JT keen to make up for final disappointment
The decks are very much cleared now and as the domestic cricket season begins to wind towards its conclusion the focus has moved fully on to the Premiership title race as well as the promotion and relegation issues. Brigade are in the box seat with their two-point buffer over Strabane but reigning champions Coleraine have suddenly loomed large in the wing mirrors and Gordon Cooke's side are far from out of it despite a very indifferent start to the campaign.
It is probably Brigade's to lose at this point and the Beechgrove men's recent championship credentials are by far the best on view, having claimed the title six time since the turn of the millennium. It has been three years since their last success, however all-rounder Johnny Thompson feels that they are ready to bridge the gap this year having wrestled the initiative away from Strabane in anti-climatic circumstances a few weeks back. “That was a very important two points for us and we now have six games between ourselves and another league win. That said we still have some tough fixtures to negotiate, including against Coleraine who have crept into it themselves. One of our biggest problems however is that like a few others we haven't had a match for a while now. A combination of bad weather, cups and Warriors games means that the Strabane contest on 26 July is the last we have played and it is easy to lose momentum when you have a month between games. We're going from a famine to a feast now though because every club now has double-header weekends for the next three weeks. It has been a strange season that way with no matches for ages and then six in three weeks but it can't be helped. It's the same for all teams so at least it's a level playing field”.
The Ireland “A” player said that despite that their Duckworth/Lewis blip he still felt there was plenty of life left in Strabane's title charge but that both clubs now have to be very wary of the Bannsiders. “It is set up for a really good finish and any one of the three will think they can win it. Coleraine didn't start too well but they have the momentum now and they still have to play us and Strabane. We just have to keep doing what we've been doing though and we have matters in our own hands so we're quietly confident we can do it”.
Taking a look ahead to the weekend's fixtures the Warriors man agreed that it was another pivotal day at both ends of the table. “The game at the Bleachgreen is vital to both teams and it could be a nervous day for the pair of them. It looks a very long way back now for Fox Lodge if they are to have any hope at all of staying up but defeat here will surely send them down. The Foxies haven't been able to play with any fluency this season and have really struggled to finish teams off. I've seen them several times this year including last time out at home to Donemana. They got themselves into a great position in that match just like they did against us but they couldn't see it through and that has been the story of their season. Everybody knows what you have to do to get past Ardmore but it is easier said than done. This is exactly this sort of game that Decker has been brought in for and Fox Lodge's strike bowlers need to keep him, Riddles and Murphy quiet if they are to have any chance of winning. It is very much last chance saloon for Jason Milligan's team but even if they do win there is still an awful lot of work for them to do. Ardmore seem to be playing with a lot less fear and that might be the difference so I have to go with a home win”.
Next on the list is a match that could make Brigade's task a little easier however “JT” believes that it will probably go to form. “It might seem stupid to write off Donemana at the Holm but while this could be a really good game, Coleraine know they can't afford to lose. It's hard to know what has brought about their recent improvement but they are now playing more like the team they were last season. Nial McDonnell is a big factor at the top of the order and when he gets runs they usually win. Their bowling is very good and they have options in both seam and spin and if they can get a score they will back themselves to defend it. Donemana's own league campaign hasn't been great but they were much better at Ballymagorry with Andy McBrine leading from the front. He is always going to be a massive threat and if Coleraine want to stay in the hunt they definitely need to keep him quiet. All things considered the match probably means more to Gordon Cooke's team and they should be able to nick it”.
Second placed Strabane host a Bready team that ended their unbeaten league start and Johnny believes that the Red Caps can make amends for that surprise defeat. “That was the match that opened up the title race and it came as a surprise as Bready had a few key players missing at the time. Strabane have plenty of options with both bat and ball and they have been as solid this season as we've seen them for a while. We played into their hands a little when they beat us at Beechgrove earlier in the summer but they did their job really well and took advantage. Just like Coleraine at Donemana, Strabane will be thinking that they can't afford many more slip-ups and like the rest of us they have a few difficult matches still to play. Bready have had a really good year under Davy Scanlon and they have surprised plenty of teams already. David Rankin has had a fantastic season and he remains a massive player for them and there is no doubt Bready will fancy their chances of upsetting the odds again. All things considered Strabane do look favourites though and if their batting holds up I would expect their attack to be too strong”.
And finally to their own game this Saturday away at Eglinton and the chance to keep the pressure on the chasing pack. “A lot of people thought that Eglinton would struggle this year but they haven't. Beating Bready a fortnight ago was a massive result and it could keep them away from the play-off place come the end of the season. Chris Pierce's side are probably safe now but in some ways they will still be very dangerous with the pressure off a bit now. They have a few big game players too including Stephen Smyth and Stuart Thompson and a few very good youngsters as well. It's always a great place to go and play, especially if you're a batsman but Saturday will just be all about getting a result for us. If we want to keep the pressure on the teams around us then we have to be winning matches like this. I have no doubt that it won't be easy but with plenty at stake I'm sure that our boys can keep the run going and take us a step nearer the title”.
For the record, Sunday's fixtures are the same ones that were washed out on 12 July- Coleraine entertaining Ardmore, new Ulster Champions Bready at home to Donemana, Eglinton taking on Strabane while Fox Lodge put their faint survival hopes on the line in the unlikely setting of Beechgrove. Obviously nothing will be won or lost mathematically this weekend however it looks like being another telling 48 hours in the race for North West honours.