The countdown is well and truly on for the start of a new Irish Premiership season.
The final term delivered plenty of drama in front of much higher attendance as Linfield held off a sustained challenge from Cliftonville to claim a fourth straight league title on the final day.
Larne beat Glentoran via a play-off to clinch the only remaining place in the European club competition offered by the league as the Crusaders dramatically sealed Irish Cup glory and Cliftonville claimed League Cup honors .
This year’s campaign has all the makings of another thriller and with growing anticipation we assess the outlook for the next nine months of action.
Can anyone break Linfield’s title grip?
The signs are looking ominous for challengers to Linfield’s recent dominance, with the Blues now having racked up five Championship successes in the past six years.
Despite being pushed to the finish line by Cliftonville, David Healy’s men kept their composure and faced the pressure of being first and favorites, an experience that should again be very useful to them for the coming season.
The South Belfast side have won their success with a squad boasting a number of new faces, including several acquisitions during the January transfer window to help them over the line.
The champions have not rested on their laurels, making other big additions including Joel Cooper, who returns from Oxford United for his third spell at the club, one of those on loan.
Healy hopes the loss of top scorer Christy Manzinga can be made up for by snapping up Chris McKee on a permanent move from Rangers, changing Robbie McDaid from long-distance rivals Glentoran and Eetu Vertainen back on a season-long loan.
Daniel Finlayson is also on loan from St Mirren. The Blues will start as favorites to retain the Gibson Cup.
What about the North Belfast challenge?
Cliftonville and Crusaders finished the 2021-22 season with reason to feel satisfied, winning the top two knockout prizes in the home game and both qualifying for European club competition.
The Reds stayed the course and emerged as the main challengers to the defending champions, a title bid built on the foundations of an impressive home record and solid defence.
Manager Paddy McLaughlin has bolstered his squad by making the transfer of former Aberdeen defender Luke Turner permanent and signing Jamie Robinson from Chesterfield, Gerard Storey from Derry City, goalkeeper Fynn Talley on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion, the former Bohemian winger Stephen Mallon and Ronan Hale of Larne.
North Belfast rivals Crusaders ended the season on a high, finishing fourth in the Premiership and finished on a high with their Irish Cup success to return to continental competition for the first time since 2019.
Compared to their derby rivals, the Crues have had a fairly quiet season in terms of arrivals with boss Stephen Baxter signing Dean Ebbe from Welsh side The New Saints and former Northern Ireland international Rory McKeown from the side. wellingtons.
Both clubs will have realistic aspirations of taking on sustained title challenges and achieving more cup success.
Will the rejuvenated Glens and Larne be able to fully realize their ambitions?
Both Larne and Glentoran started the last campaign with genuine hopes of challenging for the league crown, but both fell far short of their ambition.
Inver’s men failed to find the necessary consistency, but at least had the consolation of picking up some silverware in the form of the County Antrim shield.
A solid run of just one defeat in 21 top-flight matches either side of Christmas seemed to put the Glens in a strong position – only for Mick McDermott’s men to falter in the closing stages.
That disappointment was compounded by the Glens’ defeat at the hands of Larne in the season-ending European play-off – shortly after he was kicked out of the Irish Cup for fielding an ineligible player despite a long string of appeals.
The Glens have been busy in the transfer market over the summer in a bid to breathe new life into their bid for a first Irish League championship since 2009, but perhaps not so far. attracting some of the headline-grabbing names that have graced their squad. during the last years.
Their new signings include goalkeepers Oliver Webb and Mike Argyrides, centre-backs Aidan Wilson and Harry Murphy, midfielder James Singleton and forwards Ally Roy and Danny Purkis.
Larne has also been active, signing goalkeeper Jack McIntyre, defender Aaron Donnelly, midfielders Leroy Millar, Max Hutchison and Shea Gordon, and forwards Paul O’Neill and Daniel Kearns, both from Cliftonville.
The teams will play the first match of the new season at Inver Park on Friday August 12.
The “middle order” established?
After being league runners-up for three out of four seasons, Coleraine had to settle for a more modest sixth-place finish in 2021-22.
Manager Oran Kearney hopes his charges can improve in the position and to that end he has drafted Conor McDermott and Michael McCrudden from Cliftonville, Dean Jarvis and Lee Lynch from Larne, as well as Jack O’Mahony from Glenavon and Evan McLaughlin on loan from Derry City. .
The Lurgan Blues finished seventh again last time out and look set to challenge for a mid-table spot again, with a place in the top six after splitting a realistic target.
Among Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton’s signings are goalkeeper Rory Brown, defender Micheal Glynn on loan from Derry City, striker Eoin Bradley and former Derry midfielder Jack Malone.
Ballymena United sat eighth for the second consecutive year last season and suffered a heartbreaking extra-time loss to the Crusaders in the Irish Cup final.
Manager David Jeffrey has been busy in the transfer market, adding Sean O’Neill, Jake Corbett, Evan Tweed, George Tipton, Jordan Gibson and David McDaid to his ranks.
Among the departures from the Warden Street club was influential former club captain Leroy Millar. With mid-table placement likely again, cup competitions should once again be a priority.
Who will avoid the fall?
Dungannon Swifts and Carrick Rangers finally finished comfortably clear of the drop zone last season and will again want to give themselves some breathing room in the bottom half of the table.
Swifts boss Dean Shiels has decided to strengthen his hand by bringing in Dean Curry from Ballinamallard, John Scott from Loughgall and Brendan Barr on loan from Derry City.
Carrick’s promising start last time out fizzled somewhat and manager Stuart King mostly opted for the experience in an effort to avoid a repeat of that scenario – with Ross Glendinning, Curtis Allen and Cameron Stewart being brought in, as well. as loanees Alex Gawne and Andrew Mitchell.
Portadown came close to giving up their Premiership status after just one season with the ‘big boys’, but manager Paul Doolin will be keen to put his stamp on the club after being appointed to the full-time role.
It’s been a busy summer of arrivals and departures at Shamrock Park and Doolin will be hoping his ‘rolling and dealing’ will pay dividends with Premier League survival as a minimum target.
Darren Mullen’s Newry City return to the Premiership after being crowned Championship winners and the County Down club will be determined to extend their stay in the top flight.