As I left it last we only had the five post-split league games to tackle and an Irish Cup Semi-Final (and potentially final) in my second season run-in. We’d face top of the Premiership Glenavon in the Irish Cup but my hopes were higher for securing European football from a 3rd place league finish as we trailed that position by a mere 3 points!
Our post split fixtures couldn’t have started any better as we managed to grind out a victory over 2nd place Crusaders, Parkhouse continuing his fine goalscoring form for the season.
Sadly, the good vibes weren’t to last long as we were effectively out of the next game by half time as Ballymena took a 3 goal lead. I switched it up and went all out attack which gave some joy through Curtis Allen’s goal just after the hour but Ballymena hit back again to regain their 3 goal advantage. Djuric and Reading’s goals made for an interesting final 8 minutes but in truth I never felt like we could get back on level terms. Sadly, this result gave Ballymena a 6 point advantage over us in the race for 3rd place and, as such, I considered our race for European qualification via the league to be over.
Having just been crown League Champions, Glenavon were maybe still in party mode when the semi-final came and so we took full advantage to book our place in our second cup final of the season!
Glenavon bounced back well to comfortably overcome us on our own turf. Again, we were at a 3 goal deficit before we started to show any fight. Nasseri’s penalty was little consolation at full time.
With a cup final to look forward to, it was imperative that we finished the league strongly to ensure morale was at its highest. Successive 2-0 wins over Cliftonville and Coleraine will certainly do that for you! A brace for Djuric against the Reds before 2-Pen-Parkhouse took over at Coleraine Showgrounds.
And so at the end of the season we end up in 4th place with 61 points – 1 place and 1 point of an improvement from last year. Perhaps the biggest shock of the season is down in the lower half of the table where Linfield were spared relegation on the last day of the season as Portadown beat Ards 2-1! Cliftonville would later take a European spot courtesy of the European Play Off.
2021 Irish FA Challenge Cup Final
The Irish Cup Final. The Showpiece of the local footballing calendar. We would take on Portadown at The National Football Stadium @ Windsor Park. Both teams had very different journey’s to the Cup finale.
We lined up in our usual 4-4-2 but suspension ruled out our central midfield pairing of Mackenzie Hunt and Cricky Gallagher. This meant Gary Deegan and Tom Byrne both making their first starts since Boxing Day, with Byrne having to play out of position rather than his natural left wing role.
After a scoreless first half, we began to turn the screw and Antonio Djuric’s 11th goal of the season opened the floodgates. Djuric added a second on 65 minutes before Charlie Oliver’s headed goals came either side of a Navid Nasseri curler from outside the box.
A fantastic result in the end against an already-relegated Portadown whose just over 3,000 fans face a trip home empty handed and knowing they’ll be playing second tier football next season. Aw, diddums!
Two Cups won, semi-finalists in the other and a 4th place finish in the league – the club is progressing steadily, even if it is not spectacularly.
Here is a snapshot of how the squad performed over the season.
Aston Oxborough kept as many clean sheets (9) in 17 games as Marijan Antolovic managed in 33 before him! Charlie Oliver was the leader in Headers Won and Interceptions per 90 min but Paddy McClean averaged the most tackles per game.
Five players were sent off during the season with four of them gathering yellow cards into the double digits.
Patrick Reading was ever present with 49 starts this season and a total of 4,436 minutes played. Youth Graduates Joe O’Neill and Christopher Morrison continued to integrate into the first team squad despite only being 18 and 17 years old respectively at the season’s end.
Conor Pepper registered 13 assists while Navid Nasseri grabbed 11 of his own. David Parkhouse ran away as top goalscorer with 29 goals in his 49 games, Nasseri was the next best on 14 with Djuric just behind on 12.
Next season will be a big one for us. With Europe on the cards, the bonus is some bumper prize money but the downside is that our competitive season will start early in July.
The Board’s expectations remain to finish in the top half, we should expect to progress further and hope for a top 3 finish in the league. I’d also expect us to bag at least one cup again.
There are a few outgoing players due to contracts expiring (which I’ll mention in next season’s update) which means we will need to act quickly to have our squad filled and readied for the early rounds of Europe – UEFA’s brand new third level competition.
The sun rises in the f**king East!