This final blog post has taken me a while to write up, mainly because I genuinely wasn’t sure how to present this.
Following the heartbreak of being denied a place at Euro 2028 twice, courtesy of a a 93rd minute goal on both occasions, our efforts were refocused on the next challenge which was the 2028 UEFA Nations League competition.
To be honest, I didn’t much care about this 2028 Nations League group. Stephen Coyle was a goal away from breaking the international goalscoring record. As I’ve mentioned previously, the fate of the national team is a minor aside for me in this extension of my save. All I needed was a goal…
The goal came in the 27th minute of the second game in our Nations League Group. It was by no means glamorous but maybe that is somewhat apt given that a LOT of Coyle’s goals have been through purely opportunistic finishes.
The cross-come-shot from Callum Simpson finds an oustretched leg of Stephen Coyle in the 6 yard box and the rest is (most definitely) history!
It might seem strange to say but from the moment that ball hit the back of the net, my interest in this save had gone. I carried on with the remaining group games, which saw us ensure survival in Division B of the Nations League but I had completed my task.
Choy and Coyle
They’ve made for a fantastic partnership for me – both briefly at Glentoran and then on the international stage.
While Choy’s career seems to be flourishing (now looking likely to be a starter for FC Porto after moderately successful loan spells at Maccabi Tel Aviv, FC Kobenhavn and Burnley), Stephen Coyle seems somewhat settled at Glentoran having become their record league goalscorer to add to his international accolades.
As my time with Northern Ireland comes to an end, here is the standings as they were in January 2029 for one last time:
David Healy: 95 caps / 36 goals
Stephen Coyle: 45 caps / 37 goals
Choy Yiu Fai: 35 caps / 22 goals
I have no doubt that at just 22 years of age, Choy Yiu Fai will go on to smash Stephen Coyle’s record by some distance. I’ll watch on from afar with a virtual tear in my virtual eye.
Ok, this one came as a total surprise to me. After missing out on qualification through the standard group, we were somehow placed into a Play Off fixture. I can only assume this is in some way related to the UEFA Nations League although there does not seem to be any actual explanation of this in the game…
We’d participate in a semi final (and potentially final) in March 2028. One issue – Choy Yiu Fai would miss out through injury!
Semi Final v Romania
We made easy work of this tie with Stephen Robinson easily filling the boots of the missing Choy. This game will however be notable for one big thing – Stephen Coyle equals the Northern Ireland international goalscoring record of 36 goals!
It was just before the hour mark so this phrase seems perfectly apt – COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE MAN! Stephen Coyle strikes in typically cool fashion as he sweeps home the cross from Callum Simpson
Final v Austria
The scene was set, the script pretty much written. We’d qualify for Euro 2028 and it would be thanks to Stephen Coyle’s record breaking goal.
The problem is that football doesn’t always obey the script. Football does not bow to the wims of man. We were undone again. Undone again from a two goal lead, with a 93rd minute goal denying us our chance at Euro 2028 – for the second time in this qualifying routine.
After 10 minutes we were flying. By half time we were coasting but Konrad Laimer’s brace sent the game to 30 minutes of extra time. In the third minute of the additional 30, disaster struck and the Windsor faithful were left bemoaning their luck again.
Choy and Coyle
I know I said it wasn’t about national success but I can’t help but feel the sting of this one.
Aside from this, Choy played no part in the play off fixtures so his tally remains unchanged. Coyle equaled the record and is waiting in the wings, ready to strike and complete the biggest feat of his career so far.
Carrying on from the last update, we are sitting in a reasonable position within the group but cannot afford any slip ups from here. We also must rely on either Czech Republic or Spain losing ground if we hope to qualify for the Euro finals.
With that in mind, we firstly host Malta in September before Spain come to Belfast in October. Three days later we travel to North Macedonia before finishing off the qualifying phase away to Malta in November.
Matchday 5 v Malta
Three points accomplished as expected. We would have hoped for a clean sheet but at this level beggars really cannot be choosers.
Once more it is classic long ball football from Frank van den Berg’s Northern Ireland! Choy Yiu Fai races on to the end of a Paddy McNair clearance and rifles home moments before the break. Choy’s 15th international goal and a goal in each of his last five games.
Matchday 6 v Spain
For the second time in this group we bounced back against Spain to secure a valuable point. Stephen Coyle taking just 4 minutes to cancel out Ansu Fati’s opener.
Anthony Mitchell’s crossed ball is headed goalward by Jamal Lewis and the chance finished off by Stephen Coyle! Jamal Lewis + Stephen Coyle = GOAL! What a perfect occasion to mark your 30th international goal.
Matchday 7 v North Macedonia
We complete our group double over North Macedonia with a comfortable three goal victory led by Stephen Coyle in his relentless pursuit of the record.
Coyle’s opener can be attributed to pure dogged determination. Colm Quinn’s shot is parried by the goalkeeper but Choy can get a nudge on the loose ball. As the defender attempts to take possession in his own six yard box, Stephen Coyle slides in at full stretch to nick the ball into the back of the net!
Coyle’s second is the result of some nice interplay. He nods Barry Lavery’s pass down to Anthony Mitchell and runs on to the return pass before firing low past the goalkeeper.
Matchday 8 v Malta
Going into this game, Spain and Czech Republic were both 3 points ahead of us. Given that the group would be sorted by results between teams if points are level, what we actually needed was a Czech win to allow us to overtake Spain into 2nd place. We did what was necessary on our part thanks to a Stephen Coyle hattrick!
It’s that old familiar site – a Jamal Lewis long ball, latched onto by Stephen Coyle and put beyond the reach of a despairing goalkeeper.
Coyle’s second was thanks to some nice pressing from Anthony Mitchell as the former Larne man wins the ball back and plays in the talisman to strike home again.
Stephen Coyle completed his hattrick in the 19th minute – taking just 9 minutes from his first to his third goal. We all know the routine by now… Jamal Lewis to Stephen Coyle and it’s headed in for his 35th international goal – that’s just one behind the record held by David Healy!
European Championship Qualifying Group D
The group ends up heartbreak for the Green and White Army. Sheer agonising heartbreak. Spain hammered Czech Republic meaning that the Czechs finished above us thanks to the results between us during the group. Time for a friendly reminder that Czech Republic’s 93rd minute equaliser against us in June is the goal that denied us qualification…
Coyle and Choy
The qualification miss was a bitter pill to swallow but this campaign was a massive step in reaching my target of beating David Healy’s record.
Choy still drags some way off but Stephen Coyle stands now just two goals away from setting a new standard!
On the club front, Stephen Coyle is still at Glentoran but on a nice note, he has just broken their own club league goalscoring record by hitting 122 goals in his 157 appearances over five seasons.
Our boy Choy remains at Porto but has seen a second loan move happen – this time to FC Copenhagen of Denmark. He has also just signed a new four year deal with Porto on increased terms, I anticipate that before long he will manage to break through to their own first team.
As we go into the 2028 European Championship Qualifiers, Northern Ireland sit a record low of 61st in the FIFA World Rankings. Hardly reason to be confident. Add to that the fact that our competition for qualification will be Spain and Czech Republic – no mean feat. We also have Malta and North Macedonia within our group, which realistically should be seen as a given 12 points.
Aside from this, Stephen Coyle is now just 10 goals off David Healy’s record – could this be the campaign where it happens!? Choy is some way behind the record on 10 but is excelling himself at club level after having earned that move to Porto – he is now considered a ‘Wonderkid’.
Matchday 1 v Spain
The last time Northern Ireland made their travels to Spain, in real life, we played them in Gran Canaria. The ideal away trip apart from the 1-0 loss, which really should have been considered a reasonable result for us back then. This time around we fought bravely to come back from a goal down and earn ourselves a point in Seville.
Yet again Jamal Lewis had a large part to play in one of our goals. He finds himself on the end of a diagonal ball from Paddy McNair but his shot is blocked by Kepa, the ball falls kindly right into the path of Choy Yiu Fai who hits it home to secure an impressive draw.
Matchday 2 v North Macedonia
A victory was expected but the manner of this was very pleasing indeed. North Macedonia’s early sending off certainly didn’t help their cause and we took full advantage with five different goalscorers.
Choy’s goal is a super volleyed finish from a Stephen Coyle cross. Yet again, another successful link up from the very established partnership.
Stephen Coyle’s first is the ultimate poacher’s goal as he pounces in the six yard box to get himself on the end of a deflected cross.
His second is another perfect example of the goalscorer’s instinct as he finds himself on the end of the easiest of opportunities at the back post. Lavery’s shot is saved and Coyle simply has to tap in.
Matchday 3 v Czech Republic
June would see back to back games between Czech Republic and Northern Ireland with the first taking place in Prague. The Czechs outclassed us from the outset with a solitary Choy goal in the dying moments our only consolation.
Choy’s finish was a very well hit shot after receiving the ball from deep through a Cameron McGeehan pass. Long ball over the defence is a tried and tested method.
Matchday 4 v Czech Republic
This one somehow managed to hurt more than a 3-1 defeat three days earlier. A quickfire double minutes after half time had us looking comfortable but we overstepped that line between comfort and complacency. A 93rd minute equaliser from Penner had me sick to my stomach. Definitely two points lost.
Choy’s first goal comes thanks to a beautiful run from deep by Cameron McGeehan. It’s been sped up slightly here to let you see the full move. Glorious.
The McGeehan-Choy link up is almost as iconic as Lewis-Coyle. Once again, Jamal Lewis rips down the left wing and posts it up for Coyle who heads in our second of the day.
European Champions Qualifying Group D
At our halfway point we are sitting nicely in second but we will definitely live to rue that Czech result at Windsor Park.
Choy and Coyle
Choy’s four goals in these four games shows he is really progressing quite well, his loan move at Maccabi Tel Aviv paying off dividends. Coyle remains rooted to Glentoran but continues his impressive scoring on the international stage with 3 in his last 4 – the record of 36 is very much in sight, especially with North Macedonia and a double against Malta to come.
We’re back into UEFA Nations League action and, as mentioned previously, we will compete in League B with Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine in our group.
It’s a difficult enough group for a nation of our level and, realistically, a good campaign would simply be maintaining our place in League B.
Matchday 1 v Slovenia
There’s nothing but disappointment to be taken from this game as we blow a two goal lead away from home.
Stephen Coyle opened the scoring early on, it was a well picked run to free himself in the 6 yard box to connect with Matty Kennedy’s superb corner. Sidenote – that’s Kennedy’s 11th assist in his last 15 games under my command.
Matchday 2 v Austria
Callum Simpson’s debut goal almost dragged us back into this one against Austria but it was ultimately decided by two Sabitzer Howitzers™. Whatever happened to Fortress Windsor?
Matchday 3 v Ukraine
Another lead surrendered and this time courtesy of one of those famous “two minute salvos”. This one particularly rankled with me as I really feel we had the edge on Ukraine before Sikan’s first knocked the wind out of us.
The silver lining was a lovely goal from Stephen Coyle. Dan Finlayson wins the ball back in our own half before launching it in Coyle’s direction. The future record holder collects it neatly before a well taken left footed finish to give us the lead.
Matchday 4 v Austria
For the third time in this group so far we surrendered another lead! Austria equalised just before the half time whistle and took the lead moments after the restart. Coyle’s second goal was too little too late for any real fightback. The penalty demons had also returned as Coyle missed the target from an 18th minute spot kick.
Once more, it was all about Jamal Lewis as the wing back’s run and pass laid Coyle’s opener on a plate for him.
Coyle’s second was another for the ‘Suspect Goalkeeping’ scrapbook as the Austrian stopper failed to keep a hold of his poorly directed header.
Matchday 5 v Slovenia
The November round of fixtures provided pure vindication for the squad in the results but nothing in the way of our goals challenge. Coyle missed both fixtures through injury.
Friday the 13th held no horrors for us as we reversed the tide to actually come back from a goal down to secure the 3 points.
Matchday 6 v Ukraine
The home double header was completed with a resounding victory over Ukraine. Shoutout to Stephen Robinson who scored his fourth goal in two games to take him up to 9 international goals – one behind Choy Yiu Fai.
UEFA Nations League B Group 2
Those two late wins in the group were enough to stave off relegation this time around but we definitely need to find a way to improve after conceding 11 goals in those 6 game – perhaps a tactical switch is required?
Choy and Coyle
Choy Yiu Fai’s January move to FC Porto hasn’t seen him light up the Iberian Peninsula as he featured just once for them last season before making a summer loan move to Maccabi Tel Aviv where he has scored twice in just three league appearances in the early part of the 2026/27 season.
Stephen Coyle, sadly, remains with Glentoran. He’s not quite living up to the heights of his form under my tutelage with just 9 goals in 20 appearances in all competitions. Currently (November) there is no transfer interest in him but hopefully that changes come January as he really needs a move away to push on!
An even year brings with it another edition of the UEFA Nations League competition. However, before we get a crack at that we have two international friendlies lined up before the winter football season finishes and the 2026 World Cup starts up.
In the early part of 2026 we found out our fate for the UEFA Nations League. Having won promotion in 2024, we now compete in League B. We are joined in Group 2 by Austria, who were relegated from League A, and Ukraine and Slovenia, having managed to keep their place in B from the last run out.
On Choy and Coyle: Choy Yiu Fai lasted just 6 months with new Glentoran manager Brendan Rodgers before making a £81k switch to FC Porto. Sadly, interest in Stephen Coyle appears to have waned, with even the desperate MLS clubs no longer swarming around the young star. He remains in East Belfast for now.
Friendly v Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sarajevo was once the scene of a pivotal moment in history as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination inspired the biggest hit of 2004 – “Take Me Out”. However, this 90 minutes in the Bosnia capital will be very quickly forgotten as another pointless non-competitive outing.
Friendly v Faroe Islands
I’ve always loved the International Friendly. An exciting chance to lock horns in exotic locations with rarely encountered oppositions. Honest!
It was a golden day for Glentoran. Former Glentoran striker Choy scores four with still-Glenman Coyle matching his tally for the day. Also Glentoran, Rory Lafferty took his own international goal count to 3 in 18 caps – not bad for a centre back.
Choy opens the scoring in the sixth minute with a well placed header. Paul Smyth the provider as the ball is returned from a failed corner.
Coyle’s first of the day is a messy affair and it takes several attempts to figure out how he actually manages to get the credit for it.
Choy’s second is all thanks to some dogged work by Paul Smyth on the right wing, his cross finds Coyle who turns it inside to Choy to finish.
Amazingly, Choy has his hattrick wrapped up before the half hour mark. Paul Smyth’s ball in is headed on by Ciaron Brown and Choy pops up in the right place to nod past the flailing goalkeeper.
Stephen Coyle has properly forgotten those two missed penalties now as he converts yet again from the spot. His 20th international goal!
Not to be outdone by Choy, Stephen Coyle completes his own hattrick just 3 minutes after Choy does his own. Suspect goalkeeping, yes, but Barry Lavery’s neat through ball is a thing of beauty as Coyle nets another easy finish.
It’s a long wait until the 52nd minute for our next one. Glentoran winger Jamie Murphy puts the ball on a golden platter for Stephen Coyle’s fourth goal of the day.
23 minutes before time, Choy rounds off the scoring with another well taken header. Not bad for just 5 feet 11 inches! Another superb assist for Stephen Coyle too.
A short update but plenty of goals to squeeze in and a great morale booster ahead of the Nations League later in the year.
As far as World Cup 2026 went – a mammoth 48 team tournament across North America ended with Germany winning their Fifth World Cup. They completed the task over England, on penalties typically, in the final.
At the halfway point Northern Ireland sat proudly atop the pile, above two time World Champions France. However, despite my attempted positivity in citing the old cliché that points > games in hand, I knew that we were building our house on sand rather than a solid rock.
Moldova at Windsor was to be taken as an assumed three points but the formidable France away (Middle French language theft very much intended) and a double header against a talent laden Norway were not to be taken as lightly. Griezmann, Mbappé, Coman, Dembélé, Lemar, Pogba, Rabiot, Tolisso, Ajer, Ødegaard and Håland would not be forgiving opposition.
Still, the task at hand is not necessarily International progression for the team but, rather, goalden glory for Choy and Coyle.
Matchday 5 v Norway (away)
Choy was injured and would miss both of September’s fixtures. A dire situation.
The aforementioned Norwegian stars were too hot to handle and, thus, we are on the backfoot already. Stephen Coyle’s 75th minute strike gave brief thought to a possible revival but Ødegaard (now a started for Real Madrid) made sure of the Scandinavian victory.
It’s a familiar scenario as a long ball from deep sets Stephen Coyle bearing down on goal. The finish is neat but not enough.
International Friendly v Mexico (neutral)
International friendlies. My stomach churns at the mere thought of a meaningless encounter halfway around the world. We take to the stage in the famous footballing theatre of Denver, Colorado. A wasted trip. Bring back competitive fixtures.
Matchday 6 v Moldova (home)
The victory as expected. Expected but delightful nonetheless. A double for Coyle and Choy, on his return from injury, getting his name on the scoresheet too.
Power, precision, penalty. Add in a questionable celebration.
The second was slightly more easy on the eyes. That famous trio linking up again as Lewis throws short to McNair. Coyle peels free at the near post to side foot home on his ‘weaker’ foot. Weeker indeed – Belfast parlance lesson for the unaware.
The third is all about Jamal Lewis again. Newcastle’s £44m rated left back rampages down the wing but sees his shot parried into the path of our Choy. Choy Yiu Fai has the simplest of touches goalward.
Matchday 7 v France (away)
Stuart Dallas’ thunder strike raised the roof in Bordeaux but the collective might of a star studded Les Bleus came roaring back to blow us away in style.
Matchday 8 v Norway (home)
Choy misses the November double header through injury again.
Ødegaard’s early penalty heaped unnecessary extra pressure on us at a packed out Windsor Park but it was Stephen Coyle’s goal just after the hour that left us with a sliver of hope.
The goalkeeper probably should have done better but it’s another great dead ball strike from Stephen Coyle. What a perfect TV angle too.
International Friendly v South Africa (home)
Another friendly. This time the home crowd couldn’t even be bothered to fill Windsor out to its 18k capacity, thoughts elsewhere on a crucial Norway v Israel match which would decide our fate.
We ran out 4-1 winners in the friendly, McNair stretching his goal tally to 5 for our wee country. The Norway v Israel match finished 3-0 in Norway’s favour, when we needed a draw to benefit us. Damn shame.
UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group 8
We finish in third, our hopes for a first World Cup finals since 1986 dashed again. That said, it we didn’t disgrace ourselves and will have hope for the Euro qualifiers when they come about. France were rampant, hardly surpising with the talent at their disposal.
This brings us up to the end of 2025 in game. I’ve been away from Glentoran for 6 months and they’ve managed to hold on to Choy and Coyle so far – which I’ll admit is a slight disappointment as I’d like to see them secure big money moves to a higher rep club in a more challenging environment.
Fresh off the back of our success in the 2024 UEFA Nations League, it was time for the 2026 World Cup Qualifying Campaign to begin. Eight games is a lot to take in at once, so we’ll digest this campaign in two parts.
The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by USA, Canada and Mexico but to get there we’ll have to overcome our third seeding for the qualifying stage. We’ve been drawn in UEFA Qualifying Group 8 along with France, Norway, Israel and Moldova. Only first place in the groups gets automatic qualification with the remaining places for Europe filled by a best placed second place table.
The sensible thinking will have me predict France as running away with the group, potentially with a 100% winning record. Therefore I imagine I’ll have to battle it out with Norway and Israel for 2nd place, sorry Moldova. Six of the Ten best placed second place teams from the groups will qualify for the World Cup 2026.
Matchday 1 v Moldova (away)
The fixture scheduling gods have been mightily kind to us in granting us Moldova away in our opener. A moral boosting victory gets us started with Coyler at the brace and Choy getting one of his own. Alongside his own goals, Coyle also set up the other two!
A finely executed ball forward from Matty Kennedy sets Coyle away in search of an opportunity and he levels the score with yet more questions raised about the quality of international goalkeeping…
His second came in the middle of three-goal-three-minute salvo, again supplied by a long ball from Matty Kennedy. This time Coyle beats the offside trap to sidefoot the ball past the advancing ‘keeper with ease.
It’s another victory for pumping the ball forward as Jamal Lewis’ pass is headed on by Coyle for Choy to complete the scoring.
Matchday 2 v France (home)
Taking on the might of France is never easy, just look at their four goalscorers! However, the comeback was very nearly on until Ousmane secured the French victory at Fortress Windsor.
Monaco goalkeeper Milton Roque (great name) must have borrowed his predecessor Hugo Lloris’ gloves for this game as he giftwraps Choy’s fourth international goal for him!
Matchday 3 v Israel (home)
It was a nervy affair when Israel came to Belfast as we had to strike back from a goal down to secure what may be a very vital point in this group.
I really don’t want to keep thanking Goalkeepers for their contributions to this challenge but… come on!!
Matchday 4 v Israel (away)
The return fixture was nothing like the home one as we effectively sorted this one within 21 minutes. A glorious day all round with another Coyle brace, a goal for Choy and a debut goal for winger Jamie Murphy – another Glentoran player.
It’s another great one of those from Coyle where he drifts away following the corner and finds space for the next delivery. Kennedy + Coyle = Goal. Simple mathematics.
In the 19th minute, Stephen Coyle stepped up to the spot to banish those missed penalty demons. It’s a lovely taken penalty for his thirteenth goal for NI.
Choy The Boy’s finish was an absolute treat. It’s great to be able to present a goal scored from outside the box!
UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group 8
At the halfway stage of the group for us, we sit atop the pile. It won’t last but we’ve put ourselves in a great position to challenge for that 2nd place spot. Points on the board are better than games in hand etc.
As football breaks for the summer months, I’ve just announced my departure from Glentoran after six great years. I fully expect Choy Yiu Fai and Stephen Coyle to be moved on before long. My only hope is that they move somewhere that will really help to develop them to become the greats their potential shows they can be.
In my last post about Glentoran I talked about how to keep the save alive, the keep it challenging and, more pertinently, interesting. Time for a bit of honesty, I don’t like being a dominant force in Football Manager. I enjoy the struggles of mediocrity. It might seem strange to some, maybe it’s a form of inferiority complex. Maybe it’s something much less deep and psychological.
In my fifth season, I came so close to completing a clean sweep of (non-continental) trophies but I faltered in the NIFL Cup. It was still such an incredible season but much like Nostradamus I had foreseen what was to come. Once you reach the peak there is only one direction to go…
The movements this season need to have the scene set by two big departures.
Goalkeeper Aston Oxborough turned down an extension to make a move as a free agent to English Championship QPR. Oxborough racked up a ridiculous number of games over his three and a half seasons with us, 215 to be exact – that’s at least 19,350 minutes before we consider extra time and penalties! I have mentioned previously that I did expect to replace him at some point soon but I really wanted that to be on my own terms, as such my hand has now been forced.
Secondly, one I had already pre-empted in Umaro Landim. Our superstar on the wing had a stupidly low release clause of just £675k. He spent just a season at The Oval but managed 10 goals and 31 assists in 52 games, amazingly just 22 of those games played in the League. We should never have been able to sign a player of this calibre and he will go on to great things. With this in mind I negotiated a fee of £400k and 30% of any future fee to allow him to move on to Napoli – top AI management there.
We secured not just a replacement but definitely an upgrade on Aston in loan signing Lucas Bergstrom from Chelsea. I’m a big fan of ‘try before you buy’ and his contract at Chelsea expires at the end of this season so he’s essentially on a 12 month trial. Not quite an immediate upgrade here but Benfica youngster Joao Tomé is an exciting alternative for Umaro Landim on a season long loan, he has big shoes to fill already. The final summer signing was a third loanee and will primarly be a rotational option to bolster our defence – Liam Perry comes in for the season from Aston Villa.
I’ve made it my thing to go out in October/November in search of what I have christened as my ‘Danny Glovers’. This season we brought in another three experienced heads. Firstly Sidnei is a great option who actually would step in to become a first choice at centre back, he’s a perfect Ball Playing Defender for this level but frighteningly lacking in the physicals. Willian was an attractive signing to play second fiddle to Jamie Murphy on the left wing. The most exciting was definitely Sergio Aguero, my favourite Danny Glover of all. The Argentine hitman still has everything needed to be a top striker at this standard.
One last signing was made this season in January. Lars Unnerstall came in on a 6 month loan to provide vital cover between the sticks when Bergstrom was struck down with a muscular injury at a crucial point in the season.
It happened again. We looked set to complete an Invicible Season but were knocked back late on by Larne. Bloody Larne. That aside, we still set a record for games won, points won and goals scored. That Goal Difference is insane.
The results below show just how incredibly dominant we were, the league title really was never in doubt from the word go.
In Europe, we managed to get ourselves into the CL Group Stage for the second year running, drawing Chelsea once again. Those two wins over Club Brugge were enough to secure us third place and passage into the Europa League Knockout stage were Lille were just too good over the two legs, despite us taking a shock lead early on in the second leg.
We were undone in the NIFL Cup again, this time in the final by Larne. Bloody Larne.
Thankfully we did have the beating of Larne in the County Antrim Shield, going on the blast Cliftonville away in the final.
There would be no repeat of our success in the Scottish Challenge Cup as we disappointingly exited in our first round of participation.
The heartache continues as a side depleted by International Call Ups was destroyed at home in the second leg of the Irish Champions Cup.
There was some relief as we went on to win the Irish Cup yet again. Somewhat fittingly against bitter rivals Linfield.
And so, the season ends. I’d love to say we finished on a high but Those three cup losses stung hard although the bit that really hurt the most was not being able to complete an unbeaten league season!
Leaving A Legacy
I decided that, after six seasons, the time was right to take my leave from The Oval hotseat. I like to think I did it in classy fashion as my contract came to its natural end.
My main focus is always in leaving a club in a better state that when I arrived and it’s obvious that this is the case here. A squad capable of dominated for years to come, significantly upgraded Youth, Training and Data facilities, an accomplished backroom staff and a massive club account balance of £24million with the Jake Collum and Umaro Landim transfer fee clauses sitting waiting to be activated.
I will continue my journey as the Northern Ireland national manager but what is to come for my Glentoran? My predictions are that the squad will be sold off one by one for outrageously low fees and replaced by players on inflated wages brought in for stomach churning transfer amounts. I’ll keep a keen eye on progress as my international management goes on.
No sooner had we made our inglorious exit from Euro 2024 than we were ready to engage in the 2024 UEFA Nations League process. I really like this competition, sadly not a view that was widely shared in Northern Ireland footballing circles at its inception in 2018.
International friendlies (or International Challenge Matches as the associations tried to brand them) are an abhorrent mark on the footballing calendar, not least because they usually pit us against some rather uninspiring sides as give the potentials and the also-rans a go on the international stage. It usually ends up a tedious kick about between strangers with little moments of note. The introduction of a competitive round robin in their stead should have been more widely applauded.
Anyway, that’s not the viewpoint I’ll be taking on our 2024 involvement in this competition and we’ll go strong, aiming to continue Stephen Coyle and Choy Yiu Fai’s respective marches towards breaking the NI goalscoring record.
Due to our current position in world football we were drawn into League C, this followed the country’s relegation from League B in the 2022 competition. League C Group 2 would see us pit our strengths against such footballing heavyweights as Montenegro, Malta and Lithuania. Be confident.
Matchday 1 v Montenegro (away)
It was a glorious Glentoran day away in Podgorica as centre back Rory Lafferty opened the scoring in the first half befor Savicevic brought it back to level pegging. Our hero of the hour, Stephen Coyle, secured his fifth international goal. Choy played a full 90 minutes but couldn’t make it a hattrick of Glentoran Goals. Shame.
Coyler’s goal on his tenth appearance was so beautifully taken. As we recovered the ball from a poor corner routine, Coyle peels off nicely into space at the far side of the box. The ball from Matty Kennedy finds him well and the finish is well measured.
Matchday 2 v Malta (home)
The Windsor Park faithful were treated to a spectacle as we comfortably swept Malta aside. A Coyle brace and a first international goal for Choy!
Coyle’s first of the day was a great finish as he and ex-Larne midfielder Anthony Mitchell exchanged passes before Coyle’s powerful shot evaded the clutches of the Malta goalkeeper.
His second was a great reaction to Stuart Dallas’ blocked cross, Coyle moved quickly to get onto the loose ball and the nearpost and fire past the goalkeeper who was left with very little time to react.
A little under 10 minutes into the second half and it seemed that the Malta stopper just wanted to go home already. Matty Kennedy slipped a neat ball through for Choy who struck past the flapping arms of the poor Mediterranean custodian.
Matchday 3 v Lithuania (home)
Choy Yiu Fai missed out on the October double header due to injury but it was a day to forget for Stephen Coyle. The boy wonder missed not one but two penalties as he recorded a 5.6 match rating! His well placed cross for Paul Smyth’s late winner was perhaps the only thing to save him from a sub 5.0 for the day…
Matchday 4 v Montenegro
With Choy still injured, Stephen Coyle recorded his second consecutive blank in front of goal on the international front, his longest non scoring streak for Northern Ireland during my tenure. What’s worse is, he didn’t even manage to record an assist to provide any silver lining.
Matchday 5 v Lithuania away
Coyler’s drought stretched out to three games as we left it late to impress. Leading 1-0 as the match reached its full 90, Cammy McGeehan and our very own Choy Yiu Fai popped up in added time to give us a more flattering scoreline.
At 5 feet 11 inches, we probably shouldn’t become accustomed to seeing Choy power in headers but this one was beautiful taken with the opposition defence all over the place with Choy totally unchallenged.
Matchday 6 v Malta (away)
The Roman poet Sextus is credited with saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Admittedly, he probably wasn’t talking about international goal droughts but Stephen Coyle certainly came into this one with a hunger for glory. However, despite Coyle recording his second international double, it was Choy Yiu Fai who stole the show with a hattrick of assists earning him the Player Of The Match award.
Stephen Coyle’s first goal was all about the breakaway from Paul Smyth. Smyth recovered the ball on the corner of his own box before embarking on a pitch length dash, evading defenders left and right, then seeing his shot parried straight into the path of Stephen Coyle for the easiest of tap-ins.
Coyle will surely be picking up the drinks tab for his teammates after this game as it’s another gift of a finish for his second. This time, Choy reacts to one of those trademark FM goalkeeping shockers to strip the ball away and cross for Coyle to sidefoot home.
Choy’s second assist of the evening came via a long ball from the left back. He runs the ball 20 yards forward on the corner edge of the box before switching it to his right foot and playing a low cross into the path of oncoming Hibs (and ex-Larne) striker Stephen Robinson who finished well.
For his third assist, Choy took the ball wide after a pass from Stephen Robinson following his run from the half way line. A lofted ball in was met beautifully by Robinson in the six yard box just before the hour mark.
UEFA Nations League C Group 2
A 100% win record is little more than we’d have demanded in a group like this. We made hard work of both Lithuania games but it was otherwise a joy to watch as we secured our promotion to the B level for the 2026 edition.
At the conclusion of the UEFA Nations League 2024 here’s how we are progressing towards the record: