Linfield visit the acid test as Newry City look to maintain positive run of form
NIFL Premiership: Newry City v Linfield (today, the Showgrounds, 1pm)
SEVEN points out of a possible 12 with two wins and a draw represents a dramatic turnaround in Newry City's fortunes which has raised hopes of another positive result against David Healy's high-flying Linfield this afternoon.
Newly-promoted Newry endured a torrid spell before ending a 10-game winless run with a 2-0 victory over fellow strugglers Ards last month. A 1-0 win at Coleraine followed a fortnight later and last week's draw at Dungannon Swifts was another useful point on the road.
Manager Darren Mullen says Newry expected tough times in their first season back in the Premiership and prepared accordingly. Good performances didn't translate into points but the poor results didn't crush morale in the dressingroom.
“We spoke about it at the start of the season and said: ‘Look, there are going to be difficult weeks and we need to be ready for that',” Mullen explained.
“It's how you react to it, do you let it deflate you and then it becomes the norm getting beat? Winning was a really good habit for us over the past five years and losing can become a bad habit if you let it.
“But in fairness to the other coaching staff and the players, the mood has always been positive around the camp. In training we've spoken about it and we haven't got ourselves too down or deflated over results because we knew we were playing well.
“If we were playing poorly and getting hammered then that would be a lot harder to deal with. But when you're playing well and you know there's very little in it and you're playing well against the top teams in the league then you know it will turn.”
Despite their recent good run, Newry remain second from bottom in the table. After Linfield, third-placed Glentoran come to town and the county Down outfit also have to face league leaders Ballymena before the turn of the year.
“Winning one game doesn't mean that the whole thing has turned but what it does do is give us that wee but of confidence to try and push on,” said Mullen.
“We can have it that we win one game and then lose three or four and then win the odd one – we need to go on a bit of a run.”
In between the clashes with Glentoran and Ballymena, Newry face local rivals Warrenpoint Town and 2019 begins with a bottom-of-the-table dogfight against fellow strugglers Institute.
“There are five or six teams down there that are in the mix so it's just a matter of staying in the pack and picking up points where we can,” says Mullen.
“It's very easy to get cut off but the difference the year, and most managers have said it, is that it's probably the most difficult league in a long time.
“Anybody is capable of beating anybody and you see that every week, you have Ards who have beaten Linfield, we beat last year's cup winners (Coleraine) and finalists (Cliftonville) so there isn't a bad team in it.
“We've played everybody and they're all good teams, there's never a week when you can think ‘okay this might be a wee but easier', it's never that case and I think that's good for the Irish League that it is that competitive.
“I can see already that we're certainly a better team than we were at the start of the season.”
Ballymena United v Institute FC (3pm)
LEAGUE leaders Ballymena will hope to extend their unbeaten run to 12 games after 11 wins and a draw against Dungannon Swifts. Since that 1-1 stalemate, David Jeffrey's men have won eight games on-the-trot in the league and Cathair Friel scored twice last weekend as the county Antrim side came from behind to beat Warrenpoint Town 4-2 and stay two points clear at the top of the Irish Premiership.
Meanwhile, 'Stute haven't won since October but they have at least been in good goal-scoring form. Their last two outings, against Glentoran and Glenavon, finished in 3-3 draws.
Crusaders v Dungannon Swifts (3pm)
A 4-1 loss to Linfield was a blow to the Crues' morale and manager Stephen Baxter will hope for a backlash against Dungannon Swifts this afternoon.
It didn't come in the League Cup mid-week when Ballymena United progressed to the final with a 1-0 win but Baxter will be confident his men can right the ship against a Dungannon side that was swept away by Cliftonville earlier this month.
Kris Lindsay's side did recover from that 5-1 loss by taking a point against Newry City but they have it all to do at Seaview today.
Glentoran v Warrenpoint Town (3pm)
ONLY three points separate these sides in the bottom half of the table and Warrenpoint will be keen to close that gap against an understrength Glentoran side at the Oval this afternoon.
Ross Redman, Calum Birney, Joe Crowe and John McGuigan are all suspended for the Glens but Conor Pepper returns. Ronnie McFall's side – who will include former Warrenpoint striker Darren Murray after he signed until the end of the season - were denied a win at Milltown when the teams met in November. The 'Point went unbeaten throughout that month and stretched their unbeaten run to five games (one win and four 1-1 draws) before Ballymena overhauled them last weekend.
Ards v Cliftonville (3pm)
CLIFTONVILLE need to take three points from bottom of the table Ards to keep pace with the top three and the Reds go into the game having scored nine goals in their last two outings – a 5-1 victory over Dungannon, followed by a 4-2 success against Glentoran.
The Reds' home form has been solid but they haven't won on the road since October's 2-1 victory at Coleraine and – although 21 points separate these sides in the table – they can expect stubborn opposition at The Bangor Fuels Arena today.
Both of Ards' league victories this season have come on home soil. There was a 4-0 success over Newry City and an eye-catching 2-1 win against Linfield.