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Friday, April 29, 2011

SO MUCH FOR THE CITY

Dismal. That is the only word polite enough to describe the second half of Newry City's season, which has seen the club win just 5 points out of a possible 51 since the turn of the year. This abject run of form has led to the club being relegated from Northern Ireland's Irish League Premiership after a 0:4 reverse at home to Glenavon on Tuesday last. City haven't won since New Year's Eve, and, with one game to go this season, find themselves six points adrift of their nearest challenger, west Belfast side Donegal Celtic, who had occupied the bottom slot in the Irish League until a few weeks ago (only the bottom club is automatically relegated in the 12-club IFA Premiership, whilst the 11-th placed club faces a play-off against the runners-up in the Championship, Northern Irish football's second tier).

The club, founded in 1923 as Newry Town, actually finished third in the Irish League in 1928, and then some time later disappeared into the abyss known as the B Division, from which there was no promotion to the top division until the 1980s. Newry Town gained admission to the Irish League in the early 1980s, finding themselves in the second tier, when they won their only major honour to date, the County Antrim Shield, in 1988, and almost went out of business in the early 1990s, only to be rescued by local businessman Joe Rice. The Town were eventually promoted to the top flight in 1998 after winning the former First Division.

In their first season in many years in the top flight, they managed to finish fourth, and qualified for the Intertoto Cup. They faced Croatian side hrvatski Dragovoljac, who they defeated 2:1 over two legs (0:1 away, 2:0 home).

In the next round, they faced German side MSV Duisburg, but were eliminated after losing 2:0 away, and winning 1:0 at home at Newry Showgrounds. Rice left shortly afterwards, being replaced by a consortium of owners. The club finished in last place in 2002-03, but remained in the top flight after defeating Bangor in a play-off series. After the town of Newry, along with Lisburn, obtained city status in 2004, the club changed its name to Newry City (the club emblem changed as well, much to the regret of your correspondent).

The club meandered along quite nicely in the intervening period, regularly finishing in mid-table and even reacing the CIS Insurance [League] Cup final in 2009, losing 1:0 to Portadown in the final. Earlier that season, the club even found themselves top of the Irish League for the first time in their history, though their "reign" lasted a mere 18 hours or so. (Since around this time, City have been busying themselves with sprucing up the Showgrounds in line with the Irish League's spectator safety guidelines.)

Last season was more of the same, and after a close-season in which City released several players, including yours truly's favourite player of all, Kevin Keegan, who went to third-level Annagh United, they started off reasonably strongly this season (the only complaint from your correspondent being that a holiday was booked with two Saturday fixtures featuring Newry City, one home, one away, in mind, but they had both been switched to Friday evening), reaching fourth spot in September.

Slowly but surely, though, their season began to fall apart, and their last win this season in the Irish League, their sixth until now, was a 3:1 victory at home to Lisburn Distillery on New Year's Eve. (City's last win in all competitions was a 4:0 home victory against Armagh City in the Mid-Ulster Cup in February.) In February, the team found themselves bottom of the Irish League, and their manager, Gerry Flynn, was sacked by the board, and was eventually be replaced by ex-Northern Ireland international Pat McGibbon (who won 7 caps for the national side, and who had also played for Wigan Athletic and Glentoran, amongst other teams).

Since the turn of the Year, Newry City have won 5 points out of a maximum of 51, and replaced Donegal Celtic at the bottom of the Irish League. They now lie 6 points adrift of the Celtic. Donegal Celtic head for a possible play-off against the winner of the Championsip quite shortly; South Down's finest can only dream of what might have been.

To make matters worse, it was reported this week in the Belfast Telegraph that Newry City's goalkeeper and star turn, Andy Coleman, is already putting the feelers out with a view to joining a Championship side in England. City stated recently that they would not stand in his way should he leave in the event of the club being relegated, and it sems odds-on that this will happen, even though Coleman stated that he would like to finish his career at City if the club could remain in the Premiership.

What will happen to McGibbon after the season ends is unclear, but he is currently far from a happy camper, and let his feelings known to the players - and to the BBC - after the recent home defeat to Donegal Celtic, basically saying that he wasn't happy with the effort that was being put in by the playing squad, describing them as "Monday to Friday players". They certainly seem like a thoroughly dispirited bunch, with only Coleman, defender John Convery and attacker Andy Graham frequently rising above the (allegedly) sub-standard fare currently on offer to spectators at Newry Showgrounds.

Newry City's last home game of the season takes place this coming Saturday against Coleraine, and, to be honest, no great things are expected. It is almost a relief to see the season finish, but the fear is that the club may well find it difficult to get out of the Championship in the near future unless they get rid of the dead wood and can find some quality players to strenghten the playing staff. At least the Showgrounds are beginning to look the part..

City may well find themselves engaging in local derby fun next season with near neighbours Warrenpoint Town, who are situated just 5 miles down the A2 and who are currently 8 points clear in their first season in the third tier of the Irish League with games in hand on most of their nearest challengers. The club from the 'Point, founded in 1987, were playing in the Newcastle & District League just a few years ago. What price The 'Point bypassing Newry City and progressing into the Irish League sometime during the next few seasons? It just doesn't bear thinking about.
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ADDENDUM: Donegal Celtic have been spared the stress of participating in a prpmotion/relegation play-off by the IFA. Apparently, the club received a message from the IFA shortly before the kick-off of their final league game, at home to against Dungannon Swifts, which informed them that their position in the Premiership was safe.

No additional details were given; it may well be the case that at least one of the top two teams in Championship 1, Carrick Rangers and Limavady United, do not fulfil the conditions needed to obtain a licence to play in the Premiership next season. Details are expected to be released as to who has obtained a licence to play in the top flight on 3/5/11. Meanwhile, Celtic then proceeded to lose anyway, by 2 goals to 1..

As for Newry City, there was to be no final flourish to their season as they lost 2:0 to Coleraine, thereby remaining six points behind Celtic at the foot of the Premiership table and will be playing Championship 1 football next season..unless a miracle happens tomorrow..

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