The Tale of The Three-Legged Playoff

Last season’s title win meant it would be a berth in the Champions League Qualifying Rounds for us this season! The added challenges of an earlier season start (6th July), additional fixtures in an already packed schedule and the possibility of humiliation by a bigger side are very much offset by the insane income (by this league’s standards) we will expect to receive.

Alongside the Premiership and now the Champions League, we will continue to compete in the NIFL Cup, County Antrim Shield and the Irish Cup. In addition to these we will have ties in the Scottish Challenge Cup (or Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup if you prefer) and the All-Ireland Champions up (known by its sponsor’s name Unite The Union Champions Cup). An incredible SEVEN competitions, with possibly an EIGHTH if we drop of the Champions League and into the Europa League Qualifiers! Is that a record? Maybe…

Pre-Season Transfer Business

Before the season even began in early July, there was business to be done.

Charlie Oliver left on a free transfer to join Bradford City after his contract expired, this left a gaping hole in our defence with Charlie a key player for us over the last two seasons. Once there was noted interests from clubs back across in England, his head was turned and he refused to negotiate an extension to his contract here. He leaves with 90 appearances over 2 seasons and 7 goals from his centre back position.

Ethan Patterson’s loan from Shamrock Rovers remains in place up until November but we definitely needed another in as a replacement for Charlie Oliver. I had been tracking one player for a number of months when suddenly someone else popped up on my radar, I swooped instantly and made the move for Ciaran McKenna who had just been released by Scottish Premiership side Hamilton – a top acquisition that ticks a lot of boxes for me but most of all by being a tall bastard at 6’4″.

The next two deals were more in the way of continuity. Niklas Haugland extended his loan deal from Leeds United for another season after last year’s 28 goal title-winning haul. After spending a year and a half on loan with us, Aston Oxborough made his move permanent after being released by Barnsley. The final signing of this update actually came following the closure of the transfer window as we moved for Pavel Macej, a Czech U21 free agent who had been unattached for 9 months after being released by Dinamo Tbilisi despite being their Supporter’s Player of the Year for 3 seasons running…odd!

There was one more departure from the club, on deadline day, that I feel the need to mention. Markus Assarsson came to the club on a free from Bolton at the beginning of last season. Over the course of the year he made 43 appearances with 23 of them being from the bench. I could never really fit him into a midfield that was playing so well and felt it a waste to push him down to centre back. When Larne came in with an absurd offer of £76k I felt obliged to accept! Part of me is slightly disappointed not to take him on and see how he goes, given how well he seemed to fair in Dan Gear’s Bolton save.

Having had such a hectic start to the season, I feel the easiest way to break it down will be to look at results by competition rather than simply in chronological order.

We only had time to fit in three friendly fixtures over the summer. A creditable draw against League Two Bolton Wanderers was followed by the decimation of Institute before our usual jaunt to Wilgar Park as a rotated side claimed a 3-1 victory.

For us to beat Slovakian side Spartak Trnava may not have been the shock of the century, however, the manner and sheer dominance in our victory over two legs was a surprise to me.

Turning over Qarabag 3-0 at home in the next round was certainly an unexpected result, new boy Ciaran McKenna heading in twice from set pieces assisted by Conor Pepper before boy-wonder Jake Collum notched his second competitive goal of the season. I expected to be put to the sword away from home but we stood to qualify with Qarabag’s 86th minute consolation barely a blot on our copybook.

Malmo. A tie that will grate on me for time to come. We took the lead out in Sweden but had to come back from 2-1 and 3-2 down to bring ourselves level after the first leg, having the vital advantage of 3 away goals in our corner now. Malmo came to Belfast and we looked set to blow them out of the water as we stomped to a two goal lead. Malmo pulled one back before half time, Conor Pepper was sent off on 72 minutes and the Swedes went on strike twice more to take a 6-5 aggregate win. I shouldn’t be disheartened at this scoreline against a team filled with experience pros and senior internationals but… I am, or I was.

We dropped from the Champions League straight to the Europa League playoff stage. Two games from European Group Stages… Amazing!

Once again we claimed a 3-3 draw in the first leg, sadly the away goals were in Maccabi Haifa’s favour this time. Having climbed back from a goal down we let a 3-1 lead slip in the second half and I was spitting feathers.

The Wise Men of the East travelled to the Middle East with hope but not expectation. Our hopes appeared to be dashed on 38 minutes when Haifa took the lead but Josh Doherty found the equaliser on 72 minutes. With time running out, I throw everything at the Israeli side, essentially playing 3 in defence and 7 in attack (Oxborough stayed in nets…) and in the dying moments of the game Robbie McDaid made me jump from my seat as he struck an unbelievable winner!

And so, to the humdrum nature of domestic football!

We kicked the season off by going a goal down at home to Coleraine before blitzing back to win 5-2. We would then go on a four game streak of clean sheets: Jake Collum’s double sank Dungannon before he grabbed another in a 4-0 win over Cliftonville in our third consecutive home league fixture.

With the emergence of Jake Collum you could be forgiven for forgetting about Mackenzie Hunt but his superb finish started off a three-goal win over Ballymena before we left it late to strike twice in added time away to Newry. The final league fixture of this update was a 2-2 draw away to Crusaders, disappointing on two fronts as we drop our first league points of the season but also lose Jake Collum to injury for 7-8 weeks!

Our struggles continued into the next domestic game as we needed extra time to finish off Armagh (two divisions below) in the NIFL Cup before normal service resumed with a confident thumping of Donegal Celtic in the County Antrim!

As the league ticks over into September we sit atop the pile, undefeated in the league! Our fixture list for the next few months is an unholy mess but this is the consequence of success so I shan’t complain too much, take note Jurgen Klopp…

Three-Legged play offs?!

What was so special about our Europa League play-off?

Well there’s the fact that Robbie McDaid scored a 94th minute winner to see us through to the Group Stage for the first time EVER. Even moreso, the fact that Robbie McDaid is actually out of contract and only still with us by way of a rolling month-to-month contract!

Then there’s the fact the tie actually involved a third leg (please don’t!) Having played out an unbelievable 4-1 win in the first leg at home to Haifa I inexplicably forgot to save before quitting the game! This may be the first recorded instance of save and reloading on a comprehensive win…

I was then faced with a dilemma – do I simply replay as many times as possible to try and achieve the same result? A 4-1 win, which was totally unexpected, may have taken a crazy number of retries. Instead, I decide to take it on the chin and play out the tie as normal. What followed proved to be even better than what may have originally occurred. This save… it just keeps getting better!

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