North West campaign enters a frantic finale

James Milligan
James Milligan

It is difficult to remember the last time so much was at stake for so many teams in the first Saturday of September in the North West’s top flight.

Of the eight teams in the Long’s Supervalu North West Premiership, just two, Coleraine and Donemana, can consider themselves both out of the title race and free from the pressure of relegation.

Brigade and Strabane, the title contenders, might normally expect to encounter opposition with little to play for at this stage of the season, but like it or loath it, the eight-division league creates drama right down to the final breath.

Even Fox Lodge, who hadn’t won a single league game until last weekend, can still escape relegation, although it would require nothing short of a miracle from Jason Milligan’s team.

Their opponents on Saturday are Strabane, who lie two points behind leaders Brigade, but with a precious game in hand. The Red Caps were handed a lifeline last Saturday when Brigade suffered a second defeat of the season to Donemana, so the top two are effectively level-pegging.

Strabane have home advantage against Fox Lodge with a trip to Coleraine, the deposed champions to follow on Sunday and that game also looks very winnable on paper with the Bannsiders’ professional Kylinn Vardhan having returned home and David Cooke unavailable.

Brigade’s task looks like a taller order because, unexpectedly, their opponents on Saturday Bready still desperately need a victory of their own after getting dragged back into the relegation scrap.

The Ulster Cup winners were in the top half of the table just a few weeks ago but a desperate run in the league has seen them start to look over their shoulders. Eglinton and Bready are now level on 10 points each, but with Coleraine and Fox Lodge to play this weekend you would fancy Eglinton to get one victory to pull away from the scrap to avoid the relegation play-off spot. However, they will be without Stuart Thompson who is training with Ireland while captain Chris Pierce is on holiday.

Bready’s perilous position makes Brigade’s task at Magheramason on Saturday potentially more difficult while Ardmore, their opponents a day later at The Bleachgreen, also need the points as they are involved in the scrap to avoid seventh.

There are other factors too of course, most notably that Strabane must play their last three matches - their game in hand is next weekend against Ardmore - without their excellent professional Tawanda Mupraiwa, who left on Tuesday to link up with the Zimbabwe A squad.

Should Brigade and Strabane finish level on points at the end of the season, there will be a play-off on Saturday, September 21. The reserve date will be the following day.

While the NCU Premier League title finale between Instonians and Waringstown has been delayed until next Saturday, the Section One promotion race enters another critical phase this weekend. Lurgan lead Carrickfergus and Woodvale by four points but the Pollock Park men have just one match remaining, at home to Woodvale on Saturday. Carrick, the favourites for promotion, and in the running for four trophies this summer, will be the strongest of favourites against Dundrum on Saturday.

They will then host Downpatrick on Sunday with their final match still to come a week on Saturday against local rivals Cliftonville.

At the bottom Holywood’s position is perilous. They trail Cliftonville by four points and must beat Derriaghy on Saturday to stand any chance of survival. However, their run rate is considerably worse than the only team they can catch on points, Cliftonville.

Rarely can there have been such a tight division. Just eight points currently separate Lurgan in first and Downpatrick in seventh.

There is one Premier League fixture on Saturday. CIYMS, who will be below strength as they prioritise their seconds as they chase the Junior One title, take on Civil Service North, the Challenge Cup winners.