Make-believe has, in part, echoed reality in my Football Manager universe. Naturally, the circumstances are much different however as I took over the reins from departing manager Michael O’Neill I was stepping straight into a play off for the European Championships. In November 2023, Michael O’Neill moved on to take over at ailing Birmingham City who were fighting against relegation from the EFL Championship. It’s been very well scripted.
I would have to wait until March 2024 for my first match in charge of the International squad, straight into the big time in our European Championship Qualifiers Play Off Semi-Final against lowly Luxembourg.
It’s important not to lose sight of the real aim here which is not necessarily success for Northern Ireland but, instead, having David Healy’s goalscoring record surpassed. Surpassed by a Glentoran player no less.
Upon taking control, Stephen Coyle had already earned 3 international caps but the Carrickfergus native was yet to enjoy his first goal on the big stage. Our second candidate Choy Yiu Fai was yet to even reach the underage sides for Northern Ireland.
Play Off Semi-Final v Luxembourg
A win, as expected, but more importantly it’s a first international goal for Stephen Coyle!
Admittedly, Coyle’s first international goal is not one that will be replayed time and time again in any sort of Greatest Goals montage. A product of some suspect defending/goalkeeping and a large slice of good fortune, here it is in all its glory:
Goalscorer turned provider in the second half as Stephen Coyle’s pinpoint cross was converted by Conor Washington at the near post:
Play Off Final v Slovenia
The odds were not in our favour despite home advantage but the Windsor faithful played their part in pushing us to a cheeky 2-1 victory in extra time thanks to a duo of penalty kicks that secured a glorious comeback. A welcome return to a European Championship just 8 years since our last!
Conor Washington converted our first half equaliser but the crucial moment in the 106th minute was handed to Stephen Coyle. Despite not even being our designated taker at Glentoran, Coyler tucked it away with ease to claim his second international goal on his fifth appearance!
We’d be on our way to Germany for Euro 2024 in a difficult group with Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland. First, we’d have a warm up friendly back home in Belfast against Belgium.
Friendly v Belgium
We matched them fairly well for most of this game but Belgium were just too strong in the end. 90 minutes for Stephen Coyle included an assist for Lee Harkin’s first international goal on his debut. There was an international debut for our second candidate Choy Yiu Fai – the NI/Hong Kong man got 29 minutes from the bench as he replaced Conor Washington.
Coyle’s assist made him look more like a young Keith Gillespie than David Healy as he jinked his way past the full back before making it to the byline to cross.
Suitably prepared with our solitary friendly warm-up fixture, we said Hallo to Deutschland. In my real life football travels following Northern Ireland, I’ve had the joy of visiting two fantastic German stadia. However my virtual travels would allow me to tick a further three venues off the bucket list.
EURO 2024 v Netherlands (Red Bull Arena)
Our finals campaign got off to the best possible start with a hard fought draw against Netherlands. After being scoreless at the half, the star studded Dutchmen took a second half lead through Inter Milan’s Donny van de Bee. However, our star man Stephen Coyle pegged them back just two minutes later to secure a point!
The reaction, the technique! It’s almost reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane v Leverkusen.
Our back up choice for this challenge, Choy, grabbed another 22 minutes from the bench but with no success to note.
EURO 2024 v Poland (Stadion München/Allianz Arena)
I’ll admit to a level of complacency going into this match off the back of a strong performance in our opener. However Poland’s striking duo were just far too strong, Milik still shining in Naples while Piatek is lighting it up in Spain with Real Madrid.
Not losing sight of the real aim here, the good news is that Coyler grabbed himself another goal to help his stock continue to rise. Despite only measuring up at 5’10”, Stephen Coyle leaps like a freshwater salmon to head home his second of the tournament in a brief, but ultimately ill-fated, fightback.
It was another fruitless sub appearance for Choy, this time he was on the pitch for a total of 36 minutes.
EURO 2024 v Switzerland (Olympiastadion Berlin)
We went into this one with faint hopes of qualifying from our group but Breel Embolo set the tone with his early goal. Matty Kennedy revived our hopes for a short period before Embolo struck again. Damn you, FM16 wonderkid!
To compound my misery, neither of our prospective record breakers managed to even have a hand in the goal we scored. Choy continued his progress toward the starting XI by getting the full second half here… without actually making an impact.
Taking stock after my first year in charge, I’m delighted with the progress Stephen Coyle has made in the squad – how could I be anything else?
Following EURO 2024 we stand as follows:
David Healy: 95 caps / 36 goals
Stephen Coyle: 9 caps / 4 goals
Choy Yiu Fai: 4 caps / 0 goals