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:
David Healy: 95 caps / 36 goals
Stephen Coyle: 15 caps / 9 goals
Choy Yiu Fai: 8 caps / 2 goals