WEEKLY FOOTBALL COLUMN: Liam Beckett talks

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.
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By this time next week we will all have said goodbye to the year 2015 and welcomed in 2016, so what better time than now to take stock of the Northern Ireland football scene as we all prepare for life in the new year.

The year 2015 will forever be remembered, and go down in history, as the year our International team qualified for the European Championship Finals for the first time ever.

What an incredible achievement and one which will ensure that this squad of players and of course our manager Michael O’Neill will all go into the hall of fame as being the first ever to achieve such a feat.

On the domestic scene it’s the usual runners and riders who are setting the pace and the standards in the Danske Bank Premier League. But sadly there are still a couple of negatives which never really seem to go away as in my opinion, we still do have a major problem with the current standard of refereeing. In fact I now detect that what used to be a general dislike for local referees by many Irish League fans, has now more worryingly escalated into a form of hatred, and that is a major concern to me.

We also have some playing surfaces and stadia at present which leave a lot to be desired, so if we are ever to receive this proposed £30 million plus in stadia funding, let’s for goodness sake make it totally inclusive to ALL Premiership clubs and lets get it sorted now.

Let’s be perfectly honest here: some pitches are downright awful and someone needs to get the problem sorted, and quickly. But I don’t want to see a glut of plastic/synthetic pitches installed at every Irish League Club either. I much prefer proper grass pitches and perhaps a plastic one for training on.

For me, the perfect surface is Ballinamallard United’s sand-based sandwich type pronty pitch with real grass. So no more dragging the heels, we have an excellent product here in Irish League Football and its high time our government and the powers that be in local football realised and recognised that.

As far as the 12 premier league clubs are concerned its pretty much as I expected, with only the odd exception I might add. Crusaders, my tip from day one to retain their title and with it the tag as the best team in the country, have systematically and methodically built a wonderful infrastructure and a unique togetherness. Their hard earned success has brought with it financial stability although thankfully they have never allowed themselves to become big time charlies.

They are still the same down to earth honest to goodness club they were when I won a league title there in the 70s. Crusaders currently have the best squad of players in the league, plus they just happen to have the best manager in the league as well and together they have patiently built a very slick operation at Seaview. When you pause for a moment and consider all of these facts, then it’s pretty easy to see just why Crusaders are currently the best team in the land.

Cliftonville are almost back to their very best and I attribute an awful lot of that to their rookie manager Gerard Lyttle and chairman Gerard Lawlor. The latter has presided over a magnificent transformation at Solitude and he’s got all the big decisions right, including his selection of managers - particularly Gerard Lyttle and his predecessor Tommy Breslin. Cliftonville always try to play attractive football and they do have a lot of quality in their team. At this minute in time for me they look the best bet as the team most likely to push the Crues all the way in the race for the League title.

Linfield at long last are showing positive signs of a decent recovery from a poor spell of form. The mid-season managerial changeover from Warren Feeney to David Healy has not helped the Blues get a settled team as most managers see things differently. But be in no doubt, new gaffer David Healy knows this game inside out and he will know that for his Linfield to make a proper sustained title bid he will need some new playing personnel.

Coleraine are no doubt the most improved team in the league so far this season. Currently sitting in fourth place, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Bannsiders are there on merit. They need a few players though to be genuine contenders, especially a hard midfield player. Nevertheless, the Bannsiders are still making excellent progress this term.

Glenavon are once again well on course to emulate the fantastic season they had last time. Personally I have a lot of time for manager Gary Hamilton and his trusty number two Paul Millar. Together with loyal chairman Adrian Teer, these three have really galvanised this club and returned much of the Lurgan pride back into Mourneview. With a top class pitch and stadium the good times are well and truly on their way back to Glenavon.

At Glentoran, I am really impressed by new Glens manager Alan Kernoghan: this man comes with an excellent CV and thankfully a personality to match. If anyone can return this once great club back to the top of the league then for me it’s Alan Kernoghan. But patience is required, and lots of it at that, so give the man time.

Without doubt for me the most disappointing team of the season so far has been Portadown. Initially I felt this team could and would be challenging for all the major honours. On paper, without doubt one of the best teams in the league, but unfortunately some of the players have proved to be exactly that, cardboard cut-outs and extremely vulnerable when the chips are down. Yes, I know they are Ronnie McFall’s players but please don’t go loading all the blame onto Ronnie - a few of his players have so far come up well short of the mark and have let their gaffer down, big time and changes are needed I fear.

Arguably the best facilities in local football belong to Ballymena United but the club continually struggles to make a real impact on the biggest prize in local football, the League title. However I’m quite sure manager Glenn Ferguson would gladly swap the clubs cup exploits for even a top four league position. Unfortunately, that to me still seems a long way off as there are still too many average players who will invariably bring too many average results.

Ballinamallard United are one of the best run clubs in the country with unquestionably the best real grass pitch in the league. But sadly the catchment area in Fermanagh seems to yield too few premier league standard players and with a limited budget it’s been really tough for the Mallards. They have a real gem in manager Whitey Anderson, but for him and the hard working committee the ducks may well have sunk long before now.

Dungannon Swifts, like so many other clubs with a small fan base, will always struggle to attract the top quality players, and any they do have will soon be lured away by bigger clubs with deeper pockets. However, I am delighted to see Rodney McAree now in charge there; he comes from good stock and is a Swifts man through and through. There are fantastic facilities at Stangmore Park and some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet in football, but this season looks like another one of toil for everyone connected with Dungannon. Nevertheless, I still reckon they will stay up.

Newly promoted Carrick Rangers are already encountering playing problems at Taylor’s Avenue, exactly the same as happened last time they mixed it with the big boys, and it’s still only December. I feel if they are to have any realistic chances of Premiership survival then they need to get their pitch sorted, and fast.

Warrenpoint Town struggled big time to stay in this league last season and only did so by virtue of the play-offs. This year their plight looks even worse with only six points so far from a possible 63. That for me is relegation form and therefore I fear for the Point.

Now, all that remains for me is to wish you all a very happy and healthy New Year and hopefully I will see you all at some stage in 2016.