BLUEFIN SPORT CHAMPIONSHIP: MATCHDAY 1 PREVIEW

The Bluefin Sport Championship returns this Saturday after a long summer as we preview the first round of games.

Ballinamallard United v Knockbreda (venue: Ferney Park; kick-off: 3pm)

The Irish Cup final back in May seems a distant memory now for Harry McConkey’s Mallards as they start the season back at Ferney Park keen to establish themselves as early contenders for promotion back to the Danske Bank Premiership at the second time of asking. The Fermanagh side finished the season in fifth place last season and have made five new signings in Alex Holder (NFC Kesh), Ryan Morris (NFC Kesh), John Currie and Dean Corrigan return to the club whilst Lee Frazer joins from Mountjoy United.

Lee Forsythe masterminded Knockbreda’s survival in the Bluefin Sport Championship last season as they finished just above the relegation playoff places. The East Belfast outfit have been busy in the transfer market this summer with a new look side of no less than 10 new faces lining out at Breda Park this campaign, notable signings include Philip Simpson (PSNI), Kyle McCauley (Carrick Rangers), Gary Lavery (Crumlin Star) and Alex Pomeroy (Limavady United) whilst striker Brendan Bennett has returned to the club following a short spell at Ards.

Ballyclare Comrades v Queens University (venue: Dixon Park; kick-off: 3pm)

The Comrades celebrate their centenary season this year, kicking off against Championship newcomers Queens University at Dixon Park this Saturday. The Comrades have been all change on and off the pitch this summer, as manager Stephen Hughes has added Paul Harbinson and Gareth Moody to his backroom team (formerly of Ballymena United Reserves) and they have added Fra Nolan (Ballymena United), Jake McNeill (Carrick Rangers) Jordan Malone (Greenisland), Kyle Crawford & Ben McCauley (both PSNI), Matthew Henry (Larne), Lee McCune (Grove United).

Peter Thompson takes his Queens University side into senior football for the first time in the club’s history after winning the Bluefin Sport Premier Intermediate League last season. The Students have kept faith in the majority of the squad that earned promotion but will be without their experienced captain Declan Brown who is recovering from a broken hand, they welcome Ronan Young and Matthew Hughes back into the panel after competing in this summer’s University Games in Italy.

Dundela v Dergview (venue: Dixon Park; kick-off: 3pm)

The Duns were one of the surprise packages in last year’s Championship having started out of the blocks quickly in the opening months, before eventually finishing fourth in their first season back in the second tier. Manager Bryan McCarroll has added some experienced faces to the Wilgar Park ranks during the off season as Michael Kerr & Gareth Tommons (both Ards) and Eoin Kane (Ballyclare Comrades) have joined the club.

Ivan Sproule starts his first full season in charge of Dergview, after pulling off the great escape in style last season, the County Tyrone side finished eighth and comfortably safe after looking doomed for relegation mid-way through the campaign. Top six may be the new target for the former Northern Ireland international winger as they travel to Belfast for the opening game of the campaign with renewed optimism.

HW Welders v Newry City (venue: Tillysburn Park; kick-off: 3pm)

Colin McIlwaine and George O’Boyle got a taste of Championship football towards the end of last season with the Welders but will be itching to get the new season started with a new stadium also on the horizon. The signings of Jonathan Smith (Linfield), Dylan Davidson and Lucas Gwiazda (Glentoran) have bolstered the squad after some key departures but the return of club stalwart Dan McMurray from long term injury will be a huge boost to the club ahead of the start of another season.

Newry City’s stay in the Premiership lasted only one season, but that won’t deter the border side from picking themselves up and going again in search of promotion. Darren Mullen has lost influential midfielder Declan Carville to Ballymena United, but added former Glenavon midfielder Adam Foley, Ultan Lennon (Armagh City) and teenager John McGovern (Windmill Stars) to his panel – Mullen will be without defender Dale Montgomery who suffered a broken foot during pre-season.

Loughgall v Portadown (venue: Lakeview Park; kick-off: 3pm)

A tough Mid-Ulster derby kicks off the campaign for Loughgall and Portadown at Lakeview Park. Dean Smyth’s Villagers finished seventh last season and will be keen to break into the top half of a keenly contested division this time around. The manager has strengthened his defensive line with the acquisitions of Jordan Lyttle (from Annagh United) and Ricky Copeland (Knockbreda) during the window.

In the opposition dugout, Matthew Tipton will be fully aware of the task in hand of taking Portadown back to the Premiership after two years in the second-tier of the NI Football League. The Ports finished third last season but lost the promotion pre-playoff to Carrick Rangers which prompted Tipton into a major summer overhaul of the playing staff at Shamrock Park, in comes American goalkeeper Bobby Edwards, Paddy McNally (Larne), Brendan Glackin (St James’ Swifts), Stephen Teggart (Banbridge Town), Conall McGrandless (Warrenpoint Town) & Christopher Crane (Ballyclare Comrades), whilst notable exits include Sean Mackle (to Annagh United) and Kevin Braniff (to Lisburn Distillery).

PSNI v Ards (venue: The Dub; kick-off: 3pm)

Sammy McFadden knows his PSNI side need to improve after narrowly avoiding the drop in the Promotion/Relegation playoff against Annagh United in May. His side also have the handicap of having to play their ‘home’ games at the Dub (home of Queens University) this season as redevelopment work is carried out at their Newforge Lane base. They will be without midfielder Mark Anderson (through suspension) for the opening game of the season, in what will be a completely new look team for the South Belfast club.

It’s been a summer of rebuilding for Ards as manager Warren Feeney aims to take his County Down team back to the Premiership at the first attempt this season, following play-off heartbreak against Carrick Rangers. Despite a number of departures, Feeney has retained experienced campaigners Johnny Taylor, Craig McClean, Michael McLellan and Kym Nelson to compliment a suite of new arrivals in William Armstrong & Scott McMillen (HW Welders), Jaimie