To The Moon…S4E5
As we move in to March and the final quarter of our season, I’m told that our 5–0–0 month warranted another award. I’m not one to argue despite the fact that I’m pretty sure our 4–0–0 November/Decembers did too.
And our first match of this final quarter may well be the title-sealing one. We head up and over Belfast Lough to Carrickfergus.
There’s no shortage of talking points in this one but the main one is that we’re champions of Northern Ireland for the 4th consecutive season!
Dodds concedes from the first two shots he faces but by their second shot we’ve already scored four. We add three more in the second half before a pair of red cards sandwich a third Carrick goal.
Anyway, the important stuff: The Board enjoyed the performance, the fans celebrated and our red card bans are only a match each.
Lithuanian international Benicius joins us from Start for £65k. Happy to be a “backup for the first team” and on very reasonable wages for the next four seasons.
The next day we add a young Greek lad who the scouts seem to think if a promisning youngster. Even reasonabler wages and “hot prospect” terms. I may have to start gaffering the reserves with the talent we have down there.
Our perfect season is still on the cards as Institute roll into town. Dodds takes a breather after his howler of a last match and I’d like to have played Manita after his fine performance but his fitness was sitting in the low 90s.
Manduca — MotM last time out — damages his foot inside five minutes. Cort replaces him and we score right after the substitution and then again as the whistle is about to go for half time. Cort is hurting by then too, so I push Johnson up front with McAdam and bring on Partridge. Seems like it was a good decision as he nets a quick brace and we cruise to one of our most comfortable victories of the season.
Italy is a lovely place to go. It’s got a much nicer climate than Northern Ireland, it’s beautiful, the food and drink is second-to-none and it means we’ve got a big European match. We’ve previously been here to play Parma, Atalanta and Juventus, crossing off some bucket-list-type stadiums in the process. Next up is the Stadio Olimpico to face Roma. They dispatched us quite easily in Belfast but there’s a three-way tie at the top of our group at the moment and they’ll come out firing…
Or not? Sure their XI looks great but they’ve omitted Emerson, Samuel, Totti and others. And their bench two Roma-quality players (Zauli and Cassano) and then five youths. Like they’re walking the tight-rope of doing enough to win but not overextending themselves.
The lads seem a bit awestruck by the stadium and the 80k fans and start out slowly. Unfortunately, Roma don’t. They hit us straight away and add a second (both through Muzzi) before the first ten minutes are up. We eventually find our feet and hit back before the break do only trail by a goal. That’s how things finish as the second half is scoreless and we end up at the wrong side of a 2–1 scoreline. It seems that Roma’s “do just enough” plan worked out well for them.
We’re officially eliminated from our group but gratefully pocket the cool million in gate receipts. It’s another win-free trip to Italy but lucrative and memorable nonetheless. The San Siro is the next one I’d like to mark off on our Italian checklist…just not in a qualifier please!
It’s a competitive little stretch of matches we have here. At Roma, then home against Glentoran in the Irish Cup QFs and then hosting Bayern Munich. Our red carded players from that 7–3 win are suspended today but it’s evened out by Glentoran missing their starting keeper and central midfielder due to injury.
It’s a tight first 45 with Glentoran answering our early goal with a slightly less early one of their own. Shots and possession are about equal at that point but the bollocking I give the lads kicks them in to high gear for the second half. It’s all us and a late brace from McAdam makes the score more accurately reflect the balance of play.
We’re then paired with Portadown at a neutral venue (yeah, right) at Glentoran’s The Oval in the SF.
Bayern Munich are sitting relatively pretty on ten points. Roma have ten too but have a goal difference that’s five worse. And Roma play Atletico who are on seven points. So unless Atletico beat Roma AND we win by five goals (plus however many more Atletico wins by) Bayern are through.
They field a team that’s out for blood though. Ze Roberto appears to be the only name of consequence that isn’t in the squad, while Kovac and Zidane are benched but available.
Well, it’s not a five+ goal victory but it IS a victory! Against Bayern bloody Munich, no less! We play fantastically well and despite going behind to a Salihamidzic strike, we answer straight away through Shola. The second half sees two substitutes net for the good guys with Morris grabbing the winner and Shaw adding one at the death to put a little extra shine on it. The only negative being a three-week injury to Ameobi.
It turns out that Bayern had even less to worry about than I thought, as the group tie-breaker appears to be head-to-head results before goal difference. Atletico’s 1–0 win over Roma allowing them to leapfrog them into the quarter-finals.
I’m impressed with the lads. Every European season has been an improvement over the last:
Year 1: Lost to Anderlecht in the Second Qualifying Stage
Year 2: 3rd in Group Phase 1, crash out in UEFA 3rd Round to Atalanta
Year 3: 4th in Group Phase 2, 0–2–4 (two draws with Parma)
Year 4: 4th in Group Phase 2, 1–1–4 (A win over Bayern and an Atletico draw)
Back to league action. Seven matches to go. Winning them all is the only way we break our own points-in-a-season record but thirteen goals gets us the goals-scored record. Entirely doable, starting out visiting Bangor.
Minutes away from…not disaster really…but from a massive let down. We play with what seems like a massive Bayern hangover and we’re trailing at the break. Twenty minutes later we’ve taken the lead and I’m under the impression that my silent treatment at half-time got my point across. But then with a few minutes to go, Bangor are level and deservedly so. Fortuneatly for us, there’s just enough time for a moment of Manduca magic as he jinks past two men and hits a fierce shot past Bangor’s goalie to keep us perfect.
Transfer deadline day comes and goes with only one bit of Linfield news. Darren Coleman joins from Portsmouth for future cash considerations. His arrival probably spells the end of Borch’s time with us. Coleman is better and younger and cheaper. Not a good combo for anyone trying to compete for that position.
Coleman needs to wait for a debut as Dodds (despite conceding twice) played quite well and will start on the road vs Coleraine.
We get the hard work done in the first half and — despite constant pressure — we don’t add to our lead during the second 45 minute stretch. Partridge’s five-minute brace topped my Manduca’s one-minute injury time brace.
Not a bad sixty-second stretch from the lad…
I was right about Borch. He was transfer listed to massive interest and was snapped up by Servette for £250k very quickly.
A third straight award for me brings me level in the us vs. them battle for monthly manager awards.
One more tilt with Glentoran and then we’re finished with them for the year. Last match was so impressive that we roll with IX of the same XI, with only Shaw (fitness levels) and Galanopoulos (late for training) being replaced.
We don’t even rue our pair of offside goals in this one as we run rampant over our visiting rivals. Morris’ first half brace enough to win a MotM despite being replaced at the break.
Our fourteen goals over the last three matches gives us the goals record with four matches to spare. Everything from here on is gravy.
The NIFL chose the least neutral neutral venue they could find when they scheduled us to play Portadown at The Oval (Glentoran’s home pitch). Maybe they’re trying to stack the deck to get a new name on a trophy? I mean, Portadown will pass Glenavon (Lurgan), Distillery (Lisburn) and our own Windsor Park (South Belfast) on their drive to The Oval (North Belfast).
Or maybe it’s just stupidity. In the other semi-final, Coleraine and Bangor head way south and west (respectively)to Portadown’s Shamrock Park, despite Carrickfergus, Larne and Ballymena being between(ish) the two towns. The NIFL’s travel budget is taking a very unnecessary hit at the moment.
Another solid last outing means many keep their places for this Irish Cup SF. Loanee Brisco on the bench hoping for a first appearance with a side that doesn’t finish mid-table (he’s in from W.B.A.).
Almost the entirety of the first half is sandwiched in between Johnson strikes. Portadown are playing well though and breakthrough early in the second half but Cort puts the match to bed with five minutes to go. We’re into the Final to play Bangor next month.
We go from playing Portadown in a Cup match away in Belfast to playing Portadown in a League match in Portadown. Brisco gets a first start and we welcome Shola back from injury.
It’s safe to say Dodds isn’t starting the next match. They only have two shots on target but both find their way into the net. We go behind but are level at the break. Ameobi scores a hat trick but two of them are chalked off. Luckily we’re a man up for thirty-odd minutes and make our advantage count. Not exactly the landslide victory that the stats might have pointed towards but three points is three points I suppose.
Distillery make the short trip up from Lisburn to try to hang on to a potential European spot (depending on Cup results). Three matches to go and they’re ten points behind 3rd and nine clear of 5th so their 4th place Magic Number is one.
Coleman gets a first appearance and start in goal for us since his move from Portsmouth.
Coleman also manages to concede on his only two shots faced but to play devil’s advocate, I’d suggest he may have been nervous on that first one and the second was a penalty. Once again our firepower carries across the line.
Our final away match of the season is at basement-dwellers and odds-on-relegation-favourite Cliftonville. Our scout seems rather unimpressed and their 20 points in 34 matches supports his assessment.
A comfortable win against poor opposition leaves us a single win from a perfect season and sends Cliftonville to Division One next year.
Our final league match of the season is at home against Carrick. Win this one and we join 1919's Racing Club (Argentina), 1931–32's Ferencvárosi, 1941's Nacional (Uruguay), 1942–43's Dresdner SC (they played during WW2???) and 1995–96's Sunrise Flacq United (Mauritius) in immortality with perfect domestic seasons. Mind you, the most matches played in those seasons was 23 (Dresden) so basically we’d be the best.
It’s basically an XI of our best first-team performers, with condolences to those that played more European matches (Schiller, Howard, Cort) and had their performance averages dragged down by superior competition.
Thirty-six played, thirty-six won. What a season!
The party began a bit too early (after Partridge’s second goal that gave us a a three-goal lead) and Carrick score one just before the break. We re-focus for most of the second half but with ten minutes to go things fall apart again. Al except for Shola who really wants that final day hat trick and gets it at the death.
Obviously the 108 points and 135 goals are new records. A goal difference of over 100 probably is too but isn’t a recorded stat. Bangor and Glentoran comfortable in to Europe.
I win the battle and end up with more monthly awards than the other bosses. I tend to clean up in the latter months as we make up for our earlier re-scheduled matches.
It’s a top-of-the-table clash in the Irish Cup Final as we host Bangor. Just the two DCs swapped out from our final league match due to an injury and a suspension.
Despite giving away a 15th minute penalty (that’s converted to level the score) we answer swiftly and in decisively as another Ameobi hat trick has a Harper strike mixed in and we’re up 4–1 before the half hour mark. McAdam adds a late strike to ice the cake and we add another Irish Cup to our trophy cabinet!
Our strike partners of Ameobi and McAdam have absolute blinders of season, especially considering McAdam was a 7.53 in 15 continental appearances and Ameobi was a 7.25 in four of his own. No surprise that they’re the top two in the league by a significant margin.
Another three months lie ahead of me to tinker, train and transfer before we make another run at our standard four domestic trophies and improve on our European foray.