Coleraine boss Oran Kearney happy to delay the holidays
THERE could be plenty of twists and turns still to come in the final sprint for the Gibson Cup – and Coleraine boss Oran Kearney is just embracing the fact that his side could be on the end of them.
The Bannsiders, who take on Linfield at Windsor Park today, and Crusaders are locked on top spot with 87 points with the final two rounds of fixtures set to have a seismic impact on the destination of the league trophy.
That is new territory for Kearney who is usually dealing with a team with one eye already on Portstewart Strand by now.
“I have spent too many seasons with nothing to play for at this time of the year,” said Kearney.
“You’re usually mid-table and seeing out the season with everyone in holiday mode.
“I want the players to embrace it the way I am embracing it and go and enjoy the hype and excitement that comes along with it.”
Kearney came into the Coleraine role in February 2011 after David Platt’s exit.
Incredibly, the side are guaranteed their fifth consecutive season of improvement even if Crusaders pip them to the title.
They were ninth in 2014 and eighth the year after. They moved up to fifth in 2016 while they had a hugely-impressive third-place finish last term.
A top-two finish has long been guaranteed this season with Glenavon sitting 20 points back in third.
That will be of little consolation if they don’t out-point Crusaders over the next two rounds though.
Stephen Baxter’s side are at home to Cliftonville today before finishing away to Ballymena United while Coleraine’s last game is on the road against Glenavon.
It’s the Crues who hold two significant advantages though.
Firstly with two titles in the last three seasons, they are experienced league winners whereas Coleraine’s sole title came all the way back in 1974.
On top of that Crusaders hold the aces when it comes to goal difference - +67 to Coleraine’s +45.
That means that the outcome is essentially out of Coleraine’s hands, although Kearney said that all they could do was focus on their own results.
“We haven’t got carried away,” he said. “We haven’t changed anything, our training and our match preparations are no different to how it was in September, October, November, December, January.
“It’s business as usual. We had two really good nights of training this week.
“The boys are in top form and really looking forward to it.
“They’re a real good bunch with a real good attitude and you’ll see that if you ever watch us train.
“They train to win and play to win and we’re delighted with that.
“It’s up to other people to speculate about what might happen but all we can do is try and take care of business on the pitch.”
If they don’t take care of business tomorrow and leave Windsor Park with nothing while Crusaders win the north Belfast derby, then the title race will be over, unofficially at least.
Ceolraine will be without Josh Carson against Linfield after his dismissal against Ballymena last weekend.
“We’re pretty much in good shape for the game, the only one missing is Josh Carson who is suspended,” said Kearney.
“Apart from that everyone is ready for what is always a tough game.”
Barring a late drop in form, this year’s league winners look certain to set a new points record for the 38-game format that was introduced in 2008.
Cliftonville (2012/13) and Crusaders (2015/16) jointly hold that record with 91 points but the fact that it’s possible that first and second could both surpass that total speaks volumes of just how high quality this top-two battle has been. All that’s left now are those twists and turns.