Belfast's recent vice-like dominance of the Northern Ireland Football League is being challenged by a provincial resurgence this season.
Almost a quarter of the way through the campaign, the top three spots in the Premiership are held by Portadown FC, Ballymena United FC and Glenavon FC. The fact the leading triumvirate, locked on 17 points, are 'country' clubs is all the more remarkable given the league summit has been the domain of Belfast sides in recent years.
On only one occasion in the past eight seasons has a non-capital team finished inside the top three – Portadown in 2011/12. You also have to go back to 2001/02 to find the last time a club outside Belfast lifted the league champions' Gibson Cup, again Portadown.
In the intervening period, south Belfast giants Linfield FC have won the trophy seven times, Glentoran FC of east Belfast have been champions on three occasions, while north Belfast's Cliftonville FC celebrated back-to-back titles last term. Glenavon player-manager Gary Hamilton, who led the Lurgan outfit to Irish Cup glory last season, was a cultured striker at Portadown in the 2001/02 championship campaign.
"Taking the title out of the city is always an achievement and Belfast clubs have really dominated over the past decade or so," he said. "I do think it's a real positive for the league that the likes of ourselves, Portadown and Ballymena have started the campaign so well. I think it benefits the league.
"I've been told the average attendances this season are up on last year. I don't think it's a coincidence that there are improved crowds with three big provincial clubs challenging the Belfast clubs."
Glenn Ferguson, who won six titles during 11 illustrious years as a forward with Linfield between 1998 and 2009, has been at the Ballymena helm since December 2011. During his tenure the 45-year-old has raised expectations, landing the County Antrim Shield in 2012 – the side's first senior silverware in 23 years – and leading the Braidmen to May's Irish Cup final which they lost 2-1 to Glenavon.
It's great to see Belfast's grip on the league summit being challenged, albeit at a very early stage of the season," he said. "Portadown, Glenavon and ourselves have strengthened in recent times and it is paying off with results.
"There is a very long way to go and the likes of Cliftonville and Linfield are still favourites for the title; but even at this stage, it's nice to be looking down on other clubs as opposed to looking up at them."
Of the current three pacesetters, Glenavon boss Hamilton suspects his team's derby rivals Portadown are best placed to mount a concerted challenge to champions Cliftonville through to the season's conclusion in April. "It will be tough for the likes of ourselves and Ballymena to stay up there into the latter stages," he said. "Portadown are probably best equipped to challenge the likes of Cliftonville, Linfield and Crusaders for the title."
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