Cliftonville FC manager Tommy Breslin has declared this season's title race in Northern Ireland the "most open" for many years.
The North Belfast Reds, whose last championship came in 1998, extended their lead over nearest rivals Coleraine FC at the summit to four points with a 2-0 victory over Glenavon FC at the weekend. Yet Breslin believes the well of potential champions runs deeper than that. "Linfield have dominated the league in recent years, but 13 games into the new season, it's clear there are a number of strong title contenders."
For the past seven years it has been largely a one-horse race, with reigning champions Linfield FC winning an unprecedented six doubles in that time. It is not going their way this term, however, and they lie seventh after a frustrating start to the Premiership. The Blues have struggled for form and consistency and are already 11 points off the pace.
"Is this the most open title race I've seen for a few years? Yes it is," said Breslin, who in Liam Boyce possesses the division's nine-goal leading scorer. "There's a long way to go and all we can do is look after ourselves, but we hope to be in contention come the turn of the year with the likes of Linfield, Coleraine, Crusaders and Glentoran.
"We have to be pleased with where we are at the moment, but it's still very early days. There are no easy games in this league and a couple of defeats can see you tumble down the division. Also remember, last season, Linfield won the title by 14 points, so an 11-point advantage over them at this stage isn't an insurmountable gap. There will be plenty of twists and turns between now and the end of April."
Indeed, Linfield are still favourites to retain the Gibson Cup and defeated last year's runners-up Portadown FC 1-0 on Saturday. "We've been blessed with what we have achieved in recent years, but some results haven't been what we are used to this season," said Linfield boss David Jeffrey. "We are determined to battle back. We know from experience that league titles are not won or lost in October or November."
Ronnie McFall, whose 26-year reign at Portadown makes him the second longest serving manager in Europe behind Manchester United FC boss Sir Alex Ferguson, echoes that sentiment, adding: "At this stage, your aim is to be in the mix come the turn of the year. Those clubs near the top of the table in January can kick on and target the championship."
One of the stories of this season's Premiership has been the impact made by Ballinamallard United FC. The Fermanagh club, known as the Mallards, are flying high in third place in what is their first campaign in the top flight. Whitey Anderson's men have lost just three of their 13 league games, defeating the likes of Linfield and Portadown. It seems nothing can be taken for granted this term.
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