So, here comes ‘the split’.
A term that has taken up residence in the Irish League vocabulary, it has no doubt enhanced the endearing mix of excitement and drama for which Northern Ireland’s top flight has become synonymous.
Introduced for the first time in the 2008/9 season in a bid to generate fewer meaningless end-of-season fixtures, few could argue that it hasn’t succeeded – particularly since the Northern Ireland Football League tweaked the format for deciding how the fourth European place is decided.
The split means just that – the top six teams in the Irish Premiership table after 33 games form Section A and play each other once, while the bottom six sides form Section B and do the same.
Essentially, eight key things will be decided by the five rounds of fixtures starting this weekend – the Premiership title winners, the Premiership runners-up, four places in the European play-offs, the team that takes part in the Premiership/Championship promotion/relegation play-off and the team to be relegated.
The race for the title has become one of the most thrilling for many years. Three teams – holders Linfield, second-placed Cliftonville and Glentoran in third – are locked in a battle for the Gibson Cup, with the Blues a point ahead of the Reds at the top and the Glens five points off the lead.
And the first round of post-split fixtures brings a top-of-the-table encounter in which the Reds have a chance to hit the top when they host David Healy’s men – chasing a fourth consecutive title – in a match of huge significance on Saturday evening, that is being streamed live on the BBC Sport website.
Key points in the European play-off push
As exhilarating as the title race is – and it really, really is – it’s a straightforward winner-takes-all scenario in terms of who gets their hands on the Gibson Cup.
Not so simple is the mix of possible permutations involved in the battle for European places for next season.
With a reported £200,000 windfall on offer just for reaching the opening qualifying round, the bid to claim a place in European competitions has become even more intense recently – a dynamic added to by the introduction by NIFL in 2015-16 of a new format for deciding how the fourth European place is won.
The title winners take Northern Ireland’s sole Champions League place, with the league runners-up and Irish Cup winners now securing berths in the Europa Conference League. It’s how the country’s third Europa Conference League spot is awarded that changed six years ago – and here’s how.
Rather than the team that finishes fourth going into Europe, there is now a play-off system. Those teams that finish between third and sixth in Section A, as well as the team finishing top of Section B – seventh overall – qualify for these play-offs.
If one of the teams finishing between third and seventh already has a guaranteed European place through winning the Irish Cup, then they don’t need to take part in the play-offs, leaving the other four to contest two semi-finals and a final.
If none of the five teams between third and seventh win the cup, then they will all go into the play-offs, with sixth facing seventh in a pre-qualifier before the semis and final – a situation that has not arisen since this format was introduced.
That is one to keep an eye on, though, with Crusaders already in the Irish Cup final and currently in fourth place, and eighth-placed Ballymena United – a point off seventh – still to play their Irish Cup last-four tie against Newry City, who are in the Championship so will obviously not finish between third and seventh.
That means that if Ballymena finish lower than seventh and win the Irish Cup – or if Championship side Newry are surprise cup winners – then NIFL will be scheduling that pre-qualifier.
To add an extra layer of intrigue (this is the Irish League, after all) third-placed Glentoran are seeking the right to arbitration following their expulsion from the Irish Cup for fielding an ineligible player.
This has already delayed the date of the Ballymena-Newry semi-final, with a new date to be announced, and could eventually prevent the final from taking place on 7 May as planned.
And what about the venues, match-ups and dates for the European play-offs? Well, at each stage, the team that finishes higher in the league will enjoy home advantage.
If there is a pre-qualifier, then the winner of that match will play the highest-placed team from the top half in the semi-final, with the two sides that finished in between them facing each other in the other semi.
The play-off semi-finals and final are generally played the week after after the Irish Cup final, but that is dependant on the cup decider taking place on 7 May. The play-offs cannot, of course, take place until after the cup final so it will not just be the teams left in the Irish Cup that will be interested onlookers to see how the Glens’ push for arbitration develops.
In terms of how the teams are sitting, the fourth-placed Crues are eight points behind the Glens in third and the same number of points ahead of fifth-place Larne, with Coleraine five points further back in sixth. Trying to secure home advantage in the play-offs will be the main aim for the Crues, Larne and the Bannsiders.
In Section B, it is a battle between Glenavon and Ballymena for that all-important seventh place, which the Lurgan Blues currently hold by a single point ahead of the Irish Cup semi-finalists.
Warrenpoint all-but-relegated but play-off battle is on
The writing has been on the wall for the majority of the season for bottom side Warrenpoint Town and an uphill task became even steeper when they lost to Portadown at the end of February in a relegation battle.
They are 12 points behind the Ports and look destined for a return to the Championship with the automatic relegation that bottom place brings.
While Glenavon and Ballymena fight it out for the chance of a shot at Europe, the other most interesting element of Section B will be who finishes second-from-bottom and is forced to play the team that finishes second in the Championship in a two-legged play-off for the right to remain in the top flight.
It has looked for most of the season like the Ports would finish 11th, but a strong March under new manger Paul Doolin has seen them close the gap on 10th-placed Carrick Rangers to just a single point. The two sides play each other at Shamrock Park on the final day of season – could that be a game that decides who avoids the play-off?
Or, will Dungannon Swifts get dragged into that dogfight? Dean Shiels’ side are only three points better off than Carrick and, with the sides meeting this Saturday, the Swifts certainly have it all to play for going into the final five games.
Teams having it all to play for – just how NIFL wanted it with ‘the split’.
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