brought in to replace South African, Grant Mokoena, and is expected to land this evening in time for these two key games.
The 27-year old Pakistani is a more than useful addition at the ‘Green and the visitors will be very wary of him and the threat he poses.
After the Bleachgreen, Strabane are in Irish Senior Cup duty on Sunday as they entertain Phoenix in the competition’s quarter-finals. It’s another massive ask for the North West team against a side with plenty of fire-power that includes New Zealanders Fletcher Coutts and Brad Kneebone as well as Ritchie Lawrence, Reinhardt Styrdom and the Anders- Tom and Rory.
The Red Caps will be delighted to have secured another home draw and while they aren’t without hope, the suspicion is that Tommy Barr would willingly sacrifice this for a win at Ardmore.
Elsewhere in the league, Eglinton entertain Donemana in what could be a strange game for the champions. With no senior cup final to look forward to, it might come down to reaction from Ricky-Lee Dougherty’s side as they bid for a third consecutive title.
Obviously, the cup reverse at home to Brigade will have dented their priorities for the season, however after an awful start to their league campaign where they lost three of their first four games, the Holm men are now right back in the mix.
Eglinton were expected to be involved in the title race by many too, but Stuart Thompson’s team are in that senior cup final and do still have a live chance of silverware. It’s all about the mood here as well, because the villagers are currently the only side to have lost five times in the league so far. They do need wins for a very different reason now and another defeat here might just leave them looking over the shoulder in the second half.
The fourth and final top-flight contest sees Fox Lodge and Bready- two teams boasting excellent starts to their respective summers- locking horns at Ballymagorry.
It has been a fantastic effort thus from Brian Allen’s team who had been widely written off before the start of the campaign. The form of skipper Allen and overseas man Cebo Tshiki in particular has helped the Foxies record four wins in their first seven games and probably now just a win or two away from safety.
They have several decent youngsters in the side too and kudos to them for giving their youth a chance and then sticking with them. It is a move that has so far paid off.
Bready though have been on a different level this season and Davy Scanlon’s team has been slowly turning into the challengers we knew were in there. David Rankin, Andrew Austin and Irosh Samarasooriya head up a useful batting order, and although they just look a touch more vulnerable in the middle, their bowling options have been a roaring success.
The skipper’s back injury is a major concern- “Sca” has been at the top of his game this season- and while that may weaken Bready’s hand when push comes to shove over the next few weeks, Craig Young, Conor Olphert, Irosh, Ryan Barr and the rest can see the visitors through in this one.
Coleraine v Brigade
Ardmore v Strabane
Eglinton v Donemana
Fox Lodge v Bready
IRISH SENIOR CUP
Strabane v Phoenix
Brigade v Ardmore