It goes without saying that in NCU terms, the Gardiner Brothers’ Premier League should be the place where everyone wants to play.
But talk to many people involved with clubs in Section One this summer, and you get a recurring theme. Many of the contenders for promotion are apparently split about whether winning the title and securing promotion would actually be a good thing.
In one of the most open and perhaps surprising races in years, Armagh, who last tasted top flight action way back in 1957, are leading the table, with Woodvale, Donacloney Mill and Holywood in near pursuit.
Last year’s Section One champions Muckamore have adapted well to the Premier League and should survive with plenty to spare this season after learning the lessons of an ill-fated campaign in 2014 when they won just one match out of 14. However, as most at Moylena would admit, it has taken investment in the first-team squad, investment that many of the Section One contenders this summer may not be able to make in 2018.
While there may be a debate about the quality of some of the cricket played in Section One, the competitiveness is not in question.
Going up may be a daunting prospect though. Donacloney Mill, formed from a merger between Donacloney and Millpark, could probably not have imagined themselves in contention. Holywood last played in the top tier 26 years ago when Mike Bailey was their overseas professional in 1991 while Woodvale, once a fixture in the top division, have been in Section One for a long period aside from a single Premier League campaign in 2009.
Downpatrick veteran Paul Tate is adamant that the gap between the divisions is too wide and that many clubs would baulk at the prospect of promotion.
“Even within clubs themselves the views are split,” he said. “As someone who has played in the top league and also been relegated from it I would love the chance to play in it again. Logistically though to survive you need to be willing to invest 10 to 20 grand to have a hope of staying up. Section 1 is a poor standard but a very competitive and enjoyable league. So is the carrot big enough for teams to push for promotion when realistically you’re battling to finish seventh? In my eyes it’s not.”
Many people’s favourites for promotion were Derriaghy, a young side who made a decent fist of the Premier League in 2016. But this season started disastrously, and their hopes of promotion look remote.
All-rounder Craig Lewis is adamant that Derriaghy would relish a return to life with the big boys.
“We would love to be back in the Premier League next year that’s for sure and that was our plan but with us under-performing for the first half of the season, it’s almost impossible for that to happen now, though we will be going out every week to win games and push up the table as high as possible.
“Derriaghy’s goal will always to play as high as possible but there will always be the big question of how much it takes to stay up as there is simply nothing being done to bridge the gap. From last year to this season is a real big eye-opener into how big that gap has now become.”
Lewis is right about the gap in class. A source at one Section One contender said a discussion about a 10-team top flight would be worth having, but then the top teams in the Premier would hardly be keen on a return to an 18-match league campaign.
Stephen Johnston, the Lurgan batsman, has experienced plenty of Premier League cricket and is well equipped to assess what awaits this year’s Section One champions.
He believes none of the current contenders could hope to stay in the Premier League next season.
“My take is that the two leagues look right at the moment, the teams who are in the Premier are the Premier teams. Look at our league this year, anyone can beat anyone and there is no standout team that is running away with it. I don’t believe any team in our league is currently good enough to go up and compete. Any consistent cricketer plays in the Premier League and anyone who shows any promise from our league will likely be approached by a Premier League club.
“I do believe there are three or four cricketers in each team who could compete at Premier League level and maybe get a win or two if they have their good day but in general, I think it would be a massive struggle for any team in Senior One to go up and have a good go at retaining their status
“I have played Premier League and probably had one of my best seasons up there batting on good pitches, but would I fancy fielding 50 overs every week?
“I am not sure if any team would want to go up. I would be interested to hear from the likes of Armagh and Woodvale as they are the only two I think would be interested.”
We will soon have a much better idea about who is going up. Armagh host Woodvale at The Mall on Saturday and if the home side win they will have taken an iron grip on the title race.