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Newington and Sport & Leisure set for crunch clash

Cliftonville legend Barry Johnston, pictured above with Sport and Leisure Swifts manager Packie McAllister, has returned to his coaching role with the West Belfast outfit Cliftonville legend Barry Johnston, pictured above with Sport and Leisure Swifts manager Packie McAllister, has returned to his coaching role with the West Belfast outfit
By Paddy Tierney

Bluefin Sport Premier Intermediate League
Newington v Sport and Leisure Swifts (Saturday, 2pm, Solitude)

RELEGATION will be on the minds of both teams as when Newington and Sport and Leisure take to the pitch at Solitude for today’s Intermediate Premier League battle.

The hosts have considerably more breathing space than their opponents, who dropped to the foot of the table with a 4-1 home defeat to Lurgan Celtic last Saturday.

Newington look destined for a mid-table finish, yet they haven’t won a league game since December’s 2-1 win over Portstewart.

Last Saturday’s scoreless draw against the same opposition means that Conor Crossan’s men have drawn three and lost three of their last six league games and the manager knows their form most improve to avoid being dragged into the relegation mire.

“It’s something we are talking about and we don’t want to be in a relegation fight so it is a big game for us,” said Crossan.

“We haven’t had a win in the league from mid-December. I think it is playing on the boys’ mind a bit too. We had a terrible January and a draw last week (against Portstewart).”

Newington defeated Sport and Leisure 2-0 at Glen Road Heights back in November and are seven points ahead of the West Belfast side having played one game more.

Crossan is anticipating a close battle on Saturday as his side seek to cement their status in the Premier Intermediate Division for next season.

“Anytime we play against Sport and Leisure it is a tough game – Packie (McAllister) always has them lined out well and well organised,” added Crossan.

“We played them before Christmas and we beat them 2-0, but any time we play Sport and Leisure, they fight tooth and nail. Hopefully, on Saturday we can break that run of bad results.”

Sport and Leisure, meanwhile, have suffered a massive blow in their bid to avoid relegation following the news that five of their players have been hit with lengthy suspensions.

The bans follow their abandoned league meeting at Portstewart last month when fans entered the pitch during a brawl. Both clubs have been fined, while Portstewart are also understood to have been handed suspensions.

However, the NIFL and the IFA have come down hard on Sport and Leisure, handing down suspensions to goalkeeper Michael Magill (eight games), defenders Padraig Lynch (six games), Niall McAuley (six games) and midfielders Stephen McAlorum (six games) and Ryan McAuley (six games).

Sport and Leisure claimed McAlorum was head-butted in the row and suffered a broken nose, while the club’s assistant manager Oliver McAuley, father of Ryan and Niall, has stepped down after becoming disillusioned with football following the bans.

Cliftonville legend Barry Johnston has returned to the club and Sport and Leisure boss Packie McAllister has blasted the suspensions as ‘ridiculous’.

“With the five guys suspended, we are working our socks off behind the scenes to get people in,” stated McAllister.

“We’ve a couple of new players on board already because those suspensions have wiped out half of our team.

“We got absolutely hammered. Our goalkeeper got eight matches and the four outfield players got six matches.

“It was totally ridiculous – the hearing was a farce. We were expecting to get punished, but not as much as we did. It has came as a shock for everyone at the club. It is done and dusted and we have to move on and try and start winning games.”

Sport and Leisure are set to for a major re-brand this summer and will be known as Belfast Celtic following the conclusion of the current campaign.

Beginning a new era outside of the NI Football League would be unfathomable for McAllister and everyone at the Glen Road Heights club.

Yet, McAllister says they can’t feel sorry themselves and bemoaned last Saturday’s 4-1 home defeat to Lurgan Celtic.

“We need to stand up and be counted now,” said McAllister.

“We were leading 1-0 at half-time on Saturday and we were in complete control of the game. The mistakes we gave away for their goals were criminal at any level of football. Confidence is obviously low at the minute, but we have to keep believing we are good enough to stay up.

“We are in a relegation scrap now. We don’t care about fancy football, all the matters is getting results for this club.”

McAllister is also braced for another tough battle against Newington at Solitude on Saturday.

“It is always a good game and I’ve a lot of respect for the guys at Newington – they are a good side,” added the Sport and Leisure boss.

“We haven’t done good against them lately. I am not expecting any favours from them.

“They’ll want to get another few wins on the board to guarantee their own safety.”

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