And it’s back to Northern Ireland for a bit of bonus international and club action in between my Gibraltar wedding and the Northern Irish blessing ceremony.
Almost six years to the day since my last NI home international, I was back at the National Stadium. Then Northern Ireland battled bravely until a combination of two red cards and a hat-trick from some guy called Cristiano Ronaldo condemned Michael O’Neill’s men to a 4-2 defeat against Portugal.
Since then there has been quite the transformation – on and off the pitch! In 2013, Windsor Park was a slightly decrepit stadium, crying out for the long-overdue facelift which would begin the following year and slowly but surely transform it into a modern stadium, fit to host the biggest names in international football. And thanks to O’Neill’s shrewd management the new stadium has had a team to be proud of. The Euro 2016 adventure will never be forgotten and an abysmal piece of refereeing made the difference in the qualifying playoffs for the 2018 World Cup.
This time Northern Ireland were handed the nightmare task of a qualifying group with Germany and a resurgent Netherlands. Having taken maximum points from meetings with Estonia and Belarus, the autumn encounters with the two giants would prove crucial. This friendly would serve as a warm-up for the Monday night meeting with Germany with O’Neill choosing to hand out a few debuts as well as give players who’ve seen limited playing time with their clubs some much-needed minutes.
Aside from a comic own goal (though still only the second funniest one I’ve seen scored at that end of Windsor Park this season) which settled the game in the first half, there wasn’t much to write home about. As it was a friendly we were surrounded by a lot of youth groups and football teams who seriously struggled to focus on the game the whole way through and with increased consumption of chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks, gradually became more and more obnoxious as the game wore on.
Despite all this, it was a nice opportunity to introduce Sarah to the important rite of passage that is a Northern Ireland match – quite fitting because two years ago I invited her to go to Spain v Italy with me, citing it as a “cultural experience”.
She’s put up with more than a few matches with me now and hopefully many more!
Match Cost: £22 💷
Match Rating: 3.5/10 (being generous)
This was more like it!
After the mundanity of the Northern Ireland game, this was a much more enjoyable 90 minutes of football, well 45 really. The first half had very little to write home about bar a few half chances for both sides and a couple of penalty shouts for Coleraine which fell on deaf ears.
The second half was much better, starting from the moment James McLaughlin poked home Ben Doherty’s cross at the far post in the 49th minute to make it 1-0. I’d just made it back from a half time trip to get a cup of tea and thankfully managed to see it!
I hadn’t even managed to make it back to my original spot on the terrace on the far side when Coleraine doubled their lead. Nedas Maciulaitis cut the ball back to Aaron Jarvis who fired home off the crossbar for a goal on his home debut. Maciulaitis then added a second assist, a great through ball cut open the Dungannon defence and McLaughlin applied the decisive touch to steer it beyond Sam Johnston.
McLaughlin then completed his hat-trick in some style, bursting forward past several despairing attempts at challenges before slotting the ball home.
The game somewhat petered out, with Dungannon’s challenges becoming ever more agricultural as they tried to keep the score down, but that man McLaughlin had the last word, steering home sub Andrew Whiteside’s pass for his fourth of the game.
Match Cost: £12 💷
Match Rating: 8.5/10