November 2017 – January 2018
Right, well I haven’t done very much. I was looking to add depth up front and in central defense, and none of the players I’ve signed fill either need. I asked for an increased wage budget in November, as both Croskery and Birney wanted new contracts, and I had a bit left over. We also had the chance to adjust our season expectations at the start of the transfer window and that got us a bit more room in the budget.
The former Hull trainee was brought in to provide depth and competition in midfield. A decent all around player, I snapped him up on a free at the end of November. He’s done well in his appearances so far, grabbing a long range goal on his debut.
Hopefully our future number 1, Lorenz Koller is an Austrian goalkeeper that was brought into the country by a team three leagues below us. The scouts rate him as being even competition for Elliot Morris with a LOT of room to improve. He’ll probably get a couple of starts this year, but I want to keep Morris in the team for important games to maintain the chemistry. Next season he’ll get his chance to shine, with Morris recently signing a new two year contract as a backup. This should be a position that’s no worry for the near future.
Can you sense a theme with the way I’m building this team? Glenn Gawne is another young player with a very high potential. I’m hoping he’ll develop into our new right winger over time, as we’re lacking depth and quality in this position. If several of these youngsters stick around and live up to their potential we could be looking at a very talented team in a few years.
Danske Bank Premier League
As one of my managerial heroes, Jim Curtain, likes to say “The table doesn’t lie”. Two points about our cross-town rivals with a game in hand (Spoilers: we lost it) isn’t a bad place to be at the end of January. What is bad is that we’re still dropping points to bottom of the table teams. After a well contested win at home to Crusaders and Croskery totally annihilating Cliftonville, we took a two goal lead early away at Ballymena. The little bit of overconfidence that was building was shattered by a four goal collapse. This was probably the team’s worst showing under my leadership so far.
Spirits were low as we faced a second away match to a struggling team. The lads just never looked up for it, a missed penalty giving us our only real chance. As the faces in the locker room dropped even more, I knew I’d have to change the mood ahead of our second league derby of the season. In a very tense affair, Kevin Amuneke’s beautiful free kick into the top corner early on gave us all three points. A vital three points, mind you. Linfield were three points ahead of us in first at this point and a win would’ve put them almost out of reach going forward.
We carried the boost in mood into the next match against Ballinamallard to avenge one of our few early season losses. Craig Faulkner nailed a 35-yard-plus free kick in off the bar and two minutes later debut man McCawl found the top corner with a shot from almost 30 yards out. A Croskery brace in the following win against Glenavon brought him level with the club record for goals in a season (records only from the game start, unfortunately). To celebrate, we went on the road and lost to a weaker team again. This is becoming a “thing”, and I don’t like it. Croskery took sole possession with the only goal in a good home win against Dungannon, and then a miracle happened. We’ve won a road game against a bad team. Crack the champagne boys, we might’ve lifted the curse with some shorter passing.
I was worried when we advanced to the quarter final by barely beating lower league Warrenport Town. I was right to be worried. We struggled to create and failed to finish against Dundela and went all the way to penalties just three days before our big home derby in the league. Croskery’s saved penalty during the shootout proved the only X on the board and we became the latest victim of giant-killing.
Two rounds, two wins. This time against Warrenport Town we made it clear who the better team was. Left winger Marcus Kane grabbing a brace was a great showing that made me realize I’ve underappreciated him. Ten goals and ten assists in thirty-one starts so far is a great return and makes him one of the biggest contributors to our success. We went straight back to struggling against weaker opposition with a narrow 1-0 win over Portstewart, but we’re through nonetheless.
Just look at how the boy’s grown. I knew he had potential, but he’s growing at breakneck speed. Seven goals and four assists in 23 starts and 9 bench appearances is a good return but doesn’t illustrate how valuable he’s become. Several of those goals have come from free kicks, and most of them were important in the context of the match. Still only 17, he’s well on his way to becoming the central player of the next few seasons. He’s a regular for the Northern Ireland Under 19’s and if he keeps improving I think he has a future in the national squad as well. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a young player I’ve had.
Eleven matches left in the season, six matches left until the league split. It’s going to be a hard fought battle to keep up with Linfield. We play them again in another three or four matches, which might prove to be the most important match of the season. I’m not positive how it works or what happens after the league splits, but it looks like it means we’ll have our last five matches randomly drawn against teams that end up in the top half at that point. Judging by the way this season has gone, that might well be a blessing. At ten points clear of third place, we might be able to lock up second place and a guaranteed Europa League spot by the derby. The Irish Cup is still very much a possibility as well. We’ve got Championship team Dergview in the quarter final, and only two other top flight teams remain aside from us: Crusaders and Coleraine. Both are beatable teams, and with Linfield already out we have a real shot at winning this.
Can we stay ahead in the race for first place? Can we keep it up in the cup? Tune in next time to find out.