Final weekend promotion battle for Derriaghy and Cregagh
The race for Premier League promotion has boiled down to the final weekend of the Section One season with Derriaghy and Cregagh both vying for one spot.
Barring a mathematical miracle, league leaders Cliftonville Academy have sealed their spot in the top-flight for next year and likely as champions, but with the Premier League now changing to a 10-team competition, it leaves one spot up for grabs.
Cliftonville Academy will travel to Derriaghy while Cregagh take on Muckamore at Moylena on Saturday before hosting Saintfield in a rearranged Twenty20 fixture on Sunday.
With a superior run-rate, Cregagh know that if they win both games their dream of Premier League promotion will become reality and they’ve put together an unbeaten run of five matches, including a win over Derriaghy, to put themselves in the driving seat.
“We have been on a good run recently so we will be looking to keep that form up and see what happens,” said captain Aaron Johnston.
“All we can do is concentrate on ourselves and pick up our points.
“There’s a small chance of us winning the league but the goal coming into the season was promotion and that’s in our hands now.
“We’ve done well to get that back into our hands and we will go out and give it our best.”
Cregagh were considered by many as favourites for promotion before the season started after winning the Robinson Services Trophy last season, ironically after they beat Muckamore and Derriaghy lost to Cliftonville Academy.
It’s the same set of fixtures that will define this campaign and Johnston would class it as a failure if they don’t finish off the job.
“Last year we won the league, although it was a different format but being league champions we wanted to win it again,” he added.
“Promotion was the main aim and we aren’t going to get a better chance because there’s two spots up for grabs this season and next year it’ll just be one again.
“It’s the best chance we have had for promotion so this weekend is make or break in determining whether it has been a success or failure.”
Cregagh have had the feel of a club going places over the past few seasons, winning the Section Two title in 2017 and now they are two games away from the pinnacle of local cricket.
Johnston isn’t for getting ahead of himself but admits it would be special for everyone involved if they could make it back to the top-flight.
“It would be massive,” he said.
“We are a club with a lot of history and it’s been over 40 years since Cregagh were last in the top-flight.
“It’s something we have spoke about as a team since the start of the season with the chance to make history and be part of it.
“There’s boards up in our clubhouse with captain’s names up on it and the photos of successful Cregagh teams are everywhere in the clubhouse, so it’s going to be a chance for us to be there for the next generation coming through. It really is a massive thing.”
Derriaghy’s last involvement in the Premier League was in 2016 and for a long stretch of this season it felt like a certainty they’d be heading back up.
The Queensway side won their first 12 league games of the season and were seemingly cruising, but then lost three on the trot to Donacloney Mill, Cregagh and Saintfield.
They’ve steadied the ship in recent weeks by beating Muckamore and Templepatrick, and captain Mark Stinson is hoping for one final push that could heap the pressure on Cregagh.
“I feel like there is less pressure on us with having that extra win on the board and we only have to play one game while they’ve to play two,” he said.
“We have to play the league leaders but we have already beat them so we might have something there, but our boys know we have to win and we have to give one final push.
“We know that even if we win we aren’t guaranteed to go up, but I think there could be another sting in the tale.”
Section One, a league not unlike the English football Championship in terms of unpredictability, has seen one of its most competitive seasons in recent years with the possibility of a team winning 15 of their 18 matches but still not going up.
For comparison, Woodvale were promoted in 2019 with 14 victories, Armagh with 13 in 2017 and Derriaghy secured their place in the Premier League in 2015 with 14 wins.
“It has been very competitive,” added Stinson.
“If you started the season and were told you could lose three and still not be promoted I think you’d laugh.
“It’s definitely been competitive and I think the three at the top have been the three best teams. Saying that, every team is beatable so that’s why I think there could be a twist in the tale.”
Derriaghy are an ambitious club and Stinson feels another run in the top-flight would be of huge benefit for their crop of youngsters.
“It would be massive and a huge boost,” he said.
“There are a lot of young guys coming through that another season in the Premier League would be huge. We are seeing more kids coming down so hopefully that would drive even more to the club.”