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Is this Europe’s most intriguing title race?



The league leaders who can’t go up, the fallen giants, the challengers without a home and a team looking for back-to-back titles.

With six points separating the top four with five games left, the NIFL Championship may not be the tightest of title races – you just have to look at the Premier League or Championship in England.

But with stories everywhere you look, Northern Ireland’s second tier could be one of the most intriguing anywhere in Europe with four teams very much in the mix.

With five games to go, where all the challengers face each other in the split, things are heating up. BBC Sport takes a look at the contenders and their stories.

Dundela – The leaders who cannot be promoted

Dundela celebrate a goal from Jordan Jenkins
Dundela have a team filled with Irish Premiership experience and a number of exciting young players under Stephen Gourley

Dundela have been the outstanding side in this year’s Championship and deservedly lead the pack heading into the home stretch. However, despite their success, they cannot be promoted to the Irish Premiership.

Despite the addition of extra stands and other improvements, the club’s Wilgar Park ground does not meet the requirement for an Irish Premiership licence and they will be faced with another year in the Championship regardless of the outcome.

While they cannot be promoted, winning the title would still be a tremendous achievement for Stephen Gourley’s side.

After almost being relegated from the football league in 2016, they earned promotion back to the second tier in 2018 and have built a side with a strong blend of youth and experience for their title challenging campaign.

No matter what happens over the final five fixtures, they will have a huge say in who will play Premiership football next season.

If Dundela are in contention for the title on the final day, they face local east Belfast rivals H&W Welders at Wilgar Park. Tasty.

Remaining fixtures: Annagh United (H), Institute (H), Bangor (H), Portadown (A), H&W Welders (H).

Portadown – The fallen giants

Ryan Mayse looks on for Portadown
Niall Currie’s Portadown are looking for an immediate return to the top flight

If you go back to the start of the century, Portadown were one of the heavy hitters in Northern Irish football. Due to some issues off the pitch, they are now looking to fight their way back into the top flight.

They have had their off-field problems in the past, which ultimately led to relegations in 2008 and 2017.

They were relegated last season after a three-year stint in the top flight, but are now looking to return to where their fanbase firmly believes the club belongs.

Under Niall Currie, who has assembled an experienced squad, they were favourites to earn promotion and have come out of an inconsistent period to sit just off leaders Dundela.

To enhance their title credentials, their January recruits included Dundela’s Ciaran Dobbin and Bangor’s Jack Henderson from their title rivals, along with Zach Barr from Newington, who was the league’s top scorer.

They reached the League Cup final against the odds, only to fall short against Linfield in the final. Now they want to make sure they earn promotion back to the Irish Premiership.

Remaining fixtures: Bangor (A), Annagh United (H), H&W Welders (H), Dundela (H), Institute H).

Institute – The nomadic challengers

Oisin Devlin in action against Linfield
Teenager Oisin Devlin (left) will play for Larne next season after impressing for Kevin Deery’s Institute

Few clubs have had things as tough as Institute have in recent seasons – not only having to deal with relegation but also the loss of their Riverside Stadium.

The Drumahoe ground, Stute’s home since 1980, was severely flooded when the River Faughan burst its banks in August 2017.

That forced the club to relocate, and they now play their home fixtures at Derry City’s Brandywell Stadium and have been in the top flight, and subsequently relegated in the uncompleted Covid-19 season, since.

Their title challenge is all the more remarkable given they finished 11th in the Championship last season and were only spared a relegation play-off by Warrenpoint Town’s expulsion from the second tier.

Things are looking up for Stute, who have a number of young and exciting players. They have impressed all season and their win over Bangor in their final match before the split kept them right in the hunt.

They have also been named as the preferred tenants for a new stadium at Clooney Park, which only adds to the optimism for the North-West side.

Remaining fixtures: H&W Welders (H), Dundela (A), Annagh United (H), Bangor (H), Portadown (A).

Bangor – Back-to-back titles

Bangor celebrate scoring a goal
Lee Feeney’s Bangor won the Premier Intermediate title, Northern Ireland’s third tier, last season

Once a stalwart of Irish League football, Bangor are another club who have had a remarkable rise after a number of difficult few years.

For the first time in the club’s 98-year-history, the Seasiders were relegated to the third tier in 2016 over licencing issues, and dropped out of the football league altogether the following season after another relegation.

They managed to get back into the third tier in 2019 and Lee Feeney, cousin of former Northern Ireland striker and Glentoran manager Warren, guided the club to the Premier Intermediate title last season.

Their revival has continued into the current campaign, where they have kept pace with the current leaders and are firmly in the hunt as they look to return to the top flight.

Six points off the top, they will have to have a strong end to the season if they are to make it back-to-back titles.

Remaining fixtures: Portadown (H), H&W Welders (H), Dundela (A), Institute (A), Annagh United (A).

The permutations

Given Dundela’s unique situation, the outcome of the Championship title race will have a direct implication for teams facing relegation from the top flight.

If Dundela win the league, it’s good news for the team who finish 11th in the Irish Premiership, which is currently held by Ballymena United.

Bottom in the Irish Premiership, a spot currently held by Newry City, would then play the team in second place in the Championship over a two-legged promotion/relegation play-off.

However, if Dundela finish second or lower, then the team who win the Championship will be automatically promoted and replace the team who finish bottom of the Premiership.

The team that finishes 11th in the Premiership will then face the next highest team with a Premiership licence in a two-legged play-off to determine who will play top-flight football next season.

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