Decks now cleared for Championship run in
DECKS NOW CLEARED FOR CHAMPIONSHIP RUN-IN
At long last the cups have now all been put to bed (with the exception of the Intermediate C final at Burndennett between Coleraine and Donemana) and North West sides can now set about taking care of their main business of the domestic season. The Long's SuperValu Division 1 title race is shaping up towards a thrilling final month with six of the ten clubs still harbouring varying degrees of ambition while the four remaining teams are deeply engrossed in their own private battle at the bottom. Coleraine lead the way after a resounding win at home to fellow contenders Bready on Sunday while the latter now sit alongside Limavady and Strabane just two points behind the pace-setters. Brigade are six off the lead but have played one match less however the real fly in the ointment is Donemana who are also six behind the Bannsiders but with three games in hand. To further muddy the waters Coleraine and Donemana still have to play each other twice as do the Holm side and Strabane while there are a plethora of other title shoot-outs between now and the last week of the season.
Richard Kee's men have been a victim of their own success this year as their league programme has been hampered by a combination of cup dates and players on International duty. With two players at the under-19 World Cup and three more at the under-15 European championships in Guernsey, Donemana have invoked their right to request no fixture re-scheduling at present albeit the skipper knows he now faces a programme of ten league matches in the final 5 weeks.
Turning to Saturday then and there are four matches listed and all with very high stakes. The focus could well be on Strabane Park where Donemana begin their long haul to the finish line as both sides put their title credentials to the test. The home side have blown hot and cold this season looking very much championship material in wins over Limavady, Bready and Brigade and anything but in losses against Fox Lodge and Glendermott. Faisal Iqbal's return won't hurt although to be fair his temporary replacement Waqar Orakzai wasn't bad either while Peter Gillespie is back among the runs in his new role at the top of the order. Donemana continue to be without their under-19 lads for another few weeks but they will also now have to cope with that demanding schedule and much will depend on how that affects their approach. Neither side will want for motivation in the biggest Tyrone derby of them all of course and there looks to be precious little between them.
The two other teams tied for second go head-to-head at Magheramason in a game where the home side really can't afford to slip up if they are to stay in the hunt. Davy Scanlon's side are coming into the match on the back of that drubbing on the north coast and have also played a game more than their visitors so a fifth defeat of the season here would probably put them out of the reckoning. They do have more than enough quality of course but the batting has still been much too inconsistent and needs to be better against the Roesiders. Despite their defeat to Coleraine recently Andrew Riddles' side is still very much in the title picture and their experience could be invaluable as the race hots up. Andy Britton has found his form with the ball of late but Limavady have a solid look about them generally and start favourites in this one.
Whatever way you look at it this seems like the last chance saloon for Bonds Glen as they entertain Fox Lodge still looking for a first league win of the season. The Bee Gees haven't been at the races this summer and their batting has been well short of requirements for survival. Despite a reasonable first half, professional Gihan Dilruk has also caught the bug and after centuries against Glendermott and Donemana in May, the Sri Lankan has managed a total of just 46 runs in his last six matches. The visitors now have their sights set on avoiding that potentially tricky play-off with the winners of Division 2 so there will be no room for sentiment. Jonny Robinson's side scared the daylights out of Brigade last week and are much better than bottom three but they need to prove it and they need to do so here.
The final match of the day sees the league leaders entertain a Creevedonnell side who themselves must now be seriously worried about automatic relegation. A couple of wins in the early weeks of the season had suggested that Stephen Scroggie's side might be about to prove the pundits wrong but they haven't been able to build on those during what has now become a lengthy losing streak. To be fair to them they came into the season without a professional, preferring instead to invest their finances in the club's infrastructure and that plan has certainly worked off the field as the ground and facilities have improved immensely.
There may well be a price to pay in terms of league status come September but I doubt very much if that will be allowed to dampen the efforts of a progressive season. And progressive is probably as good a way as any of introducing the visitors. Relegated from the top flight in 2009; reprieved on the back of Killymallaght's exit from senior cricket and then building a side with a very experienced spine and surrounding it with a nucleus of talented youngsters who were given every chance to show their worth. The truth of the matter is that some of those youngsters haven't really fired but Coleraine have kept faith. They may reap the rewards for that between now and the end of the season, they may not reap them until next season or maybe even after that again, but reap them they surely will. The going might get tough when they go to Strabane Park and the Holm in the last couple of weeks of the season but wins against Creevedonnell here and Fox Lodge next weekend means that they will go into those games in top spot. Scott Campbell may well be back by that stage and although less likely, the club has confirmed that they will also bring Jayasinghe back if they're still in the driving seat at that stage. It should be some run in either way.