The early rounds of European football exist in a world far removed from the glamour of the later stages of the Champions League. Indeed, very few of the teams who start out their campaigns at the end of June or beginning of July will even still be in contention when the group stages start in September.
For Northern Irish teams, faced with these games right at the start of pre-season, at a time when a lot of part-time players and coaches take family holidays, merely getting through one round is the annual objective. For Coleraine, this suddenly looked like an achievable objective following a heroic performance in the first leg in Serbia on July 12.
To give you an idea of how significant a victory would be in terms of the club’s history, here’s what I tweeted in the week leading up to the game.
For what it’s worth, Coleraine have only ever won three European ties over two legs.
Jeunesse Esch 🇱🇺 2-3, 4-0 (1969-70 Fairs Cup)
Kilmarnock 🏴 1-1, 3-2 (1970-71 Fairs Cup)
— Andrew Gillan (@andrewgillan) July 16, 2018
So enough preamble, on to the game itself.
Game 3: Coleraine 0-2 FK Spartak Subotica (The Showgrounds, Coleraine – 19.7.2018)
I’ve had a few days to let the dust settle on this game and I’m still not sure how Coleraine didn’t win. I think that many thought the first leg would prove to have been a freak result, with the full-time side asserting their dominance and sailing through. And even though it was Spartak celebrating at full time, the way they celebrated was telling – they knew they’d been in a real game.
After an early scare when Spartak sent a low ball across the goalmouth without anyone getting the touch which would have turned it goalward, Coleraine went close twice in quick succession with Ian Parkhill’s header being saved and from the resulting corner, last week’s goalscoring hero Darren McCauley blazing over. But just as Coleraine looked to be getting on top, they switched off at a free kick and allowed their opponents to open the scoring.
The second half saw a Coleraine onslaught, but they were extremely unfortunate to come up against the dictionary definition of ‘a good shot stopper’ in the Spartak goalkeeper Peric. Looking horribly vulnerable any time the ball was put into the box, frequently missing or dropping catches (after which he was usually let off the hook by the referee’s whistle blowing for a foul), he proved extremely adept at pushing away shots hit straight at him.
Chance after chance went begging and when Coleraine pushed almost everyone forward for a corner in injury time and the ball was cleared, the stereotypical sucker-punch goal was almost guaranteed.
So the large home crowd went home disappointed, but largely encouraged by the performance they had seen. Results-wise, it was another grim night for Irish League clubs in Europe, with both Cliftonville and Glenavon also falling at the first hurdle, while two days before Crusaders exited the Champions League 9-0 on aggregate and are only still in Europe because of UEFA’s latest reforms which mean that clubs eliminated in every qualifying round of the premier competition are parachuted into the Europa League.
Hopefully this isn’t my last experience of European competition this season, but alas, for Coleraine it’s back to pre-season preparations and the long journey towards another European campaign this time next year (fingers crossed).