The new season of the Tennent’s Coleraine Pool League kicks off tonight (Tuesday) with a single division structure for the first time in many years.
There will be 13 teams in action this year, with the new play off format making sure there is plenty to play for. The top four teams will play off at the end of the season for the league title, and this may well open up an opportunity, for a less fancied outfit, that they would not have got under the traditional system.
The league has lost a couple of teams from last year, however we have Floyds Bar and the Blackthorn Inn returning to league pool, with the latter having a particularly long absence. The league also welcomes Kellys Inn from Kilrea, who we hope will enjoy their first season in a league that is starting to become a true district league.
The season may not even have started yet, but there has already been one move that has created quite a stir. Last year, the Forge A were crowned league champions after a play off victory over the Sperrin A in one of the most close fought battles in a number of years. On that epic night, it was Raymond Baxter who was the hero, winning the tiebreaker for the Forge, securing a title that they had let slip from their grasp the year before. However, Baxter has decided to take up a new challenge, and he has jumped ship to the Bullseye.
Willie Eakin’s defending champions will play under the name of the Forge Bar this season. They have also lost Neville Smyth from last year’s successful squad. In order to try and counteract the impact of these blows, they have signed Ady Toner, returning to the Coleraine League, after a year out. They still have the likes of Lee Hull, Marc Hutchinson and Eakin himself to call on, so they are still a very strong squad. Baxter’s absence may give the likes of young Corey Sweeney the chance to step up and realise the potential that he undoubtedly has.
Having come so close last year, the Sperrin will be looking to do what the Forge did last year and use last year as motivation to take the title this year. There has been a shift in power as Lee Caulfield takes over the captaincy from long time skipper Raymond Stockman. The Northern Ireland seniors international stays in the squad, alongside Billy Moore and Tommy Morrow from last season. As stated above, they have secured Neville Smyth from the Forge, while Paul O’Connor returns home also. Allen Tosh makes up the squad, coming off the back of a very strong season with the Social Club last year. They have some strong tactical players in this squad, and this may well prove an advantage with the new single frame format.
The Bullseye A suffered a disappointing season last year, losing their grip on the division one title. However, they are determined to bounce back and they have made their intentions clear with the signing of three time singles finalist Baxter. The former Forge man lines up alongside six time singles winner Davy Tosh, last year’s most improved player Gary Wallace and the talented, if slightly unpredictable, Jimmy Moore. Skipper Damien Reid has further strengthened the squad with the signing of Steven McIlroy, a player with immense potential, who can only improve with the quality surrounding him. With Reid himself, and the experienced Adrian O’Kane completing the squad, the Bullseye will be hoping to make a swift return to the top.
It would take a brave man to bet against the 3 teams above occupying the top three spots come April. However, the new format provides the opportunity for shocks to happen. Any team that can reach the top 4 has a genuine chance of winning the league title.
One of those teams that may feel they have a good chance would be Floyds Bar. They may be a new team, but the players have plenty of experience of league pool. Led by Darryl Watt, they also boast his brother Adam, Scott Clarke and Alan McBride. They have also secured Ricky McMullan in their squad, a man who is putting in the practice and reaping the rewards at present.
Last year’s second division champions will probably be glad the league has reverted to one division this season, but they should still feel confident of being able to break into the top four. It looks like they have lost Adam Watt to Floyd’s though, which is a blow. Altough, if Arthur McMullan can continue to get the best out of the likes of Scott McClelland, Barry McLaughlin and Stephen Blair, they may not miss Watt as much as some might think.
The Bullseye have a further two teams involved this year with Stephen Warwick in charge of the B team and ‘young’ Keith Hunter taking command of the Old Boys team. Two teams who will certainly believe they should finish in the top 8, and if Warwick can get a couple more players on board, his side may even threaten the top four.
The Forge are double handed as their ‘A’ team this year is a very young and inexperienced side. It is the first time for a couple of season that the league has had a true ‘youth’ team and they are very welcome. There is very little league experience within the squad, however, there are a few players who will gain international experience as this season progresses. That may well improve their chances.
Mary Pats thoroughly enjoyed their first season in the league and they return for another crack. With Drew Hutchinson having departed, Martin McNeill takes over as captain in the hope of steadying the ship. The team, by and large, remains the same McNeill and Andy Hutchinson being the standout names. A team that should be in the top eight if they remain consistent.
It was unclear, up until the last minute, whether Coleraine FC Social Club were entering a team this year. However, veteran John McIlreavy came to the rescue and he will captain this year’s side. It is likely he will bring sons Lee & Simon with him. The rest of the squad is unknown as of yet, but there is no doubt McIlreavy will get the best out of them.
Long time supporters of the league, the Roost Bar, have been propping up the table in the last couple of seasons, but they epitomise what our league is all about. They are back again, under the guidance of DD Campbell, and the signing of John Cameron is definitely a positive. They will be hoping that newcomers Kellys Inn and Blackthorn Inn will find the going tough in their first seasons in the league, this may well give the Roost the chance to move up a place or two.
The Kilrea outfit have a couple of players who have some experience of league pool in Gordon Stratton and Chris Rankin, but the rest are unknown. The Blackthorn are run by Justin Mairs, who was a supporter of the Portrush pool league when it was running, but this is a massive step up in class, so it will be interesting to see how the newcomers cope.
Week 1 Fixtures
Mary Pats vs Bullseye A
Roost Bar vs Bullseye B
Blackthorn Inn vs Social Club
Forge Bar vs Railway Arms
Floyds Bar vs Sperrin
Bullseye Old Boys vs Forge A