When Enniskillen Rangers pipped Strathroy Harps to the Mercer League in the final game of last season at The Ball Range back in May it seemed like a seminal moment.
It was after all a first Division One title for Rangers in 19 years. To the uninformed that didn’t seem particularly earth shattering, however, given that Rangers had previously won a record-breaking 16 titles, it seemed quite incredible that the Enniskillen side hadn’t finished top of the pile in nearly two decades.
Aside from the obvious, there was a sense that Rangers’ fairly convincing 3-0 victory on the final day of an enthralling season perhaps represented something of a changing of the guard.
Michael Kerr’s team had won the Division One crown by a solitary point and in doing so left Harps empty-handed for the first season in the guts of a decade.
Not only had the resurgent Enniskillen outfit halted an impressive period of dominance by Harps but, as if to underline their re-emergence as a real force to be reckoned with, Rangers had already successfully defended the Irish Junior Cup by defeating Greenisland at Windsor Park.
That stunning double on the back of their Junior Cup success the previous season suggests a turning of the tide as Kerr and company now look towards building on their successes of the past two seasons.
They have certainly marked themselves out as the team to beat in the 2018-19 season and having made a number of shrewd signings it would appear that the Ball Range men are intent on raising the bar.
Given the managerial changes at both Strathroy and Tummery Athletic, last season’s Mulhern Cup winners, many observers are predicting Rangers as hot favourites to successfully defend their crown.
Benny McElholm parted company with the Dromore outfit to succeed Shane Horisk at Harps while the colourful and controversial Gerry Love has returned to take over the reins at Crawford’s Lane.
That high-profile switch sparked a certain amount of upheaval and combined with Ballinamallard United’s relegation from the Danske Bank Premiership has robbed Rangers’ nearest rivals of key personnel.
Darren Teague, for so long Harps talisman, has gone to the Mallards as has NFC Kesh’s equally influential Nathan Cashel. Strathroy, too, have lost the services of Aidy McCaffrey, who has returned to his hometown club Tummery.
In stark contrast the champions have not only retained but bolstered their title-winning squad with Michael Simpson and Conor Watson switching allegiances from bitter rivals Enniskillen Town while James Turley is back after a season sidelined with injury.
Most consider Kerr and company as the team to beat and their nearest rivals will surely have to raise the bar to prevent the Ball Range men retaining the title.
Many will see Harps as their biggest threat while others may be tempted on having a punt on a gifted Tummery outfit, which on its day can match the very best.
McCaffrey’s arrival will certainly boost their chances of league success although ultimately their fortunes will depend on how often they can get their best team out.
GAA commitments, particularly at the beginning of the season, has historically hampered Athletic’s burning ambition to win a first ever Mercer League, and minimising the detrimental effects of that remains key to Tummery’s hopes.
No one knows that better than new manager Gerry Love, who believes if his team is within touching distance at the end of September they have a fighting chance.
Harps, too, despite the loss of Teague and McCaffrey, will fancy giving Rangers a run for their money. New boss McElholm will look to compensate for the loss of the ace attackers by ensuring his remaining players show greater character, attitude and desire as a collective.
Having talked the likes of Kevin Sloan and others out of retirement, McElholm is hoping to stitch together a title-winning squad with the blooding of a number of young players.
Improved fitness is another key component, according to the no-nonsense defender, who hasn’t ruled out pulling on the boots himself when the occasion arises.
McElholm is hoping his troops can mount a serious challenge to regain the title but accepts that it could be the second half of the season before the Strathroy faithful see the best his players have to offer.
Outside Harps and Tummery, NFC Kesh will be hoping they can go one better than last season and won a first ever title.
Nicky Noble’s men had a fantastic campaign last season and in the end just missed out by a single point after defeating Harps in a play-off for runners-up spot.
This time though they are without Cashel, who has returned to Ferney Park, and it’s hard to imagine that at some point they will miss Cashel’s guile and attacking flair or indeed the experience of Niall McMenamin who has joined Niall Amos’s Lisnarick.
Still Kesh have players of genuine quality in their ranks with Lee Walker, Mark Jones and Alex Holder sure to play a leading role this season again.
Beyond that there are a number of teams with top-four ambitions, the likes of Beragh Swifts, Mountjoy United and, quite possibly, new boys Strule United.
All three will have learned valuable lessons from their respective campaigns last season and should be better equipped this time around.
Beragh will certainly be boosted by the return of Stephen Browne and Kris Hamilton and, in stark contrast to 12 months ago, have an abundance of riches when it comes to goalkeepers with Jordan Newel, Joel Peden and Jonny Crawford all on their books.
Mountjoy United meanwhile have been bolstered by the graduation of a number of young players from their championship-winning second string and if they can replicate their excellent home form of last season on the road then David Gilfillan’s men could well be a force to be reckoned with.
As for Strule United they will no doubt be motivated by the pain they felt when relegated two seasons ago, despite being competitive in most games.
Niall McAleer has added several new faces, including Cain Hamilton from Fintona Swifts, and on the back of last year’s promotion it’s fair to say that the Donnelly’s Holm outfit are currently in a much better place.
Killen Rangers, under the rookie management team of Stuart Lindsay and Mark Gillen, will be hoping their team can pick up where they left off last season when, under Gary Sproule, the North Tyrone men pulled clear of relegation.
Neighbours Dergview Reserves, who last season were promoted along with Strule United, will in all likelihood be involved in matters in the bottom half of the table and player-manager Colin Robinson has said that survival is the number one objective for his team.
As for the remaining Fermanagh teams, Enniskillen Town United, Irvinestown Wanderers and Lisbellaw United, all three will be aiming for improved campaigns.
Wanderers, now under the direction of Ryan Beacom, are well capable of beating the very best when fielding their strongest team, but like neighbours Tummery, are likely to be impacted by the GAA commitments of some of their players.
Like Wanderers, Lisbellaw United, now managed by Kyle McCleery, are probably looking at the solid rather than the spectacular and their best hope of a trophy rests in the knock-out competitions.
The same could be said of Enniskillen Town who for the 10th season will be guided by former player Rory Judge.
Judge knows better than anyone what it takes to win a Mercer League and with a few comings and goings in terms of players ‘Town’, despite their recent Coffey Cup success, don’t, on paper at least, look any better equipped than last season.
Judge’s men are always a good bet for Mulhern Cup glory but it’s hard to imagine they can challenge their great rivals Rangers when it comes to consistency over 22 games.
The big question is, who can?
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