Irish Premiership - club-by-club guide to the new season
The BBC Sport website assesses the prospects for the new Irish Premiership season, with Linfield and Crusaders heavily fancied to battle it out for the title again, and Warrenpoint Town returning to the top flight after a one-year absence.
Champions Linfield must go into the new campaign as favourites to retain their title given the outstanding run of form they put together in the second half of last season to land the Irish Premiership crown, the Irish Cup and the County Antrim Shield. The Blues were unbeaten from early January, winning 19 and drawing one of their last 20 games in all competitions.
The psychological edge they may hold over main championship rivals Crusaders could be exacerbated by the fact that they won a much publicised tug-of-war to secure the signature of defender Josh Robinson during the close season. Manager David Healy has strengthened his hand by also adding Jordan Stewart, Andrew Mitchell and the returning Robert Garrett to his squad. Expect more silverware to be winging its way to Windsor Park this term.
It remains to be seen what lingering impact, if any, Crusaders' failure to lift the title for a third consecutive season will have, given that they squandered a nine-point lead in coming in second best behind Linfield in a thrilling finale to the championship race last time out. Crues boss Stephen Baxter will be determined to reclaim the Gibson Cup, which resided proudly on the Shore Road for the previous two years, as well as making an overdue impact in the cup competitions.
Baxter has added experience in the form of summer arrivals Brian Jensen, Mark McChrystal, Sean Ward and Mark McAllister, with highly rated midfielder Jamie Glackin joining from Dungannon Swifts. With bags of quality and strength in depth, expect the north Belfast club to be right up there in the hunt for the major honours once again.
Coleraine emerged as the surprise packages of the 2016-17 season, recovering from an indifferent run of results in the run-up to Christmas to claim a third place Premiership finish, a Europa League spot and a first Irish Cup final appearance for nine years. Manager Oran Kearney's confidence in his younger players has reaped rich dividends for the Ballycastle Road outfit and Bannsiders fans will hope for 'more of the same' from their side over the coming months.
Josh Carson, Joe McCready, Stephen O'Donnell, Aaron Traynor and Matthew Kirk have all been brought in during the summer and with James McLaughlin out injured, goalscoring responsibility will fall mainly on the shoulders of front pair Eoin Bradley and Jamie McGonigle.
Such were the strides made by Ballymena United last term that even manager David Jeffrey admitted his plans to resurrect the fortunes of the Warden Street club were ahead of schedule. A highest top-flight finish since 1981, a place in the top six for the first time since the league split was introduced, a League Cup success and qualification for the Europa League in dramatic fashion at the expense of Glenavon proved just the tonic for the Sky Blues' long-suffering supporters.
The goals flowed freely for United last year, but the 'goals against' column was less impressive so it is not surprising that Jeffrey has moved to bolster his defensive options by acquiring defenders Andrew Burns, Emmet Friars and Steven McCullough, as well as midfield pair Michael Gault and Stephen McAlorum to offset the departure of the long-serving Allan Jenkins.
A season that promised much at the turn of the year proved to be a disappointing one for Cliftonville as they were forced to settle for fifth position in the Premiership following an alarming dip in form. Former manager Gerard Lyttle oversaw the signings of striker Joe Gormley and defender Garry Breen on pre-contract deals and much will be expected from Gormley as he begins a second spell at Solitude following his return from Peterborough United.
New manager Barry Gray has delved into the transfer market to add goalkeepers Brian Neeson and Brett Long, centre-back Jamie Harney, ex-Warrenpoint skipper Liam Bagnall and midfielder Ciaran Caldwell. Improvement will be demanded in the red half of north Belfast.
The 2016-17 campaign will go down as one of underachievement for Glenavon as their failure to turn scoring opportunities into goals proved their downfall. Touted as possible title challengers before a ball was kicked, the Lurgan Blues went tantalisingly close to salvaging something tangible from their season, but were edged out by Ballymena United in the Europa League play-off final.
Many of the 'old guard' have departed Mourneview Park in the close season but boss Gary Hamilton saw off the challenge of other potential suitors by securing the services of the league's top goalscorer, Andy Mitchell, from Dungannon Swifts. Marc Griffin and Adam Foley have also been snapped up and fans of the mid-Ulster club will hope that the addition of Mitchell, in particular, will add a more clinical edge to boost their side's fortunes.
Dungannon will aim to go one better than their seventh-placed finish last season but must do so without key trio Andy Mitchell, Andrew Burns and Jamie Glackin, who have all moved on to pastures new. The Stangmore Park club were right in the mix for a top-six spot until the latter stages of the campaign but in the end fell just short. The Swifts also came within touching distance of the Irish Cup final, before a semi-final defeat by Linfield put pay to their ambitions of appearing in the showpiece finale.
Manager Rodney McAree has his team playing attractive football and has instilled a confidence into the club so another mid-table battle seems likely. Among his new recruits are ex-Ballinalllard United midfielder Ryan Mayse, former Ferney Park right-back Liam McMenamin and goalkeeper Liam Hughes.
Ards were fast out of the blocks last season to set the early pace in the Irish Premiership but despite being unable to maintain those lofty heights, the north Down club clinched a creditable ninth place to comfortably ensure their Premiership safety. New manager Colin Nixon dipped his toe in the managerial waters for the first time at the summit of local football when he replaced Niall Currie and will hope to consolidate the club's fortunes in his first full season at the helm.
To that end, Nathan Hanley has moved from Carrick Rangers, while other new faces include former Linfield duo Johnny Frazer and Michael McLellan, ex-Glenavon defender David Elebert and goalkeeper Sam Johnston and midfielder Scott Davidson, both formerly of H&W Welders.
Glentoran manager Gary Haveron is the man tasked with spearheading the club's quest to recapture some of their former glory and a top-six finish will be the target for the Oval club following an underwhelming campaign last time out. Haveron replaced Alan Kernaghan in the east Belfast hotseat early in the season but inconsistency plagued the Glens as they were reduced to the role of 'also-rans'. a whopping 43 points behind eventual champions and cross-city rivals Linfield.
Haveron welcomes James Knowles and Daniel Kelly to the club, along with returning midfielder John McGuigan, from Warrenpoint. A glutch of promising young players in the form of Corey McMullan, Tiarnan McNicholl, Karl Hamill, Dylan Davidson and Nathan Kerr have also been signed.
The capture of Fermanagh man and experienced midfielder Richard Clarke from Crusaders could represent Ballinamallard manager Gavin Dykes' best piece of pre-season business as the Ferney Park club aim to stay clear of the danger zone at the bottom end of the Premiership. The search for consistency is key for Dykes as he prepares for the start of a new term. The departures of the impressive Ryan Mayse and ex-captain Liam McMenamin come as a blow to the Mallards, who ended up 10th last time round.
Carrick overcame the sudden departure of manager Aaron Callaghan to seal their Premiership status by overcoming Institute in a relegation/promotion play-off in May and will hope to build on that triumph under new manager Davy McAlinden. Despite navigating their way to the League Cup decider in February, the Taylor's Avenue club were always in trouble at the foot of the table and will be keen to avoid a repeat of that scenario this season.
McAlinden has put together a new-look squad and held onto most of the players he wanted from last year's panel so will be keen to impress after four years in charge of East Antrim rivals Larne in the Championship.
It's been a very busy summer at Milltown as manager Matthew Tipton bids to confound the armchair 'experts' and avoid the relegation battle which many predict for the promoted County Down club. Relegated in unfortunate circumstances in 2016, 'Point have bounced back in impressive style under the guidance of the former Portadown, Linfield and Ballymena United forward, claiming the Championship title.
Striker Darren Murray, goalkeeper Alan Blayney and midfielders Sean Mackle and Neil McCafferty bring bags of experience with them, with Martin Murray, Seanna Foster, Luke Fisher, Matthew Parker and Darius Roohi among the other batch of summer arrivals.