You know you’ve got a good save going when you’re so into it you totally blow by the stopping point you’d pick to make the next post. It started off with “Well, the Champions League starts right during pre-season, so I’ll just go past these matches…” and now we’re at the start of the January window. I may have to split this into two posts. Times they are a-changing.
We might as well start off with the gut punch and get it out of the way. Hibs came in with this offer quite early on and despite full-money offers from several English Championship clubs Faulkner headed off to Scotland. I hated to lose him but a promise is a promise and maybe in a few years we (or at least Glentoran) can cash in on that massive 50% of profit clause. Not much news on players leaving, just a few background players being released on frees.
Not stopping to make a post wasn’t the only place I went too far. We’ve painted a big target on our backs and I want to be prepared to fight to keep our title.
Chris Herron is our first transfer of the season and will hopefully develop to challenge for starting right back in the next few years. Ryan McConnell looks like an absolutely solid center back and will be paired with Birney as our rock solid defensive base. Harry Owen is sort of a real life crossover, a total legend on one of my favorite journeyman stories. Peter McMahon looks to be a very solid player to bring a bit of experience to a very young team. He’s skilled on the left wing, AMC, and central mid positions, although we’ll most likely be bouncing him between mid and attacking mid. Adam Mullan is a big improvement on Smyth and will slot straight into the starting right back position.
Mikhail Kennedy is my first quality loan, brought in all the way England to replace the lost Craig Faulkner (it’s going to take me a while to get over him leaving). Curtis Dempster and Philip Comnell were brought in to add depth and competition for Croskery at striker. Comnell and fellow loanee Mike Svenberg both came from our unused-until-now parent club in Sweden, Halmstads BK. This deal was already in place and since there’s no loan limit I decided to take a gamble on a few of their players. Since they’ve arrived and I’ve seen their full stats, Comnell looks like class while Svenberg will struggle to get anything without an injury crisis, but hey free is free. We round out our business with right winger Kirk Millar and left wing prospect (and victim of a post-skin change screenshot) Colin Barr.
Quite a mixed bag for preseason friendlies, but I started as early as I could and tried to fit in extra matches. We needed to squeeze every last ounce of fitness out of the squad as the early stages of Champions League qualifiers start very early in the summer. Only a single loss, and to a team that’s just come down from the Championship at that, is nothing to complain about.
UEFA Champions League
Our first draw of my first Champions League campaign (in only my second season in management!) matched us with Albanian side Skenderbeu Korce. Korce were drawn as the home side, so our competitive season officially opened dragging a team half full of teenagers all the way to Albania with only four friendlies under our belt. The gameplan was simple, sit back, wait for the counter, and try to use the speed of our wingers and strikers to possibly steal an away goal. We stole two in what turned out to be a very even match. Korce scored a very late goal to down us 2-3 but the scoreline could’ve easily been the other way around.
Things started poorly in the return at the Oval as the Albanians grabbed an early first goal to halve our away goal advantage. The response from the lads was more than I could’ve ever anticipated. SIX goals followed from all over the park as we took over and basically played perfect football for the rest of the match. Our biggest win and best performance since I arrived, it was a perfect declaration of intent to the rest of the world. The next round drew us against a little club that some of you may have heard of called Malmo FF. I think a famous striker came from there but I can’t quite remember. There was no miracle win this time, but two narrow one-nil losses to a club like Malmo makes me proud all the same. We can hold our heads high as we get bounced down to the Europa League.
UEFA Europa League
I didn’t expect anything when we drew Braga and I didn’t get anything. A brief flash of away goal hope was dashed as we fell flat at home and never looked like giving them a go. SC Braga has easily two whole reputation stars over us and I can’t fault this tiny, semi-professional Northern Irish side for not being able to compete. The plus side is that these three European ties have seen our balance go from 100 thousand in the red to over a million in the black. New youth facilities and coaching badges for everyone!
The Season: August – December 2018
Danske Bank Premier League
Stories abound in the first half of the league this season. We opened the season with four wins in a row, our midfield firing in an impressive seven of our first ten goals. I’m not quite sure if it’s just because they’re that good, or that Ruairi Croskery’s complete lack of form is leaving the chances for others. On the back of last season’s record breaking, nearly golden boot winning campaign, Croskery started the season off dry and has managed to continue that streak all the way until now.
Enough was enough, and after dropping our first two losses in the next three matches it was time for a change. Swedish loanee Philip Comnell grabbed a brace in our second match of the season off the bench, and with Croskery struggling it was time to see what he was made of. I think the answer may have been “gold”, or possibly some other precious material, because wow. To replay me for the starting spot, Comnell went and scored three braces in his first six starts. The third of those braces came in our first Big Two Derby of the season, away to Linfield. Our rivals, by the way, have totally fallen apart in the wake of our sudden resurgence. Hoping for a big derby win to get their season back on track, we showed up across town and settled any doubts of who the big dogs in Belfast were.
The big derby win was followed up by our worst run of form of the season. Only two wins in six matches and we failed to find the net in three of them. The draw against Coleraine had to be the most frustrating. They’re the only club that’s been keeping up with us on form this year, and we’d already lost our first matchup this season. Reigning league player of the year Marcus Kane grabbed an early goal though we were pegged back rather quickly. I tried everything, but the players just could not hit the net and I watched a heap of great chances fall away to a draw. Not the worst result, but to have so many chances to increase the one point lead we had at the time to four and not be able to capitalize put the locker room walls at serious risk.
The match against Cliftonville just prior to the Coleraine draw kicked off a very hectic December. It also marked Philip Comnell getting back to back hat tricks. He and Marcus Kane when we finally turned the ship around following a narrow loss to Dungannon Swifts by blasting Institute (the scoreline is misleading, they grabbed two late goals as my players collapsed in exhaustion). You’ll notice Colin Barr grabbed a (winning)goal in his debut against Ballymena. I’m very happy for the lad, but I can’t help but have mixed feelings. The only reason he was even on the pitch was due to star Marcus Kane getting taken out for 3-4 weeks by a horror tackle. Loanee Kennedy picked a wonderful time to grab his first league goal for us as he scored the only goal in our second Big Two of the year. A solid 3-1 over Carrick saw us wrap up December six points clear at the top of the table. We’re also top in goal difference, goals scored, and goals against. It’s a little ambitious, but I dare say the season is ours to lose at this point.
County Antrim Shield
We defended the first trophy I won at the club in dominant fashion, scoring 12 and conceding zero. Yet again we’ve met Linfield in a cup and yet again we’ve knocked them out. I’m now 8 matches undefeated against our biggest rivals, if you’ve been counting. Comnell grabbing all four in a rout of a final had to be the highlight for me. This is a guy who I brought in based off a very incomplete scouting report of our affiliate, and he’s become a revelation.
Northern Ireland Football League Cup
Another cup, another march to a final. We actually did concede, though it was only a single goal. Ruairi Croskery apparently hasn’t totally forgotten how to score goals, only league goals. A very winnable final against Carrick Rangers could well see us pick up a double before February rolls around.
Petrofac Training Cup
So I’m not sure how but we’ve been selected as one of the two guest teams from the NIPL to take part in the Scottish Challenge Cup. I think I would’ve rather had the days for rest, but we’ve grabbed two wins from two. This isn’t something I care about and will be the first place I’ll rest players if they need it.
This season is going even more unbelievably better than our first. One cup won already, in the final of another. Six points clear at the top of the league. We’ve set a record for six matches in a row without conceding and already have three players closing in on the season assists record of 13. Comnell is on 25 goals in all competitions and looks set to smash Croskery’s marks from last year. Most excitingly, I’ve completed my course for the National C Coaching badge and taken my first step up the managerial ladder. I’m not really planning any moves in the transfer window. I’ve got a backup central mid coming in that I made a deal with back in October, but the rest of the squad is solid and clicking and we don’t have any needs really. I’m planning on coming back with an update when the league splits, hopefully I’ll be able to tear myself away long enough to make a post.