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(FM'09) A Trip Down 'The Bann', The Return To Ulster - A Chance To Rewrite History, Part V


neilhoskins77
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Wednesday 5th August
The first small step to getting the wage budget down is taken this morning, with Scott Francis moving on loan to Ballymoney United of the Second Division for the season, with them taking on his £75 per week wages for the duration as well. We do have an option to recall him if we need to. I'm looking forward to seeing what the 17 year old left winger can do given some regular First Team football.

Likely to be one of the next out of the door is Chris Jones. Twenty one clubs were in for the 19 year old right winger, but that is whittled down to half a dozen with offers to take him from clubs in Northern Ireland automatically rejected. That leaves him with four offers from across the water, including Huddersfield Town and Newport County, or the chance to move south, with Fanad United or Sporting Fingal. If he were leave, and Robbie Fisk and Aaron Smyth joined him, we would then be bang on the Wage Budget, though I'd still need a new goalkeeper and have Gambia International centre back Ryan Young due to join us September 1st.

Some more progress was made late on in the day, with over fifty clubs making offers to take Fisk. Twenty eight of them have their offers accepted, meaning Fisk has plenty of choice, and he'll likely be on his way from the club in the next few days.

Thursday 6th August
And there's the hatrick, with four of six offers for Aaron Smyth accepted, and we are well on the way to getting back to the Wage Budget number, though at the cost of some vital squad depth.

That's squad depth we could need down the line too, as after meeting with their representative, I have put a higher squad payout on the line if the players can earn us promotion. It might have been irresponsible with the clubs financial situation, but the difference is £1,200, and promotion would be worth much more than that to us in TV money, sponsors and ticket sales.

This evening we play a Friendly against Portstewart of the Second Division. We have a working relationship with the club just five miles up the road from us on the Northern Ulster coast, and we are obliged to play this one, though we are not obliged to play a full strength team. This is the last of a trio of Pre-Season Friendlies for them, winning their opening two at Seahaven against Killyleagh and Armagh City, and they will then start their season at home to Dergview this weekend. Richard Salisbury is on loan at the club, and has found the net in both of those pre-season tilts, though he won't be available to play against us today.

Friendly
Seahaven, Portstewart
Portstewart v Coleraine
Attendance :-
166. Weather :- Breezy, Wet. 19c.

I planned to bring a well under strength squad for the short trip up the M2, but with the news that it will be nearly a fortnight before we play again, I've decided to start with a stronger side, and then bring in the younger players from the bench. After two League wins, a result isn't very important, but it would be nice to keep the momentum going. Ray Doran gets a quick chance to make amends, and he will be fresher than most after playing less than a half of football on Tuesday evening. Stewart Devine returns at left back and has a chance to get some match fitness, while Robert Donaghy starts at centre back with Andy Dickinson. There's a chance to impress for Keith Steenson, the Club Captain, who partners Gavin Whelan, with Chris Johnston and Matty Robson on the wings, and Pat McIlroy is up front with Gerry Nixon. The subs bench is almost entirely young players, with some added experience in the form of Declan O'Hara and John Robertson.

Portstewart had two chances in the opening ten minutes, Roy Moore's shot from range was well over the bar, while from a little closer in, Bryan Ure kept his effort down with a low curler which Gerard Doherty had to get down near his post to stop and hold onto. His next shot was higher, but Doherty was equal to that one too, tipping the ball over the bar. We came very close in the 20th minute, Gerry Nixon flicking the ball on and finding Pat McIlroy, who's shot from the corner of the box was inches wide of the far post as it curled away at the last second. Five minutes later, Nixon played provider again, his through ball sending Matty Robson into space on the left channel of the box. But with options aplenty, he was clearly caught in two minds, neither squaring for a team mate or shooting, and the ball went harmlessly through the six yard box and out for a goal kick. Nixon took a knock late in the half, as John Hunter sent over a cross from the left that Stewart Devine had to head to safety, while the half ended as it had started, with Moore sending a shot over the bar.

Nixon came off at the break, replaced by Andy McMillan, while Devine also came off as he returned from injury, with Jason Campbell coming on in his place. The poor finishing from the first half continued into the second half though, Warren Smith and Robson swapping chances that were both sent well over the bar. Robson took a more direct approach from a corner as the hour approached, his inswinging effort coming back off the near post. Just after the hour mark I made a few more changes, Ray Doran, Keith Steenson, Gavin Whelan and Chris Johnston all coming off, and replaced by mostly younger players, Robbie Walsh, John Robertson, Greg White and Colin Canning. And midway through the half, it helped produce the best chance we had created so far. Walsh fed Roberton, who slipped it on to McIlroy. The striker found Canning on the right, and he used some neat footwork to find a way between two blue shirted Portstewart players, and then one more challenger, before sending a diagonal pass into the box for McMillan, his low shot across goal stopped by keeper Chad McEwan. But moments later, we were behind, caught out at the back as Ure sent a through ball between our centre backs, and half time sub Johnny Watson was alert, chasing through, taking a touch, and guiding his low shot beyond Doherty's dive and just inside the far post to open the scoring. We attempted to hit back, McIlroy collecting the ball inside the box from a Robson throw in, shooting on the turn after rolling his marker, but only hitting the side netting. I emptied the bench, replacing the remaining players who had been on since the start, Doherty, Robert Donaghy, Andy Dickinson, Robson and McIlroy. They were replaced by Trevor Smyth, Declan O'Hara, Glenn Harbinson, James Nicholl and Darren Doyle. But we wouldn't manage to find an equaliser, or even a good opportunity to find one.

Portstewart (0) 1 - Johnny Watson (71)
Coleraine (0) 0
Gerard Doherty (Trevor Smyth 77); Ray Doran (Robbie Walsh 63), Robert Donaghy (Declan O'Hara 77), Andy Dickinson (Glenn Harbinson 77), Stewart Devine (Jason Campbell 45); Keith Steenson © (John Robertson 63), Gavin Whelan (Greg White 63); Chris Johnston (Colin Canning 63), Matty Robson (James Nicholl 77); Gerry Nixon (inj - Andy McMillan 45), Pat McIlroy (Darren Doyle 77).
Unused Substitutes :- Matthew Dornan.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 45% - 55%. Man of the Match :- Bryan Ure (Portstewart).

That wasn't a terrible outing, and with some better finishing, we could have come away with a win. Despite conceding the goal once the substitutions were being made, some of the youngsters showed up well, and with our squad depth likely to be tested during the season, some of them could yet be called upon yet.

It won't just be players leaving that will test that squad depth, injuries will also play their part. Gerry Nixon's injury was a little worse that first feared, the Scottish striker will join compatriot Stuart Shaw on the sidelines for a while after suffering a groin strain. It will likely keep him out until early to mid September.

Our fixture plans have just changed, which means an even longer gap between games. We were scheduled to face Wakehurst on Tuesday 18th August, but that game has now been pushed back to Wednesday 2nd September, due to Wakehurst now having a fixture with Queens University in the Antrim Cup First Round. So it's now Saturday 22nd August before we are scheduled to play again, a home match with Carrick Rangers.

Monday 10th August
Gerard Doherty had a stranglehold on the position as goalkeeper in the First Division Team of the Week last season, and he has claimed it again in the first team naming of the new campaign. Irish midfielder Gavin Whelan joins him in the selection.

Outgoing news, and two deals are completed today. Robbie Fisk and Chris Jones will both head back across the Irish Sea, and home to England. Centre back Fisk has signed for Barrow of the Blue Square Premier League, taking a pay rise for the move as well. 19 year old right winger Chris Jones will play at a higher level, as he has signed for Coca-Cola League One side Huddersfield Town. Not surprisingly, he has also taken a pay rise, more than trebling his salary. With Aaron Smyth expected to leave in the next few days, I'll have got the club back down to bang on the ceiling of the wage budget. That should, I hope, mean that the Board will allow the signing of Gambia International centre back Ryan Young to go through at the start of September.

Tuesday 11th August
The draw has been made for the First Round of the Northern Irish League Cup, the first of three domestic Cups that we are scheduled to be involved in this season. It's all First Division teams in this stage, and the draw is middle of the road for us, as we face Police Service of Northern Ireland. It's a two legged tie, with the First Leg away from home at Newforge Lane in Belfast, with the return in Coleraine the following Tuesday 1st September. That means two more match rearrangements, with the League match away to Wakehurst moved from the date of the Second Leg back to Saturday 5th September, and the home match with Donegal Celtic moved from Wednesday 9th September back to Friday 18th September.

Saturday 15th August
Our Under-18's have kicked off their Group 1 campaign this lunchtime, with a 1-1 draw at the Newry Showgrounds against Newry City. We took the lead in the 7th minute, with a goal from Youth Intake striker Martin Friars. There was an equaliser midway through the second half from left back Simon Goodall.

Tony Jones is back in training after recovering from the arm injury he suffered in pre-season. The 20 year Scot will be our first choice at right back, and brings another attacking dimension to our game. He'll have to wait a little bit longer to get amongst the action though, as Saturday's match against Carrick Rangers in the League is off, as they are now playing an Antrim Trophy match instead. With that match now scheduled for Wednesday 23rd September, our next game is now ten days away against Lisburn Distillery, who we'll travel to face on Tuesday 25th August. Assuming that goes ahead, it will be three weeks between competitive matches by then.

Sunday 16th August
News from the ticket office, and it isn't good news. The fans have not reacted well to a second consecutive season in the second tier, and have voted by not putting their hands in their pockets. And I don't necessarily blame them either. We have lost 15% of our season ticket take up from last season, dropping from 128 down to just 108 sold.

Monday 17th August
28 year old Northern Irish right back Aaron Smyth becomes the last of the trio that I decided to move on to make his move. It's a return to England for a second spell for Smyth, who will join Coca-Cola League Two side Lincoln City. Like the two who left before him, he has also secured himself a pay rise as well. Moving the trio's wages out of the door has immediately relieved the pressure on myself from the Boardroom, with the status right away changing to them being satisfied with the job I'm doing.

The timing is very interesting, as I'm named as a potential contender for a job in Europe, where the club have sacked their Caretaker Manager over the summer after they narrowly avoided relegation last season. It's a country I'm interested in going to, and a club that has some potential. I'm interested. Not to be this time though, as by the end of the day they had selected their new man in charge.

Friday 21st August
17 year old right winger Colin Canning has signed a three year Part Time Contract today to replace his Youth Contract. The six footer who made his Senior League debut last season, won't pick up a weekly wage, but will be paid an appearance fee should he make First Team appearances. That's not beyond possibility either after Chris Jones' departure. I would like to see him take a step forward though now he has his new deal.

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Saturday 22nd August 2015
At The Showgrounds this lunchtime, our Under-18's battered Ards youngsters 4-1. The damage was mostly done by our defenders, with centre back Paul McMaster putting us in front, only for Roy McKee to equalise two minutes later. Right back Robbie Walsh had us back in front before the break, setup by Masters knock down from a free kick, David McLoughlin put the ball into his own net, and Masters rounded it off with a second.

The First Team squads away match with Wakehurst has been pushed back by a month, with the hosts now playing in the Antrim Trophy on September 5th, with a new date of Wednesday 7th October pencilled in.

Monday 24th August
We finally return to competitive action tomorrow evening, as we travel into Lisburn to face one of the promotion favourites, Lisburn Distillery, at their New Grosvenor Stadium. They were relegated last season, finishing bottom of the Premier Division by fifteen points. That relegation cost them several of their players, and they still have several who would like to move on before next weeks Transfer Deadline. They're narrow favourites for the points, but the bookies anticipate a close match.

Tuesday 25th August

Northern Irish First Division
New Grosvenor Stadium, Lisburn
Lisburn Distillery v Coleraine
Attendance :-
185. Weather :- Strong Winds, 21c.

This should be a very tough early season test for us, and we will likely have a much better idea of where we sit amongst the favourites. The starting lineup sees half a dozen changes from the side that won against Bangor in our last competitive match three weeks ago. Both full backs are changed, with Tony Jones and Stewart Devine replacing Ray Doran and Jason Campbell. There is a change in the midfield, with Gavin Whelan replacing Michael McCartney, while Matty Robson replaces Ryan Twist on the left wing, despite the latter netting the winner at Clandeboye Park. Both the strikers that started that day are injured, Stuart Shaw and Gerry Nixon replaced by Pat McIlroy and Andy McMillan. There is a distinct lack of depth on the bench, with Matthew Dornan summoned up from the Reserves as an attacking option amongst the substitutes.

We took early control of the midfield, and showed some nice slick passing from the outset. Keith Steenson placed a through ball perfectly for Andy McMillan in the 5th minute, the striker attempting to slide his shot under the dive of Michael McDermott, but the keeper made a smart stop to keep him out. And McMillan would have no chance to make amends for that miss, as he was forced off with injury in the 13th minute, replaced by Michael McCartney, in a change that meant Gavin Whelan moving to right wing, and Chris Johnston moving up front. At the other end, Liam Shepherd cut back inside Declan O'Hara to hit a shot from the edge of the box on the quarter of an hour mark, but blazed the ball over the bar. Skipper of the home side Neal Gawley was starting to find some room down the Distillery left, and a neat one-two with George Beckett got him into space in the box, but he sent his shot wide. The pair taking the shots would both try again before the break, Shepherd from point blank range, Gerard Doherty off his line quickly and spreading himself to leave nothing to shoot at and make the stop, before Gawley tried to catch him out with a free kick from out wide on the right, aiming for the near top corner when everyone expected a cross, but his effort was too high. Goalless at the break.

We were well in the game without being on top, and I was hoping that we could continue in that manner at the very least in the second half. Unfortunately, Distillery had other ideas. Lee John and Michael Leary ganged up on Stewart Devine to rob him of possession, and they got the ball to Dean Rodgers. The striker moved infield to drag a few defenders with him, then sent the ball left, where Gawley was in acres of space. He shaped to shoot across goal, and then slammed his shot low and inside Doherty's near post to put the home side in front. With their defence untroubled on the whole so far, Distillery gave it almost 20 minutes, and then started to make some changes to move into a more defensive mindset. They were still adjusting when Matty Robson pinged the ball into the box from the left, picking out the feet of Pat McIlroy. The striker managed to turn, and was shaping to shoot at goal when Brian George barreled into him and conceded a penalty. Full back Tony Jones stepped up, and he blasted the equaliser low into the bottom corner! Robson was replaced by Ryan Twist shortly after as we looked to go in for the kill, but it was Distillery who pushed forward, substitutes James Cairnduff and Peter Carlisle linking up, but the latters cross from the left was overhit, and the ball rolled harmlessly out for a throw in. I hope we can stay for a few drinks after the game, they do make booze here after all.

Lisburn Distillery (0) 1 - Neal Gawley (57)
Coleraine (0) 1 - Tony Jones (75 pen)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Andy Dickinson, Declan O'Hara, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 77); Andy McMillan (inj - Michael McCartney 13), Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- Robert Donaghy, John Robertson, Matthew Dornan.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 45% - 55%. Man of the Match :- Neal Gawley (Lisburn Distillery).

An early season point on the road against one of the promotion contenders who were relegated last season, we'll absolutely take it after winning our opening two. We are knocked off the top by Annagh United after their home win over Armagh City, though we do have a game in hand on last seasons Second Division Champions. In good news, Andy McMillan's injury was nothing more than an impact knock, and he will be fine for the next assignment on the weekend, when we switch into Cup football mode.

Wednesday 26th August
Speaking of Cup football, our Under-18's jump into action tonight in the Under-18's Cup. Once more, they are home to Ards, and once more centre back Paul McMaster finds the net. That was as good as it got for our youngsters though, as Andy Gilmore quickly equalised, and Jackie McKillip blasted home an early second half penalty. That's our kids Cup adventure over in double quick time.

Friday 28th August
Lets hope the Senior side can make a better job of their Cup task, as we prepare for the First Leg of the League Cup tie in Belfast against the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We're the favourites for the tie, and if we can grab an away goal at Newforge Lane, we should set ourselves up nicely for the Second Leg back at The Showgrounds next week.

Saturday 29th August

Northern Irish League Cup, First Round, First Leg
Newforge Lane, Belfast
Police Service of Northern Ireland v Coleraine
Attendance :-
186. Weather :- Breezy, 22c.

We are unchanged in both starting lineup and matchday squad for our first trip into the Capital this season, and with PSNI going with only Ross Rooney up front, we were quickly able to control the ball, get it moved around with our short passing, and set about picking a way into their penalty box. Andy McMillan held the ball up and threaded it through to the overlapping Matty Robson, the wingers shot was right at keeper Gordon O'Brien though. Declan O'Hara picked up a slightly harsh booking as we headed towards the 20 minute mark, before Joe Porter unleashed a long shot at goal that didn't unduly trouble Gerard Doherty. As the half wore on, Rooney was becoming more and more isolated up front, though we were not able to break them down too often. Rooney did get possession on the left of the box just before the break, but by the time he got the ball on his right foot and decided to shoot, he was surrounded by three defenders and couldn't get a shot through. Still goalless at half time.

The early moments of the second half showed little change to the dynamic of the game, Rooney resorting to shooting from almost 40 yards out, a dipping effort that wasn't dipping enough. He got closer five minutes later, moving short to collect the ball from a throw in, and then playing a one-two before sending in another shot that beat Doherty, only to see it crash back off the cross bar. With the hour mark approaching though, we finally found a way through the PSNI defence, Stewart Devine and Keith Steenson doing the set up work down the left, the latter finding Robson just outside the left corner of the box. Pat McIlroy was unmarked at the far post, and clearly O'Brien was expecting the cross, and Robson caught him out, sending a low and skidding shot inside the near post before the keeper could get back across goal! That was the away goal we were after, and with quarter of an hour to play, I make my changes, Steenson, Gavin Whelan and McMillan all coming off, John Robertson, Michael McCartney and Matthew Dornan coming on. Predictably, we would then suffer an injury as we went into the last ten minutes, Chris Johnston limping out of a tackle and unable to continue. Even with only ten men, we still almost added a second, Robson waving everyone into the six yard box as he prepared to hit in a corner, and then sent the pass to the edge of the box, McCartney walking onto the ball and sending a curling shot through the crowd and inches wide of the goal frame.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (0) 0
Coleraine (0) 1
-
Matty Robson (59)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Andy Dickinson, Declan O'Hara, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson © (John Robertson 74), Gavin Whelan (Michael McCartney 74); Chris Johnston (inj - 81), Matty Robson; Andy McMillan (Matthew Dornan 74), Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- Robert Donaghy, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Declan O'Hara 17
Possession :- 41% - 59%. Man of the Match :- Matty Robson (Coleraine).

A second goal at the end would have made our job in midweek in the Second Leg much easier of course, but with the home leg to come and a goal advantage, we're in the box seat. And with the news that Gerry Nixon is now fit to resume training, we also have a bit more squad depth available to us as well. There is also the Transfer Deadline Day on Monday as well, where we will have our last chance to complete any business.

Our Senior side were not the only winners today too, as our Under-18's went into Portadown and beat them 3-1 at Shamrock Park. Full back Jason Campbell and forward Joseph Nixon put us two up with less than a quarter of an hour on the clock. Nigel Spence pulled one back with a few minutes to play, but as Portadown poured forward to search for an equaliser, we caught them on the break, and Martin Friars wrapped up the points. Our youngsters are top of Group 1.

Sunday 30th August
Seven loan offers are sent today as we attempt to get a head start on our Transfer Deadline moves. But by the end of the day, five of the players have said no despite being the green light by their clubs.

There is at least some good news, with Pat McIlroy called up to represent Northern Ireland Under-21's in their double header of UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifiers in the International Window that starts this coming week. Despite failing to find the net so far this season, he'll be hoping to feature against Bosnia & Herzegovina at the Maze National Stadium in Lisburn, and against Denmark in Farum

Monday 31st August
We are preparing for the Second Leg of the League Cup tie with Police Service of Northern Ireland tomorrow evening. The two remaining players we have loan offers out for have both rejected the move, which means I may as well pack up for the day now with no other incomings or outgoings expected.

The speculation in the press is that I might be packing up for good in Coleraine though, with more rumours that I could soon be leaving the club to take a job elsewhere.

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Tuesday 1st September 2015
The Transfer Window slams closed, and we were involved in no further business. The Board have allowed our already agreed deal to sign Ryan Young to go through though, and the Gambian International centre back is in the country and available to play tonight if we choose to select him. He isn't match fit, and he will be quickly leaving the country again this week, as he is included in the Gambia Senior Squad for their 2016 African Cup of Nations Qualifying fixture, which is being held in Banjul, his hometown, against Mauritania, and which they'll be red hot favourites for. If selected to play, Young will win his second International Cap. The 6'2 eighteen year old is also the holder of a British passport, and has signed for us on a Free Transfer from Ports Authority FC, but has never played a Senior club match. That hasn't stopped the fans being very excited about his arrival.

I might not quite be done in building my squad for the rest of the year yet either. The Window may be closed, but we can still sign Free Agents, and I'm going to see if the Board will also allow the signing of a goalkeeper on a cheap contract to provide us some competition and cover for Gerard Doherty, who has got over his poor Pre-Season and instead carried over last seasons form.

Annagh United are the early pacesetters in the First Division, albeit they have played one more game than us and are a point ahead. But there's no denying what a great job Keith Wilkinson has done for the Second Division Champions in preparing them for life in the second tier, and he is the deserving winner of the August Manager of the Month Award, with myself the Runner-Up and Gavin Arthur of Police Service of Northern Ireland in third. Arthur's side are our opponents this evening at The Showgrounds.

Northern Irish League Cup, First Round, Second Leg
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Police Service of Northern Ireland (Coleraine lead 1-0 on aggregate)
Attendance :-
209. Weather :- Breezy, 24c.

Some small changes only from the team that won in Belfast on the weekend. Chris Johnston is dropped to the bench today after coming off late with an injury in the First Leg, and as a result Gavin Whelan moves to the right wing, and Michael McCartney starts in midfield. On the bench, Robert Donaghy and Matthew Dornan are left out, with new arrival Ryan Young brought in for a potential debut, and Gerry Nixon is also recalled to the matchday squad after returning from injury.

A dream start, with Matty Robson curling over a sixth minute corner, and Declan O'Hara getting on the end of it at the edge of the six yard box, and forcing the ball home from close range, his first goal for the club, and we quickly double our aggregate lead! Unfortunately, PSNI were level almost as quickly, Stephen McAllister's short throw on the right found Ross Rooney, and he picked out Joe Porter near the corner of the penalty box, his first time rising and curling shot beat Gerard Doherty and found the net after crashing off the underside of the cross bar. Our visitors were now on the front foot, and trying to force themselves level in the tie. James Forsythe had a shot blocked, while Murray Gamble's run and cross down the left needed to be headed clear by O'Hara with Rooney waiting to knock it in. Rooney did connect with the next one though, sending his header just wide of the target, before Andy Carmichael hit the bar with a first time shot that had Doherty beat. We attempted to get ourselves back on the front foot, and with a role reversal from our early goal, O'Hara sending a cross field pass from centre back to pick out Robson on the left corner of the box, the winger bringing the ball down and sending in a shot, Gordon O'Brien turning his effort over. Before the break, Robson was played in again, this time by Pat McIlroy, but his attempt to push it inside the near post was wide.

We were pushed into a change at the break, right back Tony Jones coming off with his lack of match fitness, and Andy Dickinson moving into his position, with new signing Ryan Young coming on for not just his Coleraine debut, but his Senior Club debut. That reshuffle may have caused some early confusion in our defence, Gamble stepping infield and sending a low diagonal cross into the box which was just too far in front of O'Hara for him to reach, and Rooney nipped in and buried his low shot! Now PSNI are in front by virtue of having two away goals to our one. We needed to get ourselves back in front in the tie as quickly as possible, and did so eleven minutes later. Another corner, this time from the other side which Gavin Whelan sent over, O'Hara battling with Brian Magee to meet the ball, and while they did that, Robson nipped in front of the pair and guided his header into the bottom corner! McAllister's free kick attempt to get PSNI right back in front was high and wide of the top corner he aimed for, and we pushed ourselves further ahead midway through the second half, Keith Steenson playing Robson into acres of space down the left, and his curling cross found Whelan pulling away from the shoulder of his marker at the far post, and he sidefooted home from eight yards out. Rooney missed a quick chance to get PSNI back on terms for the night when he got between our centre backs but sent his shot over the bar. I made my second change moments later, with Andy McMillan replaced by Gerry Nixon, a change that paid dividends moments later. Steenson danced through their defence, and then slipped a pass into the path of Nixon, who sent his low shot past O'Brien and inside the near post to make it 4-2 on the night, and a three goal advantage overall. That finally seemed to put a terminal dent in our visitors ambitions, and I made my final change late on, Michael McCartney coming off, Whelan moving into midfield, and Chris Johnston coming on to finish the match on the right wing. We could, and should, have added another late on, with the set piece nearly delivering again, Whelan's corner finding the head of Nixon, but the Scottish striker couldn't get his downward header on target. Not that it mattered tonight.

Coleraine (1) 4 - Declan O'Hara (6), Matty Robson (58), Gavin Whelan (67), Gerry Nixon (76)
Police Service of Northern Ireland (1) 2 - Joe Porter (12), Ross Rooney (47)
(Coleraine win 5-2 on aggregate)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones (Ryan Young 45), Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson, Michael McCartney (Chris Johnston 81); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Andy McMillan (Gerry Nixon 71), Pat McIlroy.
Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 55% - 45%. Man of the Match :- Matty Robson (Coleraine).

No doubt about Man of the Match in that one, Matty Robson scored a vital goal and added a pair of assists to go with it as well. The English left winger now has two goals and three assists in just four matches in all competitions, a fabulous start to the campaign as he looks to see off the challenge of new signing Ryan Twist for his place in the side.

Wednesday 2nd September
The draw is quickly made for the Second Round of the Northern Irish League Cup, which is made up entirely of clubs at our First Division level. We are paired with Carrick Rangers, who we will entertain in the First Leg at The Showgrounds a fortnight on Saturday, with the return the following Wednesday night at Taylor's Avenue. That means our home League game with Donegal Celtic, which was scheduled for the date of the First Leg, has been pushed back a week, while the we were already due to face Carrick, albeit at home, on the date of the Second Leg. That game has now been pushed back to mid-October. Either way, it's now ten days before we play again.

Friday 4th September
Pat McIlroy won his 8th cap for Northern Ireland Under-21's this evening, as he started in Lisburn at the Maze National Stadium against Bosnia & Herzegovina in the home sides second Qualifier in Group 2 of the UEFA 2017 European Under-21 Championships, having lost in Greece in the summer. And they lost again tonight, Neil Miskelly of Accrington Stanley equalising quickly after Dragan Muksumic had put the visitors ahead. McIlroy was substituted just after the hour following a pretty average outing. The young Northern Irish side looked set to earn a point, but with four minutes remaining Nedzad Karic slotted home the winner in front of a crowd of almost 8,000.

Saturday 5th September
At a wet and windy Showgrounds this lunchtime, right winger Colin Canning curled home a 53rd minute winner for our Under-18's as they hosted Donegal Celtic in their Group 1 match. Our youngsters did have to hold on in the final twenty minutes or so, as centre midfielder Gary Campbell was shown a second yellow card in the 71st minute. The win keeps the three point lead at the top of the table, as their unbeaten start to the League season continues.

The Senior sides League match with the Donegal Celtic side, which has already been rescheduled once this week, is now moved again, pushed back to the 21st October with Celtic now hosting Crusaders in the Antrim Cup three weeks today.

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Sunday 6th September 2015
The question was asked as to whether the Board would allow me some extra Wage Budget leeway to bring in a much needed goalkeeper to provide both cover and competition for Gerard Doherty. The answer was given today, an emphatic no from the suits upstairs. A deal was agreed today to sign 21 year old Free Agent goalkeeper Anthony Moran. The 6'2 Brading born shot stopper played twice in the Coca-Cola Championship for Leeds United two years ago, and has since turned out for Stranraer in Scotland and more lately, Tamworth last season in the Blue Square Premier. He was ready to sign a two year deal today, but the deal is veto'ed in the Boardroom, and we have to go with what we have unless we sell or fire more players.

Wednesday 9th September
The Board have selected our match with Police Service of Northern Ireland next Tuesday evening as a designated fan event. Any adult attending the match can bring a child at half the normal price. Could work as a deterrent for naughty kids I suppose........

Friday 11th September
Before that we have a trip to face the early pace setters of the First Division. They might have played twice as many games as us so far, but the points on the board are always the best way, and Annagh United have twelve of them from six games so far to hold a five point lead at the top. They're unbeaten so far this season after being promoted as Champions from the Second Division, and one of the main keys to their success is the form of 30 year old forward Kyle McDowell, a new signing at the club from Police Service of Northern Ireland, who has matched his goal tally from last season already, and we are not even at the mid-September point yet. All that said, they go into tomorrows game as the underdogs, with the bookies backing us to take a big chunk out of their lead tomorrow afternoon in Portadown.

Saturday 12th September
Would a comfortable win for the Under-18's be a good omen for the weekend? Lets hope so, as our lads gave Crusaders youngsters a pasting at The Showgrounds this morning. Left winger Stuart Wilson put them ahead early on, before centre back Paul McMaster continued his excellent run of goalscoring before the half hour mark. Joseph Nixon added a third before the break, and then completed the scoring with his second a couple of minutes from time. The only fly in the ointment on their way to keeping their lead in Group 1 was a late injury to Robbie Walsh, nothing too serious for the 17 year old utility player though.

Northern Irish First Division
Tandragee Road, Portadown
Annagh United v Coleraine
Attendance :-
286. Weather :- Dry, 13c.

We visit the early league leaders in Portadown, where our back four stays the same as it was for the win at home to Police Service of Northern Ireland a week and a half ago in our only game of September so far. John Robertson returns to the side in midfield, while Gavin Whelan is also back in the middle of the park, with Chris Johnston playing on the right wing today. Up front, Gerry Nixon replaces Andy McMillan. On the left wing, Matty Robson makes his 50th League appearance for Coleraine. There is a place on the bench again for Ryan Young, who is looking to make his Senior League debut today.

We started at a hectic pace, setting about the league leaders from the off. Chris Johnston made ground down the right and crossed into the far post area, where Gerry Nixon chested it down into the path of Matty Robson, his low driven shot stopped by keeper Jason Moore. Moments later, Declan O'Hara spread the ball wide from centre back, setting Robson off against William Braniff. The winger easily won the race, and sent over a cross that Pat McIlroy looked to get on the end of, Ross Nelson grabbing his shoulder and sending the striker spinning to the ground, the ref pointing to the spot. Tony Jones made no mistake from 12 yards out, emphatically finding the top corner, and we had an early lead. The pace settled down a bit after that, as United struggled to gain a foothold in the game, we held them mostly into their own half, passing the ball nicely and pulling them back and forth across the park. McIlroy in particular was looking sharp and keen to take advantage, sending a shot just past the top corner midway through the half. The only response Annagh could muster was an off target Evan Forsythe header from a whipped in Jamie Rice free kick. Robson tried to increase our lead with a cheeky corner that he tried to swing inside the near post, just failing as his effort swung a little too early and hit the side netting.

That was a very satisfactory first half of football for us, and with our hosts losing Rice at the break, our chances would seemingly only be getting better of travelling home with three points. Joe Holmes was now out on the left for them, and he linked with their remaining dangerman Kyle McDowell, but his shot was from a long way out and caused Gerard Doherty no issues. William Canning did get close from range moments later, his shot coming back off the cross bar and into the waiting hands of our keeper. But in the 66th minute the play swung back to the other end, and Stewart Devine had all kinds of time on the left to decide what he was going to do with the ball. He picked out McIlroy twenty yards out, who's dominance in the air was now meaning the defence were letting him jump unopposed and deal instead with the knock downs. This time the ball was pinged in to his feet though, and with space to turn, he sent a low skidding shot wide of Moore's dive and into the bottom corner. His first goal for the club at last, and his popularity clear as the whole team rushed to celebrate with him. Scott Stevenson tried to hit back for Annagh, running off the shoulder of Andy Dickinson, but his shot was right at Doherty, while down our end, Robson drove a shot just wide and into the hoardings behind the goal. I didn't see United scoring today, much less scoring twice, and I moved us into a more defensive 4-1-4-1, Nixon replaced by Keith Steenson who would sit in front of the back four as we attempted to clog up the midfield and make life yet more difficult for the league leaders. The clock was on our side now, and I took more time off it by spacing out our changes, O'Hara replaced in the 83rd minute to give Ryan Young a Senior club league debut, and with moments remaining, Gavin Whelan moved out to the wing as Johnston was replaced by Michael McCartney. The points were ours, and we had done it in excellent fashion as well.

Annagh United (0) 0
Coleraine (1) 2
-
Tony Jones (5 pen), Pat McIlroy (66)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara (Ryan Young 83), Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; John Robertson, Gavin Whelan ©; Chris Johnston (Michael McCartney 89), Matty Robson; Gerry Nixon (Keith Steenson 69), Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Twist, Andy McMillan.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 37% - 63%. Man of the Match :- Pay McIlroy (Coleraine).

That could not have gone much better for an away day against the league leaders. We controlled that game for large portions, and had almost two thirds of the possession despite being the visitors. United were forced to change their game plan numerous times, and still couldn't find a way to get to grips with us. Pat McIlroy finding the net for the first time since his move here was also a huge bonus.

What does it tell us about the rest of the season ahead? Well, that's a tricky one to answer right now. Have we just inflicted a first defeat upon a club who are going to be genuine promotion contenders and put ourselves in the driving seat as the best club in the Division, or have we merely dispatched a team who have had nothing more than a good start and done exactly what was expected of us if we are going to be in the mix ourselves? It will take some time to find the answer to that one.

Another weekend, and another fixture change. Our opening game of October was scheduled to be an away league match with Ards on Saturday 3rd, but that match has now been pushed back to Wednesday 28th October due to an Irish Cup match for Ballyclare now being scheduled at Dixon Park, the ground the teams share. So we play again in the League on Tuesday evening against the Police Service of Northern Ireland before I swiftly leave to head to Uzbekistan. That will be our last league match of September, with the next league game now not scheduled to take place until October 7th. Only Distillery will have played less league matches after we play on Tuesday night, and by the time we play in the First Division again, they will have played twice more.

Monday 14th September
First Division Team of the Week announcement time, and a clean sheet for Gerard Doherty means he keeps his usual place, joined by our goalscorers from the weekend, Tony Jones and Pat McIlroy.

We're short price favourites for tomorrow night's home fixture with a Police Service of Northern Ireland side who have failed to take a win from us in all of the four historical meetings between the clubs, which have all come in the last year as it happens. The best they've managed is a draw, and you'd get a pretty good price on them doing even that this time, despite sitting right behind us in third place in the early league table. We are actually level on points, and a win would send them above us, plenty of motivation for the Belfast side. I tell the press that I'm looking for us to continue the momentum that we've built up.

Tuesday 15th September

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Police Service of Northern Ireland
Attendance :-
277. Weather :- Dry, 28c.

Fan Night at the The Showgrounds. Half price for kids, on a school night, a week or two after they go back to school. Someone didn't think this through, and the attendance is only around forty people more than last seasons average. Keith Steenson is back in the lineup in place of John Robertson, taking over the armband in the only lineup change from the win on the weekend.

We were fairly content to let PSNI and their five man midfield have the ball in the less dangerous areas of the park in the early going, and press them when they tried to get in a little closer. That resorted to them shooting from range pretty quickly, James Forsythe missing the top corner from all of 25 yards. When we did eventually do some attacking of our own, we looked dangerous. Gerry Nixon held the ball up well before sending it short to Keith Steenson. The skipper played a short pass of his own, finding Pat McIlroy who rolled his marker and shot across goal, just missing the far post. We continued our attacking intent, Chris Johnston finding McIlroy from the right this time, the striker going for power but getting too much height on his shot. Before the break, Ross Rooney had two strikes at goal from the edge of the box, both clearing the cross bar without troubling Gerard Doherty.

Goalless at the break, and a game as tight on the scoreboard as you might expect from a second versus third clash. But the drama was only just about to begin. Tony Jones stood up a cross from the right edge of the box towards the far post, but Gerry Nixon's luck was out, his volley crashing back off the base of the upright. Jones would quickly be involved again though, receiving the ball back from McIlroy after a short throw in, and backing his own pace to go the long way route, rounding Andy Carmichael to get into the box, the forward getting back on terms and clumsily bundling the young Scot to the floor. Penalty. The PSNI players surrounded the ref, with both Callum Baker and Jason McHugh getting booked for their long and loud protests. Jones had to wait an age, amusing himself with some keepie uppies, before finally being allowed to take the spot kick, slamming it right down the middle to put us in front from the spot for a second game in a row. PSNI immediately moved to a more attacking formation, and Rooney sent in a low cross that saw Forsythe dart in front of a defender and get on the end of it, clipping a shot over Doherty, only to see it come back off the bar. Moments after that, Andy Dickinson was determined not to let Rooney get in the box to bring down a long ball, flattening the forward just outside the box, earning a booking for his trouble. The free kick was wasted, as Forsythe blasted it into the wall, while when we won a free kick a little further out at the other end, Jones came up with an imaginative routine that allowed Nixon to let fly with an ambitious effort that only just missed the target. Just after the hour mark, the routine between Nixon and Stewart Devine was certainly less impressive. The striker fed the ball back to his left back, but when Devine tried it give it him back, he made a mess of it. Forsythe got it to Rooney in the box, but with no room to shoot, he gave it back to Forsythe, and he struck a peach of a curler that Doherty couldn't get close to, and it found the top corner to level the match back up. PSNI sank right back into their defensive formation with five in midfield. This is Fan Night though, and I wasn't prepared to let them just sit back without giving them hell. We moved into a much more attacking tactic, without changing any personnel for the moment. With quarter of an hour remaining, I did turn to my bench, Steenson replaced by the more attack minded Michael McCartney, while young striker Andy McMillan would replace Nixon. Two minutes later, we would get a helping hand. Devine stripped the ball from Brian Magee as he tried to make ground down our left, and the winger lost his cool, kicking Devine up in the air and receiving a straight red card for his indiscretion. Now it was five in midfield with none up front, and defend for their lives to earn a point for PSNI. There was a booking for John Paul Gallagher as their desperation mounted, and their creaking defence gave way with four minutes left on the clock, McCarthy and Johnston doing the build up work, before McIlroy squared the ball to sub McMillan, who placed his shot in via the underside of the cross bar, his first ever Senior goal, and a big game winner too, sending us back to the top of the table on Fan Night!

Coleraine (0) 2 - Tony Jones (51 pen), Andy McMillan (86)
Police Service of Northern Ireland (0) 1 - James Forsythe (63)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson © (Michael McCartney 75), Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston, Matty Robson; Gerry Nixon (Andy McMillan 75), Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Andy Dickinson 54
Possession :- 59% - 41%. Man of the Match :- James Forsythe (Police Service of Northern Ireland).

I'm not one hundred percent sure we'd have found a way through had it not been for that moment of madness from Brian Magee, an 18 year old winger of some promise who will undoubtedly learn from what happened this evening. Speaking of 18 year olds with some promise, what a night for local boy Andy McMillan, who netted at Senior level for the first time in an evening he will never forget!

The Board were delighted with how the night went overall, and a late winner is as good a way as any to try and get the extra fans to return. Keeping winning and returning to the top tier is another, and Annagh United were held to a draw away to Wakehurst, allowing us to pass them on goal difference, but with three games in hand. It will now be just over three weeks before we return to League action, when we travel to face Wakehurst ourselves.

No time for me to celebrate though, as I've a flight to catch to get me out to Uzbekistan, for another massive game.....

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Friday 18th September 2015
I'm back from Asia, and ready to get right back into action at domestic level in Northern Ireland before I head off again next month. It's Cup action that takes our attention this weekend, as we host Carrick Rangers in the First Leg of our tie in the Second Round of the League Cup. We're firm favourites for the game, and will be looking to put ourselves in a strong position to travel for the return in midweek.

Saturday 19th September
A noon kick off for our Under-18's, who travel into Belfast to face Linfield in Group 1 at Midgley Park. The hosts took the lead through Jack Bond, only to see Joseph Nixon net an equaliser midway through the second half. With the game all square going into the final ten minutes, Linfield were given a golden opportunity to end our unbeaten start to the season, but Michael Duke missed from the penalty spot. A 1-1 draw then, and Portadown win to move past us and to the top with the quarter mark of the campaign approaching.

Northern Irish League Cup, Second Round, First Leg
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Carrick Rangers
Attendance :-
227. Weather :- Breezy, 13c.

Just the one change to the side from last time out against PSNI, with Andy McMillan rewarded for his late winner with a starting spot, Gerry Nixon losing his place and sitting on the bench. Rangers were clearly looking to be defensive in the main, as they lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

Is was a real role reversal from what you might expect that nearly opened the scoring five minutes in, centre back Declan O'Hara whipping in a free kick from the right, and winger Matty Robson meeting it with a downward header at the far post, keeper Dean Dixon saving it with his legs, before his defence helped him out with a clearance. With only Evan Moran up front, Rangers were struggling to get the ball to stick up there, and as a result we were dominating for long spells. We should have had the lead in the 24th minute, Gavin Whelan picking out Pat McIlroy on the edge of the box, the striker holding up the ball, before slipping it into the box and the path of McMillan, but his attempt at a deft finish was clipped wide of goal. Minutes later though, McMillan chased a long ball from Keith Steenson into the box, and while attempting to get in front of the striker, Justin van Matre took him to the floor, the referee awarding us a spot kick. Young full back Tony Jones is getting a lot of penalty practice this season, and he found the net once again, going low into the bottom corner to the keepers left this time. With the lead came increased confidence, McIlroy sending a shot well wide when we played on after midfielder Paddy Donaghy went down injured, much to the visitors fury. He went off injured, and while they reorganised, Jones hit an exquisite cross field pass that Robson took down and into the box, smashing a shot off the near post, the ball bouncing back out towards the penalty spot, where McIlroy sidefooted it home to double our lead before the break.

We couldn't have been much more comfortable than we were at half time, and it would need Rangers to adjust to make any difference to the second half as far as we were concerned. They did give that a brief try, full back Paul Woods sending a pass into the box for Graham Pollock, but his shot never threatened the target. We were soon back on the attack, McMillan and McIlroy linking up again, the latter curling a shot just off target. In the 56th minute he didn't miss though, Robson playing a superb cross from deep on the left that cut out the centre backs as McIlroy pulled away from his marker, and he finished with a controlled volley to net his second of the afternoon. Frustration was rife in the Rangers side, and van Matre earned a booking unnecessarily when he clattered McMillan well inside his own half just after the hour mark. Rangers made some changes, and then also picked up some knocks to increase our domination even more, and allowed me to feel confident enough to rest some legs. O'Hara came off to allow Ryan Young some more game time for the final twenty minutes, while McIlroy saw one shot stopped by Dixon and another crash back off the bar as he attempted to complete his hatrick. Whelan and Robson then took their turns to take an early leave, as Michael McCartney and Ryan Twist came on to help us see out the game.

Coleraine (2) 3 - Tony Jones (28 pen), Pat McIlroy (41,56)
Carrick Rangers (0) 0
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara (Ryan Young 71), Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan (Michael McCartney 81); Chris Johnston, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 81); Andy McMillan, Pat McIlroy.
Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Gerry Nixon.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 56% - 44%. Man of the Match :- Pat McIlroy (Coleraine).

That was an excellent performance, and all of a sudden, Pat McIlroy has settled himself down and started to find his stride in our colours, and is looking like the striker we believed we had brought in. We have put ourselves into an almost ideal position ahead of the Second Leg next week, and the way we are playing right now, it's hard to see us failing to make the Third Round, which is the Board's competition expectation.

Monday 21st September
Gerard Doherty (obviously), is our sole representative in the latest First Division Team of the Week.

Tuesday 22nd September
40 miles or so down the road is Carrickfergus. We head there tomorrow evening as we look to confirm our place in the Third Round of the League Cup following that excellent First Leg outcome against Carrick Rangers. With no more games for two weeks after this one, I decide not to risk any major player rotation for this match, where we are again favourites.

Wednesday 23rd September

Northern Irish League Cup, Second Round, Second Leg
Taylor's Avenue, Carrickfergus
Carrick Rangers v Coleraine (Coleraine lead 3-0 on aggregate)
Attendance :-
180. Weather :- Showers, 9c.

Taylor's Avenue was a happy hunting ground at the back end of last season when my boy's earned a single goal victory here in a late season First Division clash. It's an unchanged starting lineup and squad here from the selection that did such a great job in the First Leg on the weekend. The fairly sparse crowd is boosted by one, as Derby County manager Jim Harvey has made the trip across the Irish Sea to take this match in, with our young Scottish right back Tony Jones rumoured to be the player he is here to watch.

Matty Robson made a cheeky attempt to extend our aggregate lead very early on, sending his inswinging corner in short and whipped, trying to send it inside the near post which it came back off. And we continued to try our luck from set pieces, with centre back Declan O'Hara curling a free kick over the wall, but also over the cross bar. We continued to push forward, and on the quarter of an hour mark Gavin Whelan sent the ball down the right channel, where Pat McIlroy had moved. The striker showed some skill to get to the byline and pull the ball back for Chris Johnston, but his shot at goal was blocked and the chance had gone. If Jim Harvey was here to watch Tony Jones, he will have had a largely wasted trip, as we lost out Scottish right back to injury in the 17th minute. And it caused us a problem too. With no out and out right back on the bench, some reorganisation was required, with Andy Dickinson moving to right back as Ryan Young came on at centre back. Rangers certainly tried to use it to seize the upper hand, Evan Moran and Paul Wilson both quickly sending shots just over the bar. The hosts suddenly started to fancy themselves a bit more, and looked to exploit our lack of a natural right back, Dickinson too quick to move more central, and left back Barry McMahon had all the time he wanted to measure his cross to the far post, Ronnie Matthews unable to keep his header down. Matthews would have another chance on the half hour, a low diagonal cross from the other side this time, but Ryan Young was there to block his shot. Still 0-0 at the break, but there was a worrying change in game dynamic after the Jones injury. While Rangers persisted with their defensive 4-1-4-1 tactic though, I was not too concerned.

If this had been a one off Cup game or a League match, I'd have been more worried about our situation down the right side of the park. As it was, we had a three goal aggregate lead cushion, and at the interval I simply asked the players not to get careless. Keith Steenson was taking no chances ten minutes after the restart, Graham Pollock getting by him, and the skipper stopped his progress with a blatant shirt tug that earned him a caution. The need for Rangers to step it up and start pushing men forward was reaching the point where it would be increasingly desperate, and they started to make changes, and make renewed efforts to find a way through, Pollock finding Wilson in the box, but his low shot was easily gathered by Gerard Doherty, who had seen surprisingly little work to this point. He had some more work to do moments later though, substitute Paul Moffatt drilling in a shot that was right at Doherty and that he turned aside. Rangers coming forward, inevitably, left some gaps for us. Dickinson started to embrace his new role, and he crept infield and managed to find Robson on the left, the winger blazing a shot well over the bar though. When Wilson sent a free kick equally as high over, I decided to bring in some fresh legs. I didn't change the system though, Michael McCartney coming on for Johnston with Whelan moving to the right, while Ryan Twist replaced Robson on the left. With our changes used up, and probably a little later than they should have deployed it, Rangers went all in with ten minutes to go. And, they got caught. Our defensive line pushed up to rob their numbers up front of space, and a ball over the top was collected by Doherty. He sent it right back up the park with a long clearance, and McIlroy got himself matched up against the much smaller McMahon. From thirty yards out, it was a perfect flick on into the box, where Andy McMillan ran onto it, and fired across keeper Dean Dixon and into the far top corner! The ambush in Carrickfergus had been completed, and Rangers misery was completed in injury time, sub Darren McClelland's through ball was fired in on the turn by Wilson, but even a consolation escaped the home side, as the offside flag was raised.

Carrick Rangers (0) 0
Coleraine (0) 1
-
Andy McMillan 86
(Coleraine win 4-0 on aggregate)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones (inj - Ryan Young 17), Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston (Michael McCartney 73), Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 73); Andy McMillan, Pat McIlroy.
Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Gerry Nixon.
Bookings :- Keith Steenson 54
Possession :- 49% - 51%. Man of the Match :- Ryan Young (Coleraine).

I won't lie. I was alarmed at how much losing Tony Jones affected us. We rely heavily on his raids down the right, while Stewart Devine holds station a lot more on the opposite flank and allows Matty Robson to deal with the attacking threat. While Andy Dickinson is a competent right back, that is in a defensive role, he is not an attacking full back. Ryan Young certainly took his chance at centre back though, winning man of the match and putting his hand firmly in the air for a place in the back four. He'll have to keep working hard though, it's nothing too serious for Jones though, a sprained wrist will only keep him out for a fortnight, and our next match isn't for a fortnight.

And what about up front. Our two young striking prospects, local lad Andy McMillan and summer signing Pat McIlroy are now starting to strike up quite the partnership up front. They have dislodged Gerry Nixon, and confined the Scottish striker to the bench. It will be interesting to see if they can keep out his compatriot Stuart Shaw when he returns from his rib injury next week. That could be an altogether different challenge, and soon the two big strikers may be competing against each other for a spot.

Finally, there is Jim Harvey. The Lurgan born Manager of Derby County had a wasted trip from the East Midlands to watch Tony Jones. Our Scottish full back is contracted for the rest of the season, but seems pretty happy here in Coleraine. Across the water, things are not going so well for Harvey at Pride Park. The grand old club are now playing their third season outside of the Football League, and under his reign, they have twice lost Playoff Finals that would have earned them promotion, and the pressure is piling onto the 57 year old. His squad is high in quality, relative to their fifth tier level, but low on numbers as their financial might over the other Blue Square clubs is starting to show signs of waning. At any given time, he seems only a few losses away from the sack. In the after match press conference, when asked about his presence at the game, I tell the media that I'm no fan of Harvey, or the idea of selling one of my better players to a Manager who wouldn't know how to get the best out of him. If the chance came knocking on my door, as poorly as my spell in England went with Maidstone, I don't think I'd be able to resist a return with County and the chance to try and rebuild that club.

Thursday 24th September
The draw is made for Round Three of the League Cup at lunchtime today. Sixteen teams remain in the competition, and only four are not in the Premier Division. We were made to wait for our number to be drawn, and for a little while, it looked like a reunion with Lurgan Celtic, something I'd very much relish, may be on the cards. And we were drawn out one after the other. Celtic as the away team team in tie six against Glebe Rangers. We then slotted into the home position in tie seven, against the reigning Northern Irish Champions and holders of the League Cup. Yes, we got Linfield. It's a mouth watering prospect of pitting ourselves against an old foe, with the First Leg at The Showgrounds in late October, before the return a fortnight later at Windsor Park. Between the two clubs, we have won 38 League Cup crowns. Unfortunately, thirty five of them belong to the Belfast club.

Saturday 26th September
No game this weekend for the First Team, they're done for the month now. But the Under-18's were in action at lunchtime. They hosted Lurgan Celtic at The Showgrounds, and were behind by a goal at the break. But they turned the game around in the second half, and Darren Doyle one of the summer Youth Intake strikers fired an equaliser, and when Peter Curran was sent off with around 20 minutes left to play, we were able to throw the kitchen sink at Celtic. But we weren't able to find a way through against the bottom of the table side, and remain in second place.

Wednesday 30th September
The final day of the month, and Stuart Shaw returns to training following his rib injury that has seen him miss much of the opening two months of the season. Our striking options, that were already doing well, have their options bolstered with the return of last seasons top scorer at the club.

If he can find his way back into the side, one of Shaw's first tasks will be to help us back to the top of the table. It isn't Annagh United who unseat us from our perch though. On an evening when ten of the fourteen clubs played, Limavady United moved to the top of the table with a 6-4 win at home against Bangor in a remarkable match that saw United four goals to the good by the interval. They are now a point ahead of us, though we have two games in hand.

2015/16 Northern Irish First Division Table, Up To & Including Wednesday 30th September 2015

| Pos   | Team                      | Pld  | Won | Drn | Lst | For | Ag | G.D | Pts |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 1st   | Limavady Utd              |  7   |  4  |  2  |  1  |  21 | 13 | +8  |  14 |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 2nd   | Coleraine                 |  5   |  4  |  1  |  0  |   8 |  3 | +5  |  13 |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 3rd   | Annagh Utd                |  8   |  3  |  4  |  1  |  12 |  9 | +3  |  13 |
| 4th   | Ballymena Utd             |  6   |  3  |  3  |  0  |  12 |  6 | +6  |  12 |
| 5th   | Carrick                   |  7   |  2  |  4  |  1  |   6 |  4 | +2  |  10 |
| 6th   | P.S.N.I.                  |  7   |  3  |  1  |  3  |   6 |  6 |  0  |  10 |
| 7th   | Armagh                    |  7   |  2  |  3  |  2  |  10 | 11 | -1  |   9 |
| 8th   | Wakehurst                 |  7   |  2  |  2  |  3  |   8 |  9 | -1  |   8 |
| 9th   | Distillery                |  5   |  1  |  4  |  0  |   3 |  2 | +1  |   7 |
| 10th  | Donegal Celtic            |  6   |  1  |  3  |  2  |   4 |  5 | -1  |   6 |
| 11th  | Bangor                    |  7   |  1  |  2  |  4  |   8 | 12 | -4  |   5 |
| 12th  | Ards                      |  6   |  1  |  2  |  3  |   2 |  7 | -5  |   5 |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 13th  | Banbridge                 |  7   |  0  |  4  |  3  |   5 | 12 | -7  |   4 |
| 14th  | Queens University         |  7   |  0  |  3  |  4  |   4 | 10 | -6  |   3 |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

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Thursday 1st October 2015
Into October, and all is well as far as our Board are concerned. They are satisfied with how things are going on the park, with the signing of Pat McIlroy particularly pleasing to both them and the fans. As usual, the issue of cash appears to have been glossed over. We lost £15,000 last month, and we are now approaching the £300,000 mark in debt. Surely, someone should be panicking and ringing alarm bells about this by now?

Saturday 3rd October
Another weekend without a game for the First Team. While they have the weekend off, our Under-18's unbeaten start to the season is ended in heart breaking fashion. They are away to Dungannon, and they trailed at the break to a late first half goal from Swifts young striker George O'Neill. For the second weekend in a row, Darren Doyle nets an equaliser, and looked to have salvaged a draw at Stangmore Park. But in the final of three minutes worth of injury time, full back Philip McDonnell smashed home a late, late winner, and our hosts move into the mid table range, while we drop down into third, with Glenavon leaping over us.

While the First Team are not playing, six other games in the First Division are taking place. Limavady United start the weekend as League leaders, but fail to grasp their chance to stay there, as they are held to a goaless draw at home by Carrick Rangers. Taking advantage of that result to return to the top of the table are Annagh United, comfortable 3-0 home winners over Donegal Celtic. With fierce rivals Limavady already in front of us, the other team we love to hate, Ballymena United, also move by us as well, by virtue of a one goal better goal difference after a goaless home draw against Wakehurst. We now sit fourth, three points behind the leaders, but with four games in hand of them, three on Limavady, and two on Ballymena.

This evening the draw is made of the First Round of the Intermediate Cup. This is a competition that the Board has little to no interest in, and which the club has won only once, it was Coleraine's last trophy in fact in 2013. Unsurprising that there has been little success, as it is a Cup we have had little involvement in having spent most of our history in the top tier. While they may not care about it, I do. Not because I have any particular affiliation to this Cup. But because it's will be six years next summer since the end of my 'Double' season of Second Division Title and Intermediate League Cup success with Lurgan Celtic. And I haven't won a bloody thing since! We're drawn away in Round One, to Harland & Wolff Welders, and old foe from my Celtic days. They have won just once in six in the Second Division, and that should be an easy starter when we face them on Halloween.

Sunday 4th October
Centre back Ryan Young has been called up by Paul Put for his Gambia Squad to face Gabon away in Libreville next Saturday in Group E of the African Cup of Nations Qualifiers. His side lead the Group going into the final round of matches, and a win will see them qualify for the 2016 Finals in Senegal. They have to be wary though, as a draw could see Angola steal the place, and a defeat would see Gabon move past them by virtue of the head to head results between the two nations.

Monday 5th October
Good news for the club, as Tony Jones returns to training today.

Tuesday 6th October
Jones return is possibly too late to consider him for our return to League action tomorrow against Wakehurst, a club close to us geographically, but not really considered as a rival strangely enough. On a ten match unbeaten run, we are expected to win comfortably despite being away from home, with Wakehurst winless in their last four in the League, and coming into the match in ninth place.

Wednesday 7th October

Northern Irish First Division
Warden Street, Ballymena
Wakehurst v Coleraine
Attendance :-
202. Weather :- Dry, 14c.

Tony Jones isn't risked tonight, instead it's Ray Doran who gets a rare opportunity at right back, the only change to the starting lineup. There is one change to the personnel on the bench, with Gerry Nixon left out, and Stuart Shaw included following his return from injury.

It's a pretty ropey opening spell for us, with Chris Johnston booked with only 39 seconds on the clock. And that start got even worse in the tenth minute, Dil Chagger's throw in finding Robert Bailie, and his square pass across the box found David McConnell, who dragged the ball away from a marker and then fired it inside the post. Their lead would be brief though. In the 15th minute Stewart Devine launched a free kick into the box from the left wing, Ray Doran met it at the far post, heading it back across goal, where Andy McMillan applied the finishing touch and levelled the game back up. Doran wasn't having a bad game at all, and while we were a little out of sorts he was showing good attacking intent, striding forward and picking out McMillan in the box, this time the striker couldn't keep his shot down. The chances kept falling to him though, but he blazed over again when Keith Steenson and Johnston linked up, the latter finding McMillan in the box. Declan O'Hara took a knock, but continued, signalling to the bench he was fine to play on. We were on top without playing too well, so it was a surprise and an annoyance when we were caught out again. Austin Weir and Andy Davies building up play down the left, and McConnell picking out Bailie in the box. Both Doran and Andy Dickinson converged on him, and Bailie's shot took a big deflection off one of them, though hard to work out which. A shot that was aimed at the far post instead spun inside the near post, leaving Gerard Doherty helpless. He hadn't been beaten in well over 200 minutes of football before this game, and now he had been beaten twice in less than 40 minutes. We would be handed a lifeline before the break though. A long throw caused the ball to ping around the penalty box, and Johnston brought it down, and touched it away from Weir, who's awkward challenge brought him down. Penalty given, McConnell booked for his protests. With no Tony Jones available tonight, it was Gavin Whelan who took the ball and stepped forward. He blasted it right down the middle, but Josh Pelling stood his ground, pushing the ball up in the air and then claiming it at the second attempt with Pat McIlroy lurking.

I decided not to take the chance on O'Hara playing on, and then possibily being unable to go on when I had potentially made my changes. Ryan Young came on to replace him at the break. We restarted promisingly, some slick passing moving the ball through the team, down the park, and McIlroy found McMillan. The young striker had good options either side, but instead shot at goal himself, missing the target. Devine had already sent a free kick into the box to provide a goal once tonight, and he should have done so again in the 50th minute. Nothing wrong with his free kick, but Ryan Young was only able to hit the side netting at the far post when he really should have scored. Five minutes later, Whelan sent a diagonal pass into the box, this time it was McIlroy who was picked out, the striker shooting hard and low first time past Pelling, his effort crashing back off the inside of the far post and cleared to safety by Davies. As our need for an equaliser increased, Whelan, and then Steenson both found their way into the refs book for cautions. In between McConnell drove a shot from range just high and wide of the goal frame. I turned to my bench, and went on the attack with twenty minutes to play. Johnston off for Michael McCartney with Whelan going to the right, and Doran replaced by Stuart Shaw as we switched to a very attacking hybrid of a 3-4-3. It's a tactic that has served me so well in the past when I've needed a goal. But not today. McIlroy headed a cross wide, before Pelling's huge clearance down the park beat our high defensive line and offside trap, Bailie bringing it down, rounding Doherty and sidefooting home to put Wakehurst out of reach. For the first time this season, we have tasted defeat.

Wakehurst (2) 3 - David McConnell (10), Robert Bailie (38,78)
Coleraine (1) 1 - Andy McMillan (15)
Gerard Doherty; Ray Doran (Stuart Shaw 70), Declan O'Hara (inj - Ryan Young 45), Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston (Michael McCartney 70), Matty Robson; Andy McMillan, Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Chris Johnston 1, Gavin Whelan 64, Andy Dickinson 69
Possession :- 44% - 56%. Man of the Match :- Robert Bailie (Wakehurst).

That one was tough to take. Knowing we had actually played quite well. Knowing if we had scored that spot kick in first half injury time the game may well have been different. Knowing we have left points on the table against a club that we shouldn't be dropping points to, regardless of our current status, financial predicament etc etc. At least the damage is tempered. Across town at the much larger Ballymena Showgrounds, the home side and Limavady United play out a 2-2 draw. We've got away with one to a degree.

It is our first defeat in eleven games, halting our excellent start to the season. Few expected us to be where we are, with the media and the Board both predicting mid table obscurity. Some believe we have over achieved, and that this is the start of the slump. Not me. I think this result is the blip, and we will fight back. I believe we will still be in the Title race, and so do our fans.

Thursday 8th October
Pat McIlroy has been called up by Northern Ireland Under-21's for their UEFA European Under-21 Championship Group 2 Qualifier against Cyprus in Lisburn next week. It's a game with little significance for the Ulster lads, as they have lost their opening three fixtures and have almost zero chance of making it to the Finals in Russia in 2017.

Friday 9th October
Tomorrow afternoon is a local match between two clubs currently fighting at the sharp end of the table. We make the short trip to face Limavady United, the current First Division leaders, while we go into the weekend in fourth place. Despite that, and the fact that we lost last time out, the bookies have us as favourites for the win today.

Saturday 10th October
Our Under-18's kick off the day at The Showgrounds, and they get back on the winning track against Glenavon. Young striker Robbie Walsh had us in front from the penalty spot ten minutes into the second half, but the visitors were level in the 71st minute through Gary Paul. But Walsh scored a second of the game five minutes later to put our lads back in front, and a late red card for the visitors midfielder Ricky Wells made hanging on to all three points a much easier task. The win moves us back above Glenavon and into third place.

Northern Irish First Division
Limavady Showgrounds, Limavady
Limavady United v Coleraine
Attendance :-
308. Weather :- Breezy, 16c.

After trimming the wage bill, our squad depth isn't great, and it will be tested today, with both Ryan Young and Pat McIlroy away on International Duty and unavailable to us for this one. Tony Jones is available though, and he slots back in at right back, while Ray Doran takes Young's spot on the bench. Also back in the lineup is Stuart Shaw, who partners Andy McMillan up front, with Gerry Nixon back in the squad and on the substitutes bench.

Derby Day puts a few extra numbers on the attendance, and United came out looking for an early goal, Simon Turkington heading back across goal and wide from a deep cross, while Paul Anderson's shot on the turn from the edge of the box was well blocked. Sean Brennan got closer than both, his long range shot beat Gerard Doherty's dive, but came back off the cross bar. The theme of long range shots continued, Mark Bain striking one sweetly from a partly cleared corner, but it continued to rise and cleared the cross bar. It was midway through the first half before we got up the park, an inswinging Matty Robson free kick from the right found the head of Declan O'Hara, but somehow Jonathan McDowell got a hand to it and kept it out. Robson's follow up corner was spinning wickedly, and Richard Mason was taking a chance when he met it with a glancing header, which spun off his head and back towards his own goal, barely clearing the bar and landing on the roof of his own net. From that corner, Andy McMillan managed to pull the ball down, but his shot was charged down. Just after the half hour mark, Brennan earned himself a booking for kicking Keith Steenson up into the air in the centre circle. Steenson took the free kick quickly, McMillan played it from the edge of the box into the right channel for Chris Johnston, who shot across goal, the ball bouncing back off the upright and across the goalmouth, and Turkington took too long to decide how to deal with it, Stuart Shaw toe poking the ball away from him and into the bottom corner to put us in front. David Cleary earned himself a booking at a point in the game where it looked like United might lose control. Their attempt to claw their way back level from Anderson curled just over the goal frame.

We held our lead at the break, and Anderson curled another effort at an equaliser right after the restart, this one high and wide of the target as his luck in front of goal continued to be out. Midway through the half, McDowell made a second superb save of the game, once more from an inswinging Robson free kick from the right, this time no one got a touch until McDowell got a fingertip to the ball and tipped it over the bar at the very last second. Another long range effort from Bain couldn't find the target, and I made two changes to get us some fresh legs on the park. Gavin Whelan and Robson were substituted, Michael McCartney and Ryan Twist came on. We sank back slightly into a more defensive tactic at the same time. But we got caught, almost fatally. Steenson's pass back to O'Hara missed it's target, and sub Anthony O'Shea was through on goal, Doherty saving with his legs to keep us in front. The reprieve was brief, Denny Ford's corner found O'Shea's head, his effort blocked but Jason Travers hooked home the loose ball from ten yards out to square the match up. Now it was our turn to pour forward as United tried to retreat and cover up, Shaw chasing the ball down on the left and getting it into the box, Steenson letting it run to Ryan Twist, but his curling effort just missed the top corner. McMillan came off for Gerry Nixon, but we could only create one more chance in the final ten minutes, short and slick passing back and forth across the park got McCartney into space on the edge of the box, but his shot was wide, and we would have to make the short trip home with just a point in our pockets.

Limavady United (0) 1 - Jason Travers (74)
Coleraine (1) 1 - Stuart Shaw (32)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan (Michael McCartney 71); Chris Johnston, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 71); Stuart Shaw, Andy McMillan (Gerry Nixon 81).

Unused Substitutes :- Ray Doran, John Robertson.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 45% - 55%. Man of the Match :- Jason Travers (Limavady United).

A point isn't the end of the world by any means today, but I was certainly hoping we could hold on in that second half, and jump straight back into another string of wins after suffering our first loss of the season. As it is, we have at least prevented it from becoming a run of defeats, and with another game coming up quickly in midweek against a Carrick Rangers side we already hold wins over this season, we have another quick chance to return to winning ways.

While that was all going on, Ryan Young was out in Africa, starting for The Gambia, and winning his second full cap as he played the whole match. He actually had a pretty good game too, but it wouldn't be good enough. His nation lost 2-0 in Libreville to Gabon in front of almost 40,000 fans. The damage, as far as his side was concerned, was caused by one Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a 26 year old striker who is in his second year with Auxerre after a year that didn't go so well in Marseille. He now has 13 goals in 23 caps after his double strike today. But that isn't enough for Gabon either. Angola have won in Mauritania, and have leapfrogged the to the top of the Group to grab their spot in the Finals! That is a shame for Ryan, it would have been fabulous for the 18 year old to have a shot of being in a major International Finals. But for us as a club, it's better to have him available for Coleraine.

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Seasons Greetings to you readers. What a ridiculous year it's been. From my house to yours, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and for Christ's sake lets keep our fingers crossed for a happier New Year.
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Tuesday 13th October 2015
Tomorrow night is another chance to get back that winning feeling. We're winless in two, and our last success came away from home against tomorrow nights guests, Carrick Rangers. On that occasion it was in the League Cup, this time it's a League game, a competition where Rangers have won just two of their nine games to date. We're heavy favourites to win this one at The Showgrounds.

Wednesday 14th October

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Carrick Rangers
Attendance :-
239. Weather :- Dry, 11c.

Ryan Young is back from International duty in Africa, and is brought back into the matchday squad on the bench in place of Ray Doran in the only change from last time out. Pat McIlroy is unavailable as he is still away on International duty. We almost conceded the first real chance in the tenth minute, Darren McClelland stepping infield from left back and picking a pass to Paul Wilson just inside our box, but Andy Dickinson stepped into his path, and took the ball away to foil the attack. From there, we slowly started to suffocate our guests and take control of the game. Keith Steenson won the ball in the centre circle and sent Matty Robson into space on the left, his cross falling between our strikers. In quick order, a controlled volley by Gavin Whelan was no trouble for Ryan Hughes, before Andy McMillan sent a header wide, and Steenson followed him with a curler from the corner of the box that was also just wide. Stuart Shaw moved just too early and was flagged offside when Whelan played him in with a superbly weighted through ball, and Robson's swerving effort was off target. So we had to resort to one of our tried and tested methods late in the first half, Robson's corner, and Declan O'Hara climbed above Matt Stedman and headed home from close range to give us a half time lead.

As in control as we were, I was still keen to make sure my players knew they couldn't afford to switch off, Jason van Matre firing a warning shot free kick across goal five minutes after the restart. We soon settled back down though, McMillan firing across goal himself after good work down the right from Tony Jones and Chris Johnston. That would prove to be Johnston's last contribution, as he was forced off with a knock midway through the second half, Michael McCartney coming on with Whelan switching to a wide role. McClelland picked up a booking as Rangers tried to up the pace of the game, but that just left gaps at the back, McCartney picking out Whelan with acres of space, but his dipping shot landed on the roof of the net. Those gaps were further compounded with individual errors at the back for Rangers, miscommunication allowed Shaw to pinch the ball and walk in on goal, lifting the shot over Hughes, only to see it rattle the crossbar and bounce to safety. Late on, a Robson free kick picked out McMillan in the box, but he failed to keep his header at goal down. I made two separate late substitutions to run down the clock, Shaw replaced by Gerry Nixon, before Steenson was substituted for John Robertson. With seconds remaining, O'Hara did his bit to run down the clock, firstly pulling the shirt of van Matre as he tried to move forward, and then toe punting the ball right out of the ground when the free kick was awarded. He was maybe lucky to only get one yellow card and not two, but he was the game winner tonight!

Coleraine (1) 1 - Declan O'Hara (44)
Carrick Rangers (0) 0
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson © (John Robertson 90+2), Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston (inj - Michael McCartney 67), Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw (Gerry Nixon 90+1), Andy McMillan.
Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Declan O'Hara 90+4
Possession :- 57% - 43%. Man of the Match :- Declan O'Hara (Coleraine).

To be fair, we were far more convincing winners than the scoreline suggests, and we didn't allow Carrick a shot on target tonight, keeper Gerard Doherty earning one of the easier clean sheets that he'll get credited with in his career. Declan O'Hara was rock solid at the back, popped up with the late first half winner, and showed game management skills when he took one for the team late on to prevent Jason van Matre getting into a position where he could have created a chance.

We stay fourth, but are one of five teams all log jammed on 17 points now, though we have two games in hand on the three teams ahead of us, and one in hand on Distillery who are sat behind us. The only thing that stopped it being a pretty perfect evening was the news that Chris Johnston has suffered a twisted knee, and will be out for around a month, leaving us a little short handed on that right wing for the foreseeable future.

Saturday 17th October
Once again our First Team have no game today, but the Under-18's are in action in Group 1. They're held to a goalless draw at The Showgrounds by Institute, a result that keeps our youngsters in second place, but they are now six points behind Portadown with a third of the season played.

Monday 19th October
If proof were required of how dominant the performance at home to Carrick last week was, five of our players being named in the First Division Team of the Week seemed to back it up. Gerard Doherty was of course included, joined by Declan O'Hara, Stewart Devine, Matty Robson, and interestingly, Gavin Whelan. I say that as he has been getting a little bit of stick from some quarters, with the belief being that his performances have dropped off.

Tuesday 20th October
We can tick off one of our games in hand tomorrow night, with our last League game of October as we host Donegal Celtic at The Showgrounds. A win in this one will send us back to the top of the table, as long as Distillery don't win at Bangor by two more goals than we manage in the only other fixture of the night. It's been a really rough start to the season for Celtic, who have won only two of their opening nine, and drawn too many of the remaining games, leaving them sat in 11th place going into this match. They were slated to finish fourth, and their start has left Belfast born Paddy Kelly under pressure. Which is quite something as he has been in charge of them for over eight years. The bookies are not predicting a change in his clubs fortune tomorrow evening.

Wednesday 21st October

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Donegal Celtic
Attendance :-
222. Weather :- Dry, 13c.

The injury to Chris Johnston meant a change around was required for us tonight. Gavin Whelan moves from the centre of the park out to the right wing, with Michael McCartney taking the spot alongside Keith Steenson. Seventeen year old Colin Canning is summoned into the First Team Squad from the Under-18 side, with no suitable candidate found in the Reserves, and he takes a place on the substitutes bench. There he is joined by Pat McIlroy, who returns to the squad in place of Gerry Nixon. This game marks a 300th career League appearance for Matty Robson, and a 25th League outing in a Coleraine shirt for Declan O'Hara, though the first sixteen of those came well over a decade ago.

A very slow start to the game, with Celtic choking us in the last third of the park as they attempted to 'park the bus'. In fact, they did the job so well, that they almost caught us midway through the first half with a swift counter attack, Daniel Ball releasing David Curran into space, and he whipped in a curled shot that Gerard Doherty had to get fingertips to as it headed for the top corner. The corner created more problems for us, a huge goalmouth scramble only ended when Tony Jones hooked the ball clear. Gavin Whelan's lack of pace on the right wing was causing us issues getting into positions to send in our crosses. When he finally got a good matchup against striker Curran, his cross was poor, left back Stewart Devine retrieved it, but he didn't do much better, his cross was far too close to keeper Phil Straker who easily caught his cross. Another long range effort from Curran that was low on accuracy completed a first half that was low on quality chances, and quality in general to be fair.

There were stern words at the break, and we started the second half a bit better, winning a free kick just outside the box, Michael McCartney curling the ball around the wall, but failing to get the dip required to get the shot on target. A Tony Jones cross moments later found Whelan, but skipper Rab Kelly managed to block his effort to break the deadlock. After successfully keeping us out for over an hour, Celtic started to get a little more ambitious about what kind of point haul they could go home with this evening, and they started to come out of their shell a little. I made a pair of changes to try and improve our options in the last twenty minutes or so, Whelan and Andy McMillan replaced by teenage winger Colin Canning and Pat McIlroy. Five minutes later, Andy Dickinson and McCartney combined outside the box, and the latter slipped a pass into the box finding the feet of Canning. The youngster evaded sliding tackles from both Kelly and Aaron Brown, and Moore shoved him to the floor from behind, the ref letting play run on for a second, but when there was no advantage to be had, he pointed to the penalty spot. Jones has been lethal from the spot this season, and he was, well, spot on again here, drilling the ball low into the bottom corner, his fifth goal of the season, and the deadlock was finally broken. Jones was also happy to take a booking for the cause late on, unwilling to let speedy Adrian McCaffrey get away from him, and pulling the shirt of the forward in the 84th minute. Taking the warning, I opted to try and organise some more protection, McCartney coming off for John Robertson, who joined Keith Steenson in sitting in front of the back four, with the wingers also brought back a bit deeper, along with McIlroy, who we hoped would act as our 'out' to ensure the ball didn't come right back at us. That plan worked very well, as we managed to keep the ball well up the park for the most part, earning a few corners. We conceded a corner late on as well though, and had a moment of panic when Aaron Brown got his head to it, but he couldn't direct his effort on to the target, and we moved back up to the top of the table.

Coleraine (0) 1 - Tony Jones (76 pen)
Donegal Celtic (0) 0
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson, Michael McCartney (John Robertson 85); Gavin Whelan (Colin Canning 69), Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Andy McMillan (Pat McIlroy 69).
Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Tony Jones 84
Possession :- 53% - 47%. Man of the Match :- Andy Dickinson (Coleraine).

Our return to the top of the table was helped along by Distillery only managing a 1-1 draw at Bangor. We could have easily dropped a couple of points ourselves tonight. While Celtic didn't cause us too many problems going forward apart from that one excellent save by Gerard Doherty, they were solid at the back and for a long time it looked like we might not be able to find a way through. Enter Colin Canning, the 17 year old right winger who has been playing well in the Under-18's this season. He came on, and provided the spark, causing issues with his direct running and winning the penalty to took us back to the top of the First Division with Octobers fixtures now done. With the fans not loving Gavin Whelan right now, they're right behind the young local lad and his attempt to break into the First Team lineup.

2015/16 Northern Irish First Division Table, Up To & Including Wednesday 21st October 2015

| Pos   | Inf   | Team              |       | Pld   | Won   | Drn   | Lst   | For   | Ag    | G.D.  | Pts   |

| 1st   |       | Coleraine         |       | 9     | 6     | 2     | 1     | 12    | 7     | +5    | 20    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 2nd   |       | Distillery        |       | 10    | 4     | 6     | 0     | 11    | 7     | +4    | 18    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 3rd   |       | Limavady Utd      |       | 10    | 4     | 5     | 1     | 24    | 16    | +8    | 17    |
| 4th   |       | Ballymena Utd     |       | 10    | 4     | 5     | 1     | 17    | 11    | +6    | 17    |
| 5th   |       | Annagh Utd        |       | 10    | 4     | 5     | 1     | 16    | 10    | +6    | 17    |
| 6th   |       | Ards              |       | 9     | 4     | 2     | 3     | 8     | 10    | -2    | 14    |
| 7th   |       | Wakehurst         |       | 10    | 3     | 4     | 3     | 12    | 11    | +1    | 13    |
| 8th   |       | Carrick           |       | 10    | 2     | 6     | 2     | 7     | 6     | +1    | 12    |
| 9th   |       | Armagh            |       | 10    | 3     | 3     | 4     | 13    | 15    | -2    | 12    |
| 10th  |       | P.S.N.I.          |       | 10    | 3     | 2     | 5     | 9     | 11    | -2    | 11    |
| 11th  |       | Donegal Celtic    |       | 10    | 2     | 4     | 4     | 8     | 11    | -3    | 10    |
| 12th  |       | Banbridge         |       | 10    | 2     | 4     | 4     | 7     | 14    | -7    | 10    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 13th  |       | Bangor            |       | 10    | 1     | 3     | 6     | 10    | 16    | -6    | 6     |
| 14th  |       | Queens University |       | 10    | 0     | 3     | 7     | 4     | 13    | -9    | 3     |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

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Saturday 24th October 2015
At the Billy Neill Complex in Dundonald, our Under-18 side earn a very impressive 3-1 away win against a Glentoran side that went into the match just a point behind us in Group 1. We went ahead around the midway point of the first half through a Martin Friars goal, but we were a man down by the time we reached the break, Glenn Harbinson sent off for a professional foul. That could have caused us issues, but Joseph Nixon and Robbie Walsh netted late on, with only a few anxious moments in between when Stuart McClelland pulled one back. Well played lads!

Monday 26th October
There may not have been many games last week to make players eligible for the Team of the Week, but even so, seven players selected is quite some effort after that win against Donegal Celtic. Obviously Gerard Doherty was included, joined by Stewart Devine and Declan O'Hara in the defence, Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson and Michael McCartney in the midfield, and Stuart Shaw up front.

Tuesday 27th October
Team of the Week might be more difficult this week though, as we are preparing to welcome the Northern Irish Champions to our home at The Showgrounds, as Linfield will visit tomorrow evening in the First Leg of our League Cup Third Round tie. There are genuine concerns from the fans that should we get thumped, it could have a big impact on the morale of the team and their push for promotion back to the First Division. The more optimistic folks among our fan base are suggesting that being home in the First Leg gives us the opportunity to steal a win, and then park the bus in the return. You'd get good odds on that happening though, as we're 4/1 to win this one. The dangerman is considered to be Mark Miskimmon, a 26 year old Belfast born former Northern Irish Under-21 International who has spent his entire career at Linfield bar a loan spell at Larne as a youngster. He has scored 57 League goals in the last three season, and has already added eight this season, during which he has eleven goals in sixteen games in all competitions.

Wednesday 28th October

Northern Irish League Cup, Third Round, First Leg
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Linfield
Attendance :-
240. Weather :- Wet, 7c.

In front of a disappointingly average crowd, on a wet night, and in a competition that the footfall suggests nobody really cares for, we make just a couple of changes from last time out, a hard fought win here against Donegal Celtic. With Gavin Whelan still deputising on the right wing, and the visitors being the nations best team right now, I go for a pair of defensive minded midfielders in the middle of the park, with John Robertson joining Keith Steenson. Up front, Pat McIlroy is back in the team, replacing Andy McMillan, who joins Michael McCartney amongst our options from the substitutes bench. Plenty of respect shown by the visitors, who field the strongest lineup they have available.

It has a blistering start to the match, with our cross bar rattled inside two minutes, full back Gareth Porter dispossessing Matty Robson and taking the ball down the right, before picking out Mark Miskimmon, who laid the ball off to Rhys Devlin, his 20 yard shot thundering back off the goal frame. That would prove to be only a reprieve, and the trouble was of our own making. Andy Dickinson was man of the match last time out, but he smashed his clearance right against team mate John Robertson, and the ball fell to Jack Brown, who fired it into the roof of the net before Declan O'Hara could get to him. That goal brought the pace of the game right down, and that suited us. As we approached the twenty minute mark, Tony Jones made ground down our right, and then pinged a low cross into the feet of an unmarked Robson, his low finish brought out a great reflex save from Jordan Taylor. Moments later, Robson was involved again, a corner coming back out to him on the right, and his whipped cross found Stuart Shaw at the far post, and his downward header was guided between the defenders and Taylor, and we were back level. But parity was short lived for us, as we again failed to clear the danger, and Michael Constable found skipper Michael Gault who was still up the park from the set piece. His shot took a deflection that looped it over Gerard Doherty and into the net! With Devlin sending a free kick wide, and then Pat McIlroy lifting a shot over the target, chances were being exchanged. But one side was taking theirs, and Brown nodded the ball down to Miskimmon in the 38th minute, who was goal side of Dickinson and drove a low shot under Doherty's dive and into the bottom corner to make it 3-1. And our visitors ended the half as they had begun it, Miskimmon spinning away from his marker and sending in a shot that had Doherty beat, but hit the angle of the goal frame and stayed out.

We hadn't actually played too badly, but Linfield had showed a real cutting edge to take a two goal advantage, and we had some serious work to do now. We started quickly with that in mind, a volleyed cross by Stewart Devine picked out McIlroy, his shot was blocked, but it rolled into the path of Gavin Whelan who stung Taylor's hands with a well struck shot that the keeper pushed to safety. That had our heads up, and McIlroy curled a shot wide before Jones won the ball in his own box with a tackle, and set us away on a counter attack. He found Whelan on halfway, and he moved away from Devlin and down the right, picking out McIlroy in the right channel of the box. The strikers first touch was beautiful to take the ball away from Ole Petersen, and his second touch was a shot driven across goal, beyond Taylor, and inside the far post to reduce the arrears just five minutes into the second half. Jonathan Harkness drove a free kick wide, and Brown's downward header was right at Doherty as Linfield tried to restore that lead, but it was McIlroy who came closest to scoring next, a powerful shot on the turn needed to be tipped over the top by Taylor. It was then Shaw's turn to try his luck, just missing the top corner with a curler before I made a change, Michael McCartney coming on for Keith Steenson as we looked to attack a little more and have someone who could help us with that in the midfield. It worked too, and within five minute the sub twisted between two Linfield players, and then threaded a diagonal pass into the box that cut out the defence and found Robson, who buried his low driven shot past Taylor's dive and inside the near post to bring us back level against the odds. Our guests looked shocked, and things didn't appear to be going their way when they then lost Devlin to an injury, Petersen going off at the same time as they attempted to make it an attacking change. It seemed to be working too, Constable's driven shot from 25 yards out was only just wide, and then another effort from similar range was pushed over by Doherty. If their ambition was to force us into a retreat, it worked, as we quickly reshuffled into a more defensive outlook, which seemed to satisfy our guests, as they didn't pose too much threat of their own at this point. We almost caught them late on though, Robson cutting infield after a corner came back to him, and he cracked a shot off the outside of the near post with Taylor stranded. Three apiece, and the Second Leg will still provide us with a chance to cause an upset.

Coleraine (1) 3 - Stuart Shaw (25), Pat McIlroy (50), Matty Robson (62)
Linfield (3) 3 - Jack Brown (7), Michael Gault (31), Mark Miskimmon (38)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; John Robertson, Keith Steenson © (Michael McCartney 57); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Pat McIlroy.

Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, Colin Canning, Ryan Twist, Andy McMillan.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 54% - 46%. Man of the Match :- Matty Robson (Coleraine).

Matty Robson's form in the Cup games this season has been bordering on the sensational. He now has three goals and five assists in five Cup matches, compared to just two assists in eight League outings. The difference in average rating between the two is almost a point, and with his contract due to expire next summer, he is attracting interest from Linfield themselves.

That could be a very interesting turn of events. Manager at the Belfast club is David Jeffrey, a 53 year old who played at the club after being a youngster at Manchester United in the late 70's. He's approaching his 19th anniversary as Linfield's man in charge, winning three League Titles and eleven Cups in that time span. He has also spent almost £1.5 million on transfers, and that includes a club record £725,000 outlay on Michael Constable from Bolton Wanderers, a show of the financial might they have in the Premier Division. It does make you wonder why they might want Robson, but Jeffrey tells the press that he is thankful that for now, his club don't have to face players of the left wingers quality every week. My initial thoughts are that if that's the case, surely it wouldn't be smart to let him leave The Showgrounds for nothing?

Friday 30th October
The Cup action continues as we round out the month of October tomorrow afternoon, and we visit a team that were very much a rival for me and my Lurgan Celtic side in the early seasons of my career, as we take on Harland & Wolff Welders in the First Round of the Northern Irish Intermediate Cup. This is a competition where many expect me to play a heavily rotated side, but that won't be the case. I want us to win as much silverware as we can this season, and I'm not prepared to pass up an opportunity.

The Welders are not expected to provide too much opposition for us here, they're having it tough in the Second Division with just two wins from eight games, and only a point above the relegation zone. Their main issue is that they don't score enough goals, averaging just one a game in the League. But they don't concede too many either, with only nine going past them in those same eight games. As you would expect, we are the heavy favourites to progress.

Saturday 31st October

Northern Irish Intermediate Cup, First Round
Tillysburn Park, Belfast
Harland & Wolff Welders v Coleraine
Attendance :-
197. Weather :- Breezy, Drizzle, 8c.

Just one change is made from the midweek home game against Linfield, and that involved Gavin Whelan returning to his midfield position in place of John Robertson who returns to the bench, and Colin Canning is brought into the starting lineup on the right wing, which will be a first ever start for the 17 year old hometown lad. Gerry Nixon replaces Andy McMillan on the subs bench.

The conditions were tricky, with the wind swirling and the rain coming down, but that was no excuse for how poorly we started, with tackles missed and the passing poor. It was H&W's only summer signing Charlie Beckett who was trying to benefit, an early sighter was high and wide, but an 8th minute driven effort beat Gerard Doherty and came back off the inside of the post before being cleared. Doherty would have to make a save moments later when Patrick Whitten got inside our defence, his shot aimed inside the post, Doherty managing to push it wide. Beckett was confident enough to have another try, a superb strike from 25 yards out that Doherty didn't get near, but once again his luck was out, as the ball came back down off the underside of the bar before being hacked clear. The Welders were sensing an upset and were pumped up for this now, a little too much so for Jamie Dickinson, who picked up a booking in an incident that saw Pat McIlroy injured and forced off the park, Gerry Nixon coming on in his place. Thomas Drummond sent a free kick just over the bar, before Charlie Beckett found himself in space from range again, trying to find the top corner this time, but just missing the target. Goalless at the break.

That might have been one of the worst halves of football we had played for a long time, and we needed to buck our ideas up to stop ourselves being on the end of an upset. But Doherty had to make another save quickly after the restart, Dickinson trying to pick the bottom corner out, Doherty getting enough on it to stop it, before diving on the loose ball. But ten minutes after the restart, everything swung around in a second. Doherty sent a long clearance up the park, Gerry Nixon won his header and flicked the ball on, and Stuart Shaw got goalside of young defender Oliver Jones. The Welders lad grabbed a handful of our strikers shirt, dragging him to the floor outside the box, but earning himself a straight red card for his troubles. The home side were furious, adamant that it shouldn't have been a sending off, but there was little doubt to be fair. Whitten was sacrificed to allow Gary Kerr to come on in the defence. Stewart Devine tried to ram home our advantage, but he blasted his free kick right into the defensive wall. A little after the hour, a long throw in from Tony Jones was flicked on by Nixon, but sub Kerr just managed to nod it away from Shaw when he looked certain to score. A deep cross by Jones was then recovered by Devine, and he picked out Nixon at the far post, but his downward header was right at keeper Billy Lumley when a yard either side would've left him helpless. The Welders were now defending from deep, and we were knocking at the door but unable to find a way through, a late shot from Nixon was well over in our last chance to avoid the Extra Time period.

I made changes for the extra half hour, Gavin Whelan and Matty Robson replaced by Michael McCartney and Ryan Twist. We should have gone in front with our first real chance of the extra session, Jones finding Nixon in space down the right, and the forward went the long way around and into the box, cutting the ball back from the byline to find Ryan Twist who was in the box off his wing, but he scuffed his shot wide of the target. Into the second half of the extra half hour, and penalties were looking almost inevitable. With five minutes to play, Devine was in an advanced position down the left, his attempted cross partially blocked behind for a corner. Jones came across to take it, and sent it right under the cross bar, where Declan O'Hara muscled his way into position, and powered home a header from barely inches out to finally break the Welders hearts!

Harland & Wolff Welders (0) 0
Coleraine (0) 1
-
Declan O'Hara (115)
(after Extra Time, 0-0 after ninety minutes)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan (Michael McCartney 90); Colin Canning, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 90); Stuart Shaw, Pat McIlroy (inj - Gerry Nixon 28).

Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, John Robertson.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 45% - 55%. Man of the Match :- Declan O'Hara (Coleraine).

A win is a win I suppose, but that was a fairly rotten performance, and had it not been for 19 year old Oliver Jones getting his marching orders after failing to get tight enough on Stuart Shaw, I wouldn't like to say if we would have come through that one. It could be argued that Jamie Dickinson should've been sent off before him, his tackle on Pat McIlroy was a late and unnecessary one, and bruised the ribs of the striker, who will now miss a couple of weeks of action.

The draw for the Second Round of the competition is made later in the evening, and once again we are drawn away, and again it's a bit of a banana skin tie, as we are paired with amateur non-League side Abbey Villa at their Adams Park home, a tie that takes place three weeks today.

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Sunday 1st November
November is shaping up to a be a strange month, as we have two League games scheduled for the opening week of the month, and then no more for the remainder as Cup football will then take over. With only one League game scheduled for December as it stands too, I am a little concerned that we might lose the momentum we have been building up, as it will be now be January before we reach the halfway point of the First Division. I'm only making the second League game this month thanks to an earlier kick off time in India at the end of this week, and a flight right back to Belfast to return for the League match.

I miss out on Manager of the Month again, with Distillery boss Bryan McLoughlin the winner for October with three wins and two draws from five League matches in the month. I'm placed third, with Ards manager Jeff Martin named as the Runner-Up. We face Ards this Wednesday night.

The Board remain satisfied with the job I'm doing at The Showgrounds, that's despite me refusing to rule myself out of the Derby County job when asked about it at a press conference with the pressure mounting further on Jim Harvey after they have dropped down to eighth place in the Blue Square Premier. They are happy with the signing and subsequent form of Declan O'Hara, though less enamoured with the First Division defeat against Wakehurst. Still no mention of the finances, with a further £10,000 leaving the club over the month. The debt right now, for all intents and purposes, is £300,000. No one seems the slightest bit concerned.

Tuesday 3rd November
We play the first of two League games in four days tomorrow night, our entire First Division schedule for November, and I'm going out to India and back in between them. It's a trip into Ballyclare for the first game of the week, and once we get there we'll face hosts Ards, who come into the game in sixth place. That is a slight overachievement on the place predicted by the media for them, and is not too bad at all considering they have a very young squad, with only half a dozen players in their 20's, and no one older than 26. Their star man this season is 6'2 striker Niall McMenamin, an 18 year old who is their top scorer, and ironically is the only player who wants to leave the club at the moment.

Wednesday 4th November

Northern Irish First Division
Dixon Park, Ballyclare
Ards v Coleraine
Attendance :-
319. Weather :- Dry, 7c.

This is our game in hand, but after extra time on the weekend, I'm going to have to be careful with my limited squad depth. Gavin Whelan reverts back into the right wing tonight, with Michael McCartney brought into the midfield and Colin Canning back amongst the substitutes. Up front, it's the fresher Andy McMillan who is brought into the starting lineup to replace the injured Pat McIlroy. The club captain Keith Steenson today makes his 50th Career Senior League appearance, all of them for his hometown club.

With just minutes on the clock, Stuart Shaw positioned himself in front of Mike Riley to try and get himself onto a Matty Robson long throw, Shaw feeling he was shoved to the floor, the ref not agreeing with him this time. We would get our clear opportunity in the 8th minute though. Ards had played some precise passing, and they attempted the killer one to get Niall McMenamin into the box. But Tony Jones picked off the pass, and didn't consider any finesse when he thumped the ball down the park and over the heads of their centre backs. Who it turned out were not there for their pace. Teen striker Andy McMillan is a big lad, but he has a long stride, and he got between the pair, and in on goal, slotting his shot past Steve Sinton's dive and putting us in front. Ards would reply by immediately by going to a much more attacking formation, despite already being caught on the counter attack once. And it was the latter that looked more likely, on the half hour a cross from Shaw picked out Michael McCartney who couldn't find room for a shot, and sent it back wide to Matty Robson, a cross aimed at McMillan was punched over his own cross bar by Sinton. A few minutes later we saw Stewart Devine suffer a knock as he got into a tussle with Craig Kennedy as he tried to prevent an Ards attack. He made it through to the break though, and so did we.

Devine's knock wasn't enough to stop him reappearing for the second half, but while he hadn't disappeared, our lead almost did, full back Peter Holmes finding John Kirk who hit a first time shot from distance that had Gerard Doherty beat, but came back off the cross bar and back into the arms of the grateful goalkeeper. On the hour mark, home skipper Ryan Newberry was played into the right channel of the box, he got to the byline and cut it back for his strikers to walk onto, but Keith Steenson was there to send the ball out to safety. Five minutes later Robson cut infield from the left, and he picked out Shaw on the edge of the box, the striker not appreciating how much time he had, and taking a quick shot that was over the bar. Midway through the half, we got an even better chance, Gavin Whelan sending over a corner and McMillan got on the end of it, but also got underneath his header and that was also over the goal frame. Kyle Catney's shot from range didn't improve Ards fortunes, it was a powerfully struck effort, but it was wide. With fifteen minutes to play, Devine could go on no longer. I'd been avoiding taking him off as we had no natural left back option to replace him, and Ryan Young would come off the bench to replace him and try to help us see out the game while out of position, with McCartney coming off for John Robertson at the same time. At this point, my inclination was to go more defensive, but I resisted. Moments later we had a chance to put the outcome beyond doubt, Steenson sending the ball left, and Robson picked out Shaw in the box around 15 yards out, Shaw keeping the shot down this time and driving it towards goal, Sinton flinging himself right to get hands on it and keep it out. In the 81st minute, a cross that should've been easily cleared was allowed to find it's way through to John Rankine, fortunately a defender and not a striker, he went for power and not precision and Doherty stood firm. The ball was cleared down the park, and McMillan chased it. Nowhere near as successfully as his early first half chase, as this time the hometown lad pulled a hamstring in the sprint, and once more I had to decide if I was going to go more defensively. Logic made the decision for me, as I only had wingers and strikers left on the bench, so stayed like for like and brought on Gerry Nixon. The Scottish striker would get a few touches, but that would be enough, as we pinned Ards into their own half throughout the injury time period.

Ards (0) 0
Coleraine (1) 1
-
Andy McMillan (8)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine (Ryan Young 75); Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney (John Robertson 75); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Andy McMillan (inj - Gerry Nixon 81).

Unused Substitutes :- Colin Canning, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 45% - 55%. Man of the Match :- Stewart Devine (Coleraine).

We're now starting to grind some of these wins out, and I am absolutely fine with that. I'm sure the fans would like to see more attractive football, but I'm sure they'd like to see top flight football more, and after this win and with all the First Division clubs hitting the ten game mark now, we are five points clear at the top, with a Derby Day to look forward to on Saturday afternoon against fourth placed Ballymena United in our last League game of the month. With no more First Division games scheduled for six weeks after the weekend's round of games, a win would guarantee us going into Christmas and the New Year at the top of the pile.

We might yet have Andy McMillan back by then too. The 18 year old scored his fourth goal in all competitions to get us the win, but a pulled hamstring is confirmed, and he is now out for around the six week mark. With Pat McIlroy out already and very unlikely to be back for the weekend, we are going to be short on options up front for that Local Derby. We'll go into it with three successive League wins behind us and unbeaten at home this season in all competitions, including four wins from four in the League.

But before that, I've got to dash off to India for another very important game there............

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Thursday 5th November 2015
Northern Irish domestic football has gone international, for one day only. After arriving in India following last nights victory away to Ards, I do my press conference for the weekend Derby match with Ballymena United a day earlier than usual, and from the sub continent, as we'll be playing a huge International match at the time it would normally be done.

With three straight wins, and home advantage, we'll go into the match as narrow favourites, priced at a very backable 5/4. I told the press that my players are straining at the leash for Saturday's big game, and that I have every faith in their ability to thrive under the pressure that comes with these occasions.

There was some fanning of the Bonfire Night flames from my opposite number too, as United manager Eddie Patterson stated that while he knew how good a side we were, he knew that a result was crucial for United to keep themselves in the promotion hunt. Given the right to reply, I burned some more wood on the fire, stating that I'd never really considered United as credible promotion contenders. Burn!

Saturday 7th November
Derby Day, and a double header for the fans. It starts with a late morning kick off in Ballymena for the Under-18's match. Left back Lee Mooney puts us ahead just after the half hour mark, but the pressure after the break from United was huge, and they managed to turn the game around, Emmett Hughes and Mark Foster scoring for the hosts to earn them a win that puts them into seventh spot in Under-18's Group 1, while we remain in second place. First blood in the Derby to United then, but can they repeat that in the main event?

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Ballymena United
Attendance :-
266. Weather :- Dry, 6c.

Six degrees isn't exactly chilly as the early signs of autumn giving way to winter arriving in Northern Ireland, but it certainly feels cold after spending yesterday afternoon in near 40 degrees heat in a stadium with well over on hundred thousand people inside. With Andy McMillan joining our missing striker options, it's Gerry Nixon who gets the call to start up front with Stuart Shaw this afternoon, our only change to the starting lineup from the win in midweek at Ards. The shortage of available forwards means a potential debut for sixteen year old six footer Martin Friars, who's good form for the Under-18 side sees him called up for bench duty with the Seniors today. This is my 300th career game as a Manager.

Despite being the home side, we are forced to change into our all yellow strip today, and it was the Sky Blues of United who made the more promising start to the game, forward Tim Porter going on a mazy run that found him on the right side of our box, and he drove in a cross that Nigel McClelland couldn't quite get a touch on to turn it goalwards. That would be the highlight of a quiet opening spell that saw the ball spend a lot of time in the air, though Porter did almost get in through the centre, Andy Dickinson there quickly to block his route to goal. There were 25 minutes on the clock before we had our first sight of the target, only just though, Michael McCartney skipping away from a tackle in midfield and guiding a pass to the feet of Stuart Shaw, but on his weaker left foot, the shot was wayward. We were certainly starting to gain the upper hand now, and Matty Robson picked out Shaw in acres of space, the striker squaring a pass to Gerry Nixon who tried his luck from range, a shot that just missed the target. It turned out that one was just a range finder. On the half hour McCartney picked out Nixon, and 25 yards out, he rolled his marker before sending an unstoppable curling shot inside the near post to open the scoring! Porter sent another off target as United attempted to hit right back, and then drove another shot right at Gerard Doherty after Adam Tann played him into space in the box. A free kick on the edge of the box was also then wasted by United as Gareth Mercer failed to get the required dip on his shot, as we went into the dressing rooms for the break a goal to the good, despite our visitors having had the best of the match so far.

McCartney took a knock late in that first half, but he did continue into the second half, where we come out determined to get a quick second goal. Nixon held the ball up on the right, and fed it to Shaw. The strikers effort at goal was blocked, the ball rebounding out to the feet of McCartney, who's first time shot was pushed back into the goalmouth by keeper Bobby Collins, where Nixon swept it against the far post and out to safety. On the hour, Nixon had another go, this time with a header from a Tony Jones cross that Collins turned around the post. It was at this point I made two of my changes, not entirely voluntarily either. McCartney could go no further, and neither could Dickinson who had also taken a whack. Ryan Young and John Robertson came on in their place, and the latter immediately played a through ball into the box that Shaw hit against the outside of the near post on it's way wide. The game was now opening up and becoming a free for all, which didn't necessarily suit us at this point. Porter continued to shoot on sight, the latest effort just high and wide, while at the other end, Shaw won a fifty fifty challenge and got the ball wide to Gavin Whelan, who's low cross picked out Nixon in the middle, but he dragged his shot wide! Inside the final twenty minutes, and United were going on the attack with two changes to that effect too. They were leaving gaps though, and first Shaw shanked a shot wide, before Nixon saw a powerful header acrobatically turned over the bar. Stewart Devine was now limping a bit, but even though we had one sub left, we didn't have a defender left on the bench, and unwilling to make a big shake up at this point, he soldiered on for us. That sub was eventually used late on, with Martin Friars coming on for a Senior Debut in place of Shaw. At the back Ryan Young was doing a great job, making a last ditch challenge to prevent Porter having yet another go after he got past Declan O'Hara. Then in the final minute of the ninety, Collins tried to launch the ball up the park, but he didn't get the right connection. Robertson brought the ball down on halfway and sent Friars in on the shoulder of the last defender. And what composure from the sixteen year old, as he cut across the defender to prevent him pinching the ball, and then unselfishly squared to Robson, who side footed the ball into the empty net to seal the deal!

Coleraine (1) 2 - Gerry Nixon (30), Matty Robson (90)
Ballymena United (0) 0
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson (inj - Ryan Young 60), Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney (inj - John Robertson 60); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw (Martin Friars 86), Gerry Nixon.
Unused Substitutes :- Colin Canning, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 54% - 46%. Man of the Match :- Gerry Nixon (Coleraine).

Ahhhhhh, now that felt great to get by our most bitter of rivals! Gerry Nixon was involved in everything this afternoon, seizing his chance to play after falling down the pecking order a bit this season. And what about young Martin Friars, what a cool head he showed in his brief cameo at the end to set up Matty Robson.

But, it wasn't a victory without sacrifice. Michael McCartney suffered a damaged heel that will keep him out for a few weeks, whilst Andy Dickinson has gashed leg that will mean he is likely sidelined for the rest of the month. Neither is an absolute disaster, as we only have two Cup games remaining this month, a League Cup Third Round return against Linfield, and an Intermediate Cup Second Round tie away to Abbey Villa.......

.....actually, add one more to that. The draw has just been made for the Fourth Round of the Northern Irish Cup, and what does the draw through up as a twist? Yep, we're drawn at home to Ballymena United, so we get to do all this again in three weeks time.

The added injury issues are an annoyance, though there is at least a little bit of good news for our increasingly threadbare squad, with Chris Johnston passed fit to return to training next week.

Sunday 8th November
With Pat McIlroy only days away from a return to training, he receives the call up from Northern Ireland Under-21 manager Steve Beaglehole for their double header of home fixtures in the UEFA 2017 European Under-21 Championships Qualifiers against Greece and Denmark, which will both be played in Lisburn.

Monday 9th November
Obviously we know that Gerard Doherty will be included in the First Division Team of the Week. But the mystery is finding out who joins him. This week it is left back Stewart Devine, and striker Gerry Nixon.

Tuesday 10th November
Our League obligations for November are now over, almost for the year in fact. It's Cup football that will now come to the forefront, starting with the most difficult tie of the lot. We'll travel into the Capital tomorrow, a trip to the National Stadium of Windsor Park in Belfast for our return game of the Third Round League Cup tie with Linfield. We came out of the First Leg with a very credible three all draw, but we are 10/1 shots for the return. We might well need more than the luck of the Irish to reach the Quarter-Finals here.

Wednesday 11th November

Northern Irish League Cup, Third Round, Second Leg
Windsor Park, Belfast
Linfield v Coleraine (3-3 on aggregate)
Attendance :-
456. Weather :- Dry, 11c.

Two injuries from the win against Ballymena on the weekend mean changes tonight. Ryan Young gets a first start since joining the club, replacing Andy Dickinson at centre back, while in midfield Michael McCartney is also now on the sidelines, with John Robertson selected for a defensive looking partnership with Keith Steenson. Both Chris Johnston and Pat McIlroy return, though neither is considered fit enough to start, not that I wasn't tempted with Johnston, who I'd like to have started on the right and move Gavin Whelan into the centre. There are further repercussions of the injuries, with Robert Donaghy brought into the matchday squad, along with 18 year old midfielder Gary Campbell, a Youth product who hasn't yet made his Senior First Team debut.

That defensive looking midfield creaked in the early part of the game, and then crumbled as early on as the 12th minute. Skipper Keith Steenson was outnumbered in the middle of the park by Mark Miskimmon and Rhys Devlin. The latter sent winger Nathan Fearon into space, and his cross from the right landed perfectly for Warren Featherstone to half volley home from 15 yards out, and we find ourselves behind in the tie. Having put the hosts in front, the winger almost doubled the Linfield lead moments later, the ball falling to him from a corner, Gerard Doherty saving the close range effort with his feet. Stewart Devine got booked as we looked like we were about to be over run, Miskimmon sending a shot from range well over the bar. Michael Constable sent his shot from range wide of the target, while Miskimmon fared no better with a header from a very narrow angle. It had been one way traffic, but we had managed to limit the damage in the first half.

The second half didn't look like it was going to be any different, Constable sending in an early shot from distance that again missed the target. Moments after that, Ole Petersen's cross from the left found Miskimmon, this time he passed up the chance to shoot and laid the ball off to Devlin, who's shot was fielded fairly easily by Doherty. The same combination had another go, Miskimmon cutting the ball back to Devlin on the edge of the box, but he scooped that one well over the bar. Left winger Mervyn Wilson had two cracks at getting a cross over, and when they both got blocked he decided to try and catch Doherty out himself, the keeper only just getting across goal to stop the ball going inside the near post. There was nothing the keeper could do as the hour approached though, Featherstone finding Miskimmon and the striker turned inside one defender, faked to shoot to work his way past another, and then performed the same trick on Doherty, the keeper going down to save a shot that didn't come, and he rounded him before sending in his finish to make it two-nil. With our backs firmly against the ropes, we came out swinging, John Robertson flicking on a long ball up the park, Stuart Shaw touching it on for Gavin Whelan, but the winger blazed his effort over the bar. But we weren't giving up, and with just over a quarter of an hour to play Devine sent the ball down the left wing for Matty Robson, the winger cutting infield to wrong foot his marker, and then picking out Shaw in the box, and the striker drove home his shot to reduce the arrears and bring us back into the game. Now it was a completely different game, and Devine picked up a cross field ball from Tony Jones and made enough space for a cross, Robson sending it goalwards and keeper Ryan Walsh turning it away. With two more goals needed, we went for broke. Jones and Robertson were replaced by the returning Chris Johnston and Pat McIlroy for the final stages. The chances didn't fall our way though, and while we put up a great fight, we are out of the League Cup.

Linfield (1) 2 - Warren Featherstone (12), Mark Miskimmon (59)
Coleraine (0) 1 - Stuart Shaw (74)
(Linfield win 5-4 on aggregate)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones (Chris Johnston 83), Declan O'Hara, Ryan Young, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, John Robertson (Pat McIlroy 83); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Gerry Nixon.
Unused Substitutes :- Roberty Donaghy, Gary Campbell, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Stewart Devine 25
Possession :- 46% - 54%. Man of the Match :- Mark Miskimmon (Linfield).

It's always disappointing to get beat and knocked out of a Cup. But Linfield are one of the best domestically, so there's no disgrace in being beaten by the odd goal in nine over two games against them. The way things are going this season with the halfway point just a game away, it could be that this was a dress rehearsal for next season. If that turns out to be the case, we might not be in bad shape for a return to the top tier, provided the financial situation that has gradually got worse throughout the year, doesn't suddenly become an issue.

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Friday 13th November 2015
Pat McIlroy has this evening earned his ninth cap for Northern Ireland Under-21's, starting and playing the full ninety minutes in the goalless draw with Greece Under-21's in Lisburn.

Tuesday 17th November
After winning his ninth cap at Under-21 level last Friday, it's now into double figures for Pat McIlroy as he wins his 10th cap in the 2-0 defeat at home to Denmark. This time it was as a substitute, coming on just after the hour to replace 17 year old Derry City prospect Keith Armstrong

Friday 20th November
Our run of Cup action continues tomorrow afternoon, where we will be nailed on favourites for the Intermediate Cup Second Round tie that will see us travel to face non-League side Abbey Villa. And I really do mean nailed on favourites, you can get 50/1 on our hosts, which are ridiculous odds in a two horse race. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to a good outing from my players to help me put last weekend in Malaysia out of my mind!

Saturday 21st November

Northern Irish Intermediate Cup, Second Round
Adams Park, Millisle
Abbey Villa v Coleraine
Attendance :-
177. Weather :- Wet, 4c.

We head to the far east of the nation, and the village of Millisle, one of the closest spots of Northern Ireland to the UK mainland, and the home of non-League side Abbey Villa who host this Intermediate Cup tie this afternoon. After ten days without a game, and without another for a week, there's no reason to weaken the team today, are there are no changes from the starting lineup or matchday squad from the defeat against Linfield last time out.

It was obvious from the outset that we were several levels above Villa, as time and again we pinched possession from them easily, and John Robertson should've put us ahead very early, but tried to be too precise with his finish. Gerry Nixon had the next chance, firing over after Gavin Whelan cushioned the ball down for him. The big Scottish striker would miss two more quick chances too, sending a shot on the turn over, before he was played in by Stuart Shaw only to see keeper Michael Grant block his attempt to slot the ball by the keeper. He turned out to be much better at setting up his partner, and in the 20th minute he picked out Shaw with a low cross along the edge of the box, and Shaw kept his shot low to pick out the bottom corner to put us ahead. And now we were off and running, from the kick off defender Simon Adair miscontrolled, Shaw robbed the ball from him, and played Nixon in to return the favour, the big lad rounding Grant and netting our second within a minute. Our purple patch would continue ten minutes later, a rare Villa excursion up the park was snuffed out, and Tony Jones sent the pass left to Matty Robson. The winger made good ground, before picking out Shaw against a slower defender, the striker getting into the box before lifting his shot over the onrushing Grant to make it three. Fair play to the young Villa side, they didn't let their heads drop, and did hit right back this time. Andy Steele stood up a cross from the left edge of the box to the far post, Kevin Marks headed it back across goal, where the ball just kind of stopped on the heavy pitch, which was perfect for early substitute Kyle Devlin, as he thumped it home from close range to get the non-League side on the board. Shaw should have extended our lead before the break, Nixon flicking the ball on to send him through, but it just wouldn't sit for him on the poor playing surface, and his effort was easy for Grant to deal with.

With everything pretty well under control at the break, it was really just a case of making sure the players didn't hit the snooze button. Shaw didn't need any encouraging, as he picked up a booking soon after the restart for an over zealous and unnecessary tackle inside the Villa half. Shaw took his frustration out on the ball, hitting a 20 yarder on the bounce and almost finding the Irish Sea with it. Villa were now a bit more street wise to our ways, and the chances were not quite as plentiful as they had been in the first half. Not to say there were none though, Robertson guided a through ball into the path of Shaw, who checked his run to earn a yard from the defender, then just missed the target with a right footed effort. Just after the hour mark, I emptied the subs bench, making all three at the same time, Robertson, Robson and Nixon coming off to be replaced by Chris Johnston, Ryan Twist and Pat McIlroy as we tried and get some more players a bit of game time. Predictably, that ruined the flow of the game, not that it mattered too much to us. Pat McIlroy managed to get his head to a Tony Jones cross, but that one just looped over the bar, the best late effort we created, while Villa did level up the count on bookings, Stuart Harris complaining to long and loudly for a penalty after what he felt was a foul by Declan O'Hara. A comfortable afternoons work, and we move into Round Three.

Abbey Villa (1) 1 - Kyle Devlin (34)
Coleraine (3) 3 - Stuart Shaw (20,33), Gerry Nixon (21)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Ryan Young, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, John Robertson (Chris Johnston 62); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 62); Stuart Shaw, Gerry Nixon (Pat McIlroy 62).

Unused Substitutes :- Robert Donaghy, Gary Campbell.
Bookings :- Stuart Shaw 47
Possession :- 35% - 65%. Man of the Match :- Stuart Shaw (Coleraine).

So we may have got soaked out on the East Coast, but we return home with progress in a Cup that our Reserve side won a few times in the 1960's, but otherwise we had never won until 2013. There's a shortage of silverware with my name on it, after a couple of laden years in my first stint in Ulster with Lurgan Celtic, I'm hoping I am at the right club to start putting some more Winner's Medals on the mantelpiece now. Certainly the draw for Round Three is kind to us, as we're drawn at home to Newington YC. They're currently sat in middle table in the Second Division, which is a second consecutive season for them at that level for the first time since the save began. We'll host them in that tie at The Showgrounds on Boxing Day.

There is more good news today, with our still slim looking squad depth boosted with the news that midfielder Michael McCartney will be back in training from Monday. The 26 year old is in his first season with the club, and while he has been mostly used from the bench, he has still appeared in 17 fixtures so far this season in all competitions.

Tuesday 24th November
We are hurtling towards the end of the calendar year, and while we are not quite at the halfway point of the season, I do have to start planning for what next season may bring. A large group of my Squad have contracts that are due to end next season, and with no idea what Division we will be playing in, though hopeful it will be the Premier Division, and also no clue where we will be with the finances, I need to start locking some of the better players into the club. I start with one to test the water, and Tony Jones is absolutely on the list of players we'd want to keep. The right back earns £200 a week right now, and while I'd like to cut the wages of some that I still want to keep, Jones does receive an offer of a two year extension on the same terms. Should we get promoted, that would be a net pay rise, as most players do have an agreement of an automatic pay rise or decrease in the event of promotion or relegation.

Thursday 26th November
Tony Jones is keen, and takes less than 48 hours to sign and return the paperwork for his two year contract extension. That's excellent news, and the Scottish right back who I brought to the club almost a year ago now has signed up to stay at The Showgrounds until Summer 2018. He's played 22 League games since joining us, keeping an average rating of well over seven, as well as adding five goals and three assists.

Several more players, including Stuart Shaw, Gerry Nixon, Matty Robson and Michael McCartney receive new contract offers today. Most are being asked to take a wage cut. McCartney is the odd one out in the group, in that he isn't a regular starter. He is being overpaid at £350 per week though, and he is being asked to take a significant drop, which if agreed will allow him to stay at the club, and also potentially allow us to look at our options in the January Transfer Window should we feel the need.

Friday 27th November
Tomorrow is my 38th birthday. Slightly more importantly, it's also Derby Day, as we host Ballymena United in the Fourth Round of the Northern Irish FA Cup. When we hosted them here in the League just three weeks ago, we sent them home defeated by 2-0. The bookies make us odds on favourites, and there should be a bumper crowd at The Showgrounds to see if they're right.

Also potentially at the game will be centre back Andy Dickinson. Passed fit to return to training today, the centre back won't be rushed back with Ryan Young doing a decent job in his enforced absence. But Dickinson is keen to be involved, and could yet be included amongst the substitutes. He also has a new contract offer to consider, the latest to be offered a new deal as we continue to test the waters and start to shape our Squad for next season.

Saturday 28th November
So a big day of football awaits then, but it starts with a defeat for our Under-18's as they are beaten in Lisburn by the youngsters of Distillery. There had already been a missed penalty from Jason O'Connor by the time attacking midfielder Glenn Hartley put the hosts ahead before the break at the New Grovesnor Stadium, and their lead was extended right after the restart when Shane McAree put the ball into his own net. Paul McMaster continued his excellent goalscoring form, the centre back scoring his fifth of the season just before the hour mark to bring the game back to within a goal, but Hartley soon netted again, and Distillery move into the top half of Group 1, just a single point back from our lads who now sit 7th.

Northern Irish Cup, Fourth Round
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Ballymena United
Attendance :-
468. Weather :- Dry, 9c.

One of our nearest and biggest rivals are here again for the second time in three weeks, this time in a Cup game that attracts a crowd almost double the size we have been averaging his season, which is great to see. There are no changes to the starting lineup for the third straight game, but there are a pair of changes amongst the substitutes. Andy Dickinson and Michael McCartney are both available again, and while not deemed fit enough to challenge for a starting spot, they do replace Robert Donaghy and Gary Campbell amongst our options to change things around if needed.

We came so close to opening the scoring with just seven minutes on the clock, Tony Jones attempted to celebrate his new contract with a free kick that came back off the angle of upright and cross bar. Gerry Nixon sent a shot over the bar before we forced ourselves into the lead in the 17th minute, and what a pretty goal it was too. Seven outfield players were involved in a show of slick one touch passing that concluded with Nixon touching the ball into the path of Gavin Whelan, who sent his shot under the keepers dive and into the bottom corner to put us a goal to the good. Ballymena's response was not a good one, Gareth Mercer lucky not to be shown a straight red card for his ill timed and two footed lunge at Ryan Young. They were punished on the scoreboard though, Whelan playing a one-two with Nixon, before sending a reverse pass into the box for Stuart Shaw. The angle was tight, but Bobby Collins hadn't done a good enough job covering his near post, and Shaw blasted it by him to double our lead. And still we poured forward to attack, almost at will, Whelan's inswinging cross was aimed at Shaw, that one slightly too close to Collins, before a through ball was caught nicely on the bounce by Nixon with Collins well off his line, the attempted lob just clearing the cross bar. But number three was on the way, five minutes before the break Stewart Devine swung in a left footed free kick from the right, Adam Tann was given the shout to leave it, and he did. But Shaw didn't, throwing himself at it to connect with a bullet header into the roof of the net from only a few yards out, and we were now three up and cruising.

I told my players not to fall into the trap of thinking that this was all over, and to keep their heads in the game, it was a Derby Day after all. Certainly United looked more dangerous than they had in the first half when the second half got underway, both Mark Ellison and Robert Saunders sending in crosses that needed to be dealt with by our defence, before Tim Porter drove in a shot that John Robertson bravely blocked. They pressed on, Neil Ashton's shot taking a deflection that only just sent it the wrong side of the post from a Ballymena point of view. They were leaving spaces for a counter attack as a result though, Shaw letting fly from range as he sensed the chance of a Cup hatrick, his powerful effort wide of the mark though, before Nixon forced a smart stop from Collins with a shot aimed at the top corner. United would get a boost though as the halfway mark of the second half neared, Young sending the ball back to keeper Gerard Doherty, and the keepers first touch saw the ball escape much too far in front of him, and sub Paul Hamilton was on him in a flash, whipping the ball away from him and finishing into the unguarded net from 15 yards out to pull a goal back. Young was quickly brought off, nothing to do with his back pass and everything to do with him still struggling from that first half tackle, Andy Dickinson coming on in his place. United were running out of gas though, Tann and Michael Clements both picking up bookings, while I made further changes, Nixon brought off for Pat McIlroy, before Robertson was subbed for Chris Johnston. There would be another late push from United, sub Nigel McClelland played in through the middle, but he lacked composure with his finish, blasting a shot at goal and over the bar when a more deft touch was needed. Once more, Ballymena leave The Showgrounds with their tails between their legs.

Coleraine (3) 3 - Gavin Whelan (17), Stuart Shaw (26,40)
Ballymena United (0) 1 - Paul Hamilton (63)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Ryan Young (Andy Dickinson 64), Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, John Robertson (Chris Johnston 86); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Gerry Nixon (Pat McIlroy 78).

Unused Substitutes :- Michael McCartney, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 52% - 48%. Man of the Match :- Stuart Shaw (Coleraine).

A double for a second successive weekend in a Cup match from our in form Scottish striker sends us into the Last 32 of the Northern Irish Cup, or the Fifth Round as it's more commonly known. That's now six goals in five cup games over various competitions for the 22 year old, who edges closer to double figures for the season. He gets a kind word from Ballymena boss Eddie Patterson for his trouble. That's a bit more than Patterson gets from me, as I rub his nose in it that it's now two out of two against our neighbours this season.

The draw is made for Round Five of the Cup, and it brings us a very interesting test. We are one again drawn at home, which is good. This time though it will be Premier Division opposition for us, in the form of the current second placed side Newry City. Their fortunes have been in contrast to our own at Coleraine, as while we have become the yo-yo club that they used to be, they are now a stable top half Premier Division club, even getting in a European adventure or two. The head to head between the two clubs shows 19 matches since the save began, with Newry edging the advantage with 9 wins to 8. They were all Premier Division matches, and on Saturday 9th January we'll see who wins the first Cup clash between us.

Sunday 29th November
The man on form is signed up for another season at least with us at The Showgrounds, as Stuart Shaw signs a one year extension, on a deal that sees his wages remain at £100 a week. I don't think anyone could argue that he provides serious value for money at that amount, and I hope he can fire the goals that earn us a return to the Premier Division. There is some saving done today though, as 30 year old English left winger Matty Robson also agrees a new deal today to stay for another season, and there is a wage cut here. With four goals and nine assists in nineteen games across all competitions, Robson has stepped up this season, rising to the challenge of keeping newcomer Ryan Twist out of the team. His £275 per week contract is now down to £200 per week however, great news for us, as we are now less than £150 over our weekly budget, and with some more potential savings yet to be made.

One of those less keen to help out are finances though is centre back Andy Dickinson. The 20 year old Rawmarsh born player is on £160 per week at the moment, and rightly points out that his fine form this season is something he hoped would justify a better salary than what I was offering as I try to drag my outgoings down a few notches. The door isn't closed though, and he wants to keep talking and reach an agreement.

Monday 30th November
Gerry Nixon has joined the Andy Dickinson camp, and has also refused our new contract offer that would have seen his £120 per week wage drop down to £100. Nixon is looking for £150 per week, which isn't going to work for us right now, but hopefully we can at least managed to thrash something out to keep him at the club, because he is absolutely a handful for opposition defences.

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Tuesday 1st December 2015
The calendar year of 2015 is drawing to a close, but while the football season of 2015/16 is heating up, that isn't reflected in the diary for this month, which has just two First Team games scheduled. We will be at home in both of them, starting with a visit from 12th placed Banbridge Town in the First Division on the Saturday before Christmas, followed by a visit from Second Division club Newington YC in the Third Round of the Intermediate Cup the following Saturday, which is Boxing Day.

Left winger Ryan Twist is starting to show signs of losing his patience at waiting for his opportunity. He's used the media to issue a plea for more regular First Team football rather than coming to me directly, a move that is never likely to go down very well. 27 year old Twist has stated that he will start looking for a new club if he doesn't get more chances soon. His £130 per week contract runs out in the summer, and he has not as yet been offered a new deal.

Someone who has been offered a new deal, and has now signed up on a contract extension is 20 year old centre back Andy Dickinson. He's been one of our stand out performers this season, and while that isn't reflected in his new contract, the fact that we want to keep him with the potential of Premier Division football returning to The Showgrounds, very much is. He has signed a new extended deal to take him through to the Summer of 2017, which will pay him £110 per week, a £50 weekly saving for us on his current £160 weekly salary, though he will get some of that that back if we manage to bag the promotion.

At The Showgrounds, the Board have declared themselves pleased with how things are going right now, in particular the Northern Irish Cup Fourth Round win over Ballymena United. The club did however lose another £10,500 last month, and we're now £306,500 in the red.

Wednesday 2nd December
With Andy Dickinson ending his short stand off over his contract talks, Scottish forward Gerry Nixon has also done the same today. He has also signed a one year extension through to the summer of 2017, and he keeps his £120 per week salary. Nixon makes up one part of a quartet of a strikers that could cause Premier Division defences some real problems if we can get the job done this season.

Thursday 3rd December
One of that quartet returns to training today after an injury lay off. 18 year old homegrown striker Andy McMillan has scored four goals in all competitions this season, and is back after four weeks out with a thigh injury suffered at Ards during the 1-0 win where he got the only goal.

Sunday 6th December
It might be eight and a half years until the 2024 UEFA European Championship Finals, but the race to host the Tournament is hotting up. The host is due to be named at the conclusion of the 2016 Finals, and right now it is the view of many that Belgium are the favourites, with France and Holland also in contention. Next summers European showpiece of International Football is being held in Spain.

Thursday 17th December
Geoff Ferris is my Assistant Manager at the club, and has been since I arrived. He is the latest to receive a new contract offer to stay on at the club.

Friday 18th December
Tomorrow we are considered absolutely nailed on favourites for the only First Division date we have for December, and therefore our final League match of the calendar year 2015 as Banbridge Town come to visit us at The Showgrounds. They're currently sat in 12th place, and with the halfway point of the season approaching look set to be involved in the dog fight, though they are the right side of the dotted line at the moment. They're 12/1 shots to pull off a shock win and plant a dent in our promotion hopes.

Saturday 19th December
The Under-18's get a double header at The Showgrounds off to a perfect start, as they thump Newry City's youngsters 4-0 in a late morning kick off today. After his superb cameo performance off the bench for the First Team recently against Ballymena United, young striker Martin Friars did his growing reputation no harm here. He netted a double, as did our goalscoring centre back Paul McMaster, a goal in each half for both players.

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Banbridge Town
Attendance :-
209. Weather :- Drizzle, 6c.

John Robertson is left out for this one, with Michael McCartney brought into the midfield to partner Keith Steenson, the only change to either starting lineup or matchday squad from our last game three weeks ago. Banbridge came to defend, with just one up front, and two banks of four with a defensive midfielder in between as well. We could have broke through early, Stewart Devine sending the ball over their right back and Stuart Shaw ran in behind, but keeper Ryan Lovell saved the shot with his legs. A Devine free kick then only just missed the head of Ryan Young. But from the next set piece, Lovell dropped the ball, or at least didn't catch it. He believed he was about to comfortably field Matty Robson's corner delivery, but centre back Declan O'Hara threw himself at it, and Lovell couldn't adjust, the header flying into the roof of the net. Then five minutes later, Gavin Whelan sent over a corner from the other side, this one clearing Lovell, and O'Hara was there again to apply the simple finish for his second of the day and fifth of the season. Midway through the half though, Michael McCartney gave the ball away on halfway, and Town counter attacked at pace, Eddie Stanford receiving the ball in the left channel, and chipping it into the middle. As Gerard Doherty scrambled back across his goal, Eamon McCarthy headed it back where he had come from and halved our lead. We got right back on the front foot, a Gavin Whelan cut back from the byline being cleared away from Shaw right at the last second. Ten minutes before the break, Whelan cut in from the right wing, and his overhit cross floated right over Lovell's head and into the top corner to reinstate our two goal advantage. We could have extended that lead further before the break, Keith Steenson's through ball found Robson, but Lovell made another save with his legs to keep his side in with a punchers chance at least.

We kept our foot to the floor at the start of the second half, Shaw producing an outrageous 'Cryuff turn' to get between a pair of defenders before hitting a shot from range that swerved unpredictably and Lovell did well to keep out. At the other end, Stanford sent a shot across goal wide as Town's chances to attack became fewer and further between. On the hour mark, a Whelan free kick across goal picked out Shaw, the striker turning to earn his shooting space, but then blasting his effort wide of goal. I started to turn to the bench a little while after that, Gerry Nixon replaced by Pat McIlroy, before Lovell pushed a whipped Whelan free kick towards O'Hara, the bounce of the ball leaving the centre back unable to get a contact when a hatrick chance was there. That was one of his last acts, as with a booking to his name he was replaced by Andy Dickinson with quarter of an hour to play, McCartney switched for Chris Johnston at the same time. McIlroy nearly caught out Lovell with a cheeky shot from range that nearly crept inside the near post. But the curtain call would belong to centre back Young, who connected with a Whelan free kick at the near post in the 90th minute to net his first ever Coleraine goal, and round out a fairly routine win that would send us nine points clear going into 2016!

Coleraine (3) 4 - Declan O'Hara (13,19), Gavin Whelan (35), Ryan Young (90)
Banbridge Town (1) 1 - Eamon McCarthy (24)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara (Andy Dickinson 75), Ryan Young, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney (Chris Johnston 75); Gavin Whelan, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Gerry Nixon (Pat McIlroy 67).

Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Declan O'Hara 37
Possession :- 57% - 43%. Man of the Match :- Declan O'Hara (Coleraine).

If only every Saturday afternoon was as comfortable as that one. We have a great spread of goalscoring through the team, and the only defender who has played regularly this season and not yet scored a League goal is Stewart Devine. In fact, two of our top three goalscorers in the First Division are defenders, with Declan O'Hara now joining Andy McMillan on three goals, and Tony Jones leading the way with four.

O'Hara was brought into the club as an experienced hand to see us stabilise things from the back of the team, and his influence is clear, both on the park and off. He is the joint highest paid player at the club right now, and is contracted through next season as well. There's no doubt he's earning his money right now, and he rightly takes the plaudits after his two goal display this afternoon.

Monday 21st December
Four of our players are included in the First Division Team of the Week, the highest amount of inclusion from a single club this week. Gerard Doherty, Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara and Gavin Whelan are the quartet included.

Tuesday 22nd December
New extended contracts are agreed for both my Assistant Manager and Scout, who will both continue on the same terms as before until Summer 2017.

Wednesday 23rd December
19 year old Reserve team goalkeeper Trevor Smyth has gone through this season so far on a non-contract basis. He's been left in something of a difficult situation. He's too old for the Under-18's, the Reserves have no fixtures, and he can't be loaned out as he has no contract. Now he's demanding a deal be hashed out. The teenager is told that at this time, there is no new deal for him.

Thursday 24th December
It's a Christmas Eve press conference as we prepare for our Boxing Day encounter at home to Newington to round out the year in the Third Round of the Northern Irish Intermediate Cup. It was hard to pretend that I was anything other than confident we would overturn the Second Division side who are currently in the midst of a very tight promotion race as they look to move into the second tier for the first time in their history. Will they see this as an opportunity to try and make a name for themselves, or will they be concentrating on their League games? According to the bookies, it's more likely to be the latter.

Saturday 26th December
The Under-18's kick off the day again, but it doesn't go well for them in Dundonald. They are soundly beaten by their opposite numbers from Ards at the Billy Neill Complex. Centre back Ryan Chambers scored a first goal of the season in the first half, before Harry McConnell and Lee Tracey netted in the final ten minutes. Our youngsters drop down to sixth spot in Group 1.

Northern Irish Intermediate Cup, Third Round
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Newington YC
Attendance :-
230. Weather :- Downpours, 7c.

Just like Banbridge Town last week, Newington had clearly come to defend, with extra time and penalties scheduled for this one if no winner could be found in the 90 minutes. I made a couple of changes with Ryan Young, Michael McCartney and Gerry Nixon all rested today, with the latter left out of the squad. Andy Dickinson, Chris Johnston and Pat McIlroy are brought in, with Gavin Whelan going into the midfield and Andy McMillan selected on the bench. The downpours were certainly causing issues, and not just for those getting a soaking in the stands. Andy Dickinson tried to glance in an 8th minute header, but he didn't get anything like enough on the ball, while Stuart Shaw was denied a chance on goal when the ball held up frustratingly in the rain soaked surface. A later chance for the Scottish striker was sent over the bar, while a free kick from Stewart Devine was well off the target. The best chance created came right before the break. Chris Johnston had some room down the right before feeding Pat McIlroy, who switched the play left to Matty Robson. The winger shaped to whip in a cross, but then sent it back towards the corner of the box where Keith Steenson was arriving to walk onto the pass and send in a first time shot that only just missed it's intended mark, clipping the cross bar on it's way over.

Johnston was involved again early in the second half, one cross cleared, another picking out Whelan who just missed the target with a volley. Our dominance continued, Robson's low cross finding Shaw with his back to goal, the striker denied a scoring opportunity by the double team of Isaac Sesay and Glenn McDonnell. And shortly after that McDonnell was involved at the other end in a rare foray forward from our visitors, George Robertson cutting the ball back to him 15 yards out, but McDonnell scuffed his shot wide in the best chance Newington had created so far. Full back Tony Jones had a raid down the right flank that saw him make it all the way into the box and stand up a cross that Phillip Millar had to head away from Shaw at the last second. Moments later Johnston tried the same route, before stepping inside Neil Singleton who left his leg hanging out to bring down our winger right on the edge of the box, just the wrong side of the line from our point of view, Singleton got booked, while Robson's free kick curled right through the six yard box with no one able to apply the finishing touch. Then with a little under 20 minutes to play, Whelan took a shot that was deflected away from goal. The Newington players stopped, happy to let it run out for a corner. But the ball didn't make it that far, Jones was on high alert, and kept the ball in play, cutting back inside a sliding tackle and then tucking a shot low past Aaron Jameson inside his near post to finally open the scoring. Now Newington would need to come out of their shells, and that would leave plenty of room for us to try and finish them off. A last gasp clearance was needed to prevent Robson having a tap in, before Johnston danced his way into the box before sending in a low shot that Jameson saved with his legs. Johnston, Robson and McIlroy were all substituted for like for like personnel in Michael McCartney, Ryan Twist and Andy McMillan late on as Whelan went back out to the wing, with us continuing to press our guests back to prevent them from pinching an equaliser. 

Coleraine (0) 1 - Tony Jones (73)
Newington YC (0) 0
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston (Michael McCartney 83), Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 83); Stuart Shaw, Pat McIlroy (Andy McMillan 83).
Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, John Robertson.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 60% - 40%. Man of the Match :- Tony Jones (Coleraine).

A progression into the Fourth Round that was considerably more comfortable than the score might suggest at a glance. Other than that small scare when Glenn McDonnell sidefooted a poor finish wide when he should have scored, we were not really caused any major worries by the third tier side, who will now return to League action in the New Year and attempt to secure a first ever promotion into the First Division.

The draw for Round Four, the last sixteen, takes place later in the evening, though our opponents are as yet unknown. That's because we have been drawn to play away to either Police Service of Northern Ireland or Donegal Celtic, who play their all-First Division tie in the Third Round this coming Wednesday on the penultimate day of the year. The Fourth Round fixtures are scheduled for late January.

Wednesday 30th December
After a 0-0 draw at Newforge Lane, the Third Round Intermediate Cup tie would go all the way to spot kicks, where Police Service of Northern Ireland squeezed past Donegal Celtic 3-2 on penalties. They will now host us on Saturday 30th January in the Fourth Round. It's a draw that history would suggest suits us. The teams had never met before October 2014, and have now played each other five times. We're unbeaten in those fixtures, winning four, including an August win at Newforge.

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2015/16 Northern Irish First Division Standings, Up To & Including Thursday 31st December 2015

| Pos   | Inf   | Team              |       | Pld   | Won   | Drn   | Lst   | For   | Ag    | G.D.  | Pts   |

| 1st   |       | Coleraine         |       | 12    | 9     | 2     | 1     | 19    | 8     | +11   | 29    |
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| 2nd   |       | Limavady Utd      |       | 12    | 5     | 5     | 2     | 25    | 18    | +7    | 20    |
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| 3rd   |       | Annagh Utd        |       | 12    | 4     | 7     | 1     | 19    | 13    | +6    | 19    |
| 4th   |       | Wakehurst         |       | 12    | 5     | 4     | 3     | 16    | 12    | +4    | 19    |
| 5th   |       | Distillery        |       | 12    | 4     | 7     | 1     | 13    | 10    | +3    | 19    |
| 6th   |       | Ballymena Utd     |       | 12    | 4     | 6     | 2     | 17    | 13    | +4    | 18    |
| 7th   |       | Carrick           |       | 12    | 3     | 7     | 2     | 9     | 6     | +3    | 16    |
| 8th   |       | Donegal Celtic    |       | 12    | 4     | 4     | 4     | 11    | 11    | 0     | 16    |
| 9th   |       | Ards              |       | 12    | 4     | 2     | 6     | 10    | 15    | -5    | 14    |
| 10th  |       | Armagh            |       | 12    | 3     | 4     | 5     | 17    | 20    | -3    | 13    |
| 11th  |       | P.S.N.I.          |       | 12    | 3     | 2     | 7     | 9     | 15    | -6    | 11    |
| 12th  |       | Banbridge         |       | 12    | 2     | 5     | 5     | 10    | 20    | -10   | 11    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 13th  |       | Queens University |       | 12    | 2     | 3     | 7     | 9     | 16    | -7    | 9     |
| 14th  |       | Bangor            |       | 12    | 1     | 4     | 7     | 11    | 18    | -7    | 7     |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Friday 1st January 2016
A New Year, and hopefully 2016 is the year that Coleraine make their return to the Premier Division. Four League games this month will potentially go some way towards securing that aim. There are also two Cup games in the schedule, as we look to bring some silverware into the club to boost our profile, and hopefully the financial situation as well. The Transfer Window is now open for a month, but don't expect too much to be happening at The Showgrounds with the way our finances look. We lost another £12,000 last month, and the debt continues to mount up, almost £320,000 now.

Saturday 2nd January
Never mind new signings, all the talk right now around The Showgrounds is regarding dealing with contracts for current players, and regarding four in particular, it's a case of the 'will's' and the 'will nots' at the moment. Michael McCartney is still negotiating to get a wage closer to what he is expecting while still accepting that a pay drop is inevitable. Also in his camp is Trevor Smyth, the Reserve goalkeeper who still keeps complaining to the media that he hasn't received a contract offer.

In the case of those that are going to be staying, two more have signed on the dotted line. It's the two combative midfielders today, firstly John Robertson, the 21 year old Scot who has signed a one year extension with his wages dropping from £80 down to £65. Also remaining with us is the Club Captain and one of the The Showgrounds favourite sons, as Keith Steenson also signs a one year extension, with his wages remaining at the £20 per week level that he currently gets paid.

Sunday 3rd January
Michael McCartney has changed camp today, and signed a one year extension to remain at the club beyond the summer. Not only that, but he has taken a wage cut of nearly a third as well, with his weekly salary dropping from £350 a week down to £220. The 26 year old has stated he is delighted to be playing for a successful and well supported club, and wants to be part of what is being built at The Showgrounds. It's a development that means for the first time in quite a while, the club is running within it's allocated Wage Budget.

Monday 4th January
We're red hot favourites to win tomorrow night, priced at 1/4 for our trip to face Armagh City who currently sit 10th in the First Division, but have caused our club problems in recent times. It's nearly eighteen months since the clubs last met at Holm Park, where City recorded a 2-0 win. It was February last year when the teams last met at The Showgrounds, and ended in a goalless draw. Their dangerman is Ian Cox, a 22 year old attacking midfielder who has averaged almost a goal every other game this season in all competitions, though the large majority of them have come in the Cup competitions.

Tuesday 5th January
We have a new signing today. A chance presented itself, and the money made sense. The new arrival is 19 year old utility player Michael Hassan. A twice capped Northern Ireland Under-21 International who also has a goal at that level, Ballynahinch born Hassan has spent four years on the books of Republic of Ireland Premier Division club, Derry City. He played ten times over that period in the League for City, though has some experience this side of the border too, playing eleven times in the Premier Division during a loan spell with Institute in the 2013/14 campaign, also playing plenty of football during loan spell in the Republic with non-League side Letterkenny Rovers. Able to play at right back, defensive midfield, centre midfield or on the right wing, 5'10 Hassan has signed a £100 per week deal that will take him through to the end of next season, and provides some much needed cover for the club. 

His ability to play at right back allows us to make another move to reduce our wage bill once more after this deal takes it back over the allocated amount. I offer out of favour 21 year old right back Ray Doran a mutual termination deal. He refuses, stating that he believes he has the ability to be an important player for the club in the future. I disagree, and take the next step, paying Doran £3,000 to leave the club with immediate effect. He appeared twice for the club this season, both games in the League, being sent off in one of them.

Northern Irish First Division
Holm Park, Armagh
Armagh City v Coleraine
Attendance :-
225. Weather :- Gales, 7c.

Andy Dickinson and Chris Johnston keep their places after being brought in for the Newington game last weekend, but Pat McIlroy is back out of the matchday squad, with Andy McMillan selected to join Stuart Shaw up front, and Gerry Nixon selected amongst the substitutes. Gerard Doherty plays his 350th Career League game, and also his 100th for Coleraine. There is familiar face from the past in the opposition lineup, with 21 year old striker Daniel Walsh, who scored some vital goals in the season I saved Maidstone United from relegation, now plying his trade this side of the Irish Sea after a summer move.

City missed a great early chance when Walsh held the ball up outside the box and played it in to Dennis Perkins, but he was leaning back and sent his shot well over the bar. And moments later they were behind, Gerard Doherty's clearance down the park was wind assisted in the gales, and it flew over the heads of the back four, Stuart Shaw getting goal side of his marker and bringing the ball down, before sliding a low shot by Willem de Lange, and opening the scoring. City immediately switched to a more attacking setup, Paul Hoyle heading the ball over from a corner, before Chris Johnston's attempt at a cross field pass was blocked, and Gary Williams floated over a cross that Ian Cox headed home after getting between our centre backs. City reverted right back to their normal formation, and we caught them again. Keith Steenson won the ball in midfield and Johnston drove forward before picking out Andy McMillan in the box, the striker rolling his marker and then lashing his 5th of the season into the roof of the net, giving de Lange no chance. So the pattern continued, and City set themselves up to attack again. This time I adjusted too though, moving Steenson back into a defensive midfield role and asking the players to counter attack. It seemed to work too, Steenson there to help break play up when Walsh was played into space in our box. Then from a free kick, Walsh knocked the ball down to Gary Rutherford who struck a first time shot at goal that Doherty saved with his legs, the rebound falling right to Cox who drove another shot at goal, only to see Doherty spring to his feet and turn that one over the top as well. And before the break, we caught them again and extended our lead, Gavin Whelan whipping in a corner, and McMillan glanced home a header to make it 3-1!

Steenson was booked late in the first half, and I was tempted to bring him off. But he was having a great game, and I persevered with the skipper. He would get an assist for helping Tony Jones prevent Lorcan Fitzgerald get in on goal early after the restart too. Jones was almost effective at the other end too, curling a free kick around the wall and just missing the top corner. We were looking ragged at the back though, and failed to get the ball away allowing Walsh a shot at goal, Doherty again coming to the rescue with a superb reflex save. Sub Aaron Young sent over a cross that just missed Walsh, before another sub Michael Blackburn curled in a shot across goal that was just wide of the far post. Shaw was brought off after a knock, Gerry Nixon coming on in his place. Doherty had to make another save, this time from Williams, the keeper tipping this one over the bar. With fifteen minutes to go, I forgot about counter attacking altogether and pulled us back into a more defensive setup, Steenson and McMillan subbed off, with Michael McCartney and John Robertson brought into the game to protect the back four. That coincided with City running out of fresh ideas to try and find a way through, despite having been the second best side on the park for large parts of that game, we would travel home with three more points.

Armagh City (1) 1 - Ian Cox (12)
Coleraine (3) 3 - Stuart Shaw (7), Andy McMillan (17,34)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson © (John Robertson 75), Gavin Whelan; Chris Johnston, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw (Gerry Nixon 65), Andy McMillan (Michael McCartney 75).

Unused Substitutes :- Ryan Young, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- Keith Steenson 39
Possession :- 54% - 46%. Man of the Match :- Andy McMillan (Coleraine).

City, and in particular their manager Gordon Chambers, spent the rest of the evening telling anyone who would listen how much injustice there is in the game sometimes. I can't deny that for large parts of the match we had our backs to the wall and were clinging on a bit. Andy McMillan's two goal haul landed him man of the match, but without question it was Gerard Doherty who won us the points this time around. The veteran keeper will be 35 this summer, and it's bothered me throughout my time here that we don't have a keeper capable of challenging him for his spot. The financial situation has always prevented me from being able to get in someone. But to be fair, every time a mistake or a moment of worry over him has made me wonder about his future, he always bounces back and produces a display to put us straight.

Winning in that manner was another string to our bow, and one that might come in very useful next season should we get the promotion that we have now moved a step closer to after moving to six straight League wins, and nine points clear of Limavady United who now sit in second place. And we will potentially get some more practice at it this weekend too, with the Premier Division's current third place side Newry City visiting The Showgrounds this Saturday in the Fifth Round of the Northern Irish Cup.

Wednesday 6th January
The only keeper we currently have that could stand in for Doherty if he were to get injured or suspended is the 19 year old Trevor Smyth. As he once again asks for a contract to be sorted out, I have to keep him sweet to a degree. That isn't the case for attacking midfielder Ciaran Owens, who is another on a Youth Contract that doesn't pay him. Owens is told that there won't be a contract offer, and that he's free to find a new club should he wish.

Friday 8th January
After beating rivals Ballymena United in the last round, tomorrow we take a step up in quality in the Cup, as we host Premier Division outfit Newry City in the Fifth Round, and we'll be looking to cause an upset and move into the last sixteen. In some quarters we're quite fancied to turn over City, and while they're priced as Even money favourites, some pundits rate our chances. That may be to do with City missing several players, most importantly for them their Scottish top scoring striker, Phil Hamilton. The 20 year old has eight goals in fifteen appearances in all competitions this season, but has a fractured wrist. Maybe even more importantly, 30 year old former Northern Irish Under-21 International right winger and the club captain Richard Clarke has torn a calf muscle and could miss the majority of what's left of this campaign. He's one of their most productive players, scoring five goals and adding five assists.

Saturday 9th January
It'd double header day once again at The Showgrounds, with the Under-18's kicking off proceedings in a late morning kick off against Portadown. It was a fairly even first half, until Portadown midfielder Chris Kennedy found the net just over five minutes before the break. But we got our leveller just after the hour, 16 year old Joe Gibbons netting his first goal of the season to earn the youngsters a point, and they remain sixth in Group 1.

Northern Irish Cup, Fifth Round
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Newry City
Attendance :-
372. Weather :- Dry, 1c.

We go with an unchanged starting lineup and squad from the win in Armagh in midweek for this one, sticking to our usual formation at least to start with, as I fight the urge to go more defensive. Instead, we'll see if we can cause a higher echelon top tier club problems in the way we play on a week to week basis. There's an improved attendance for this one despite the almost freezing conditions, though it's still not as many through the gate as we were hoping for.

That refusal to move into a more defensive role seemed to catch City unawares, and we controlled the early part of the game. We created the first chance of note too, Stuart Shaw not giving up on a chase down the left wing, which brought about some nice passing and Chris Johnston was played into a shooting position, but the winger got his shot all wrong. The next time we created a chance, we were much more clinical. Matty Robson and Stewart Devine combined down the left, and then Gavin Whelan slid a through ball in for Shaw, who nipped in front of the defender and lifted it over the onrushing keeper Myles Howe and into the bottom corner to give us an 18th minute lead. Within a minute, we could have doubled that lead, Devine sending a curling pass forward and over the right back, and Shaw raced in behind him, before chipping the ball into the near post. The defender was no match for Andy McMillan's power and strength, but the teenage strikers header came back off the near post. McMillan would soon get another chance, the build up play coming down the right this time, Tony Jones knocking the ball down for Johnston, and he sent it back into the penalty box where McMillan chested it down and hit a shot towards the top corner, just missing the target. With less than ten minutes to go till the break, Andy Dickinson sprayed the ball out to the left for Robson, and his cross was a nightmare for the defenders to deal with. And they failed miserably, McMillan again evading his marker and sidefooting home from five yards out to continue his little purple patch of goalscoring, and put us in a superb position at half time.

City couldn't afford to waste time in their efforts to turn things around, and they made a change at the break, bringing on an extra striker. An early Séan Evans trick free kick from on the right found defender Harry Morris, but Declan O'Hara threw himself into the path of the shot to block it to safety. After another series of Evans set pieces failed to find a way through, City finally cracked the code on the hour mark, O'Hara drawn out of position to battle for a loose ball on the right corner of the box with Morris, the City defender winning out and getting the ball into the box and to the feet of their second sub Adam Owens, who found the top corner for his first ever goal for the club. At this point, I switched us into a counter attacking setup, which almost paid off right away. City were guilty of overplaying, and Shaw and Robson broke down the left before switching it across field to the absolutely unmarked McMillan, the strikers pot shot was turned over by Howe. It was us that were overplaying midway through the half as we tried to counter attack again, but Shaw's attempt to find Johnston on the right went array. With City using up their last change, I started to delve into mine, Johnston and McMillan replaced by Michael McCartney and Gerry Nixon, requiring Whelan to move out to the right wing. But less than ten minutes later, Whelan was needing to come off himself, the midfielder getting injured and I attempted to shore up our defence by bringing on Ryan Young in his place as we moved into a very defensive outlook for the remaining few minutes. An Evans cross missed it's target, and then an Owens shot was too high. We nearly caught them out at the end when Robson intercepted an attempt to get the ball forward, and hoisted it long up the park himself, Nixon bringing the ball down and racing into the box, Howe turning his attempt to find the net away to safety. But we had bought ourselves enough time to see out the game, and we were safely into the last sixteen.

Coleraine (2) 2 - Stuart Shaw (18), Andy McMillan (37)
Newry City (0) 1 - Adam Owens (60)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine; Keith Steenson ©, Gavin Whelan (inj - Ryan Young 84); Chris Johnston (Michael McCartney 75), Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw, Andy McMillan (Gerry Nixon 75).

Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 62% - 38%. Man of the Match :- Harry Morris (Newry City).

We played that very nicely, and I can't say that at any point I was worried we were going to lose that one. Getting one over on the Premier Division clubs is always a good day, and today we weren't the only ones to pull off a shock. Distillery replicate our feat as they record a home win over Crusaders, while Glebe Rangers are also out at the hands of First Division opposition, as they are beaten on penalties away to Bangor. The biggest shock is probably inflicted on Wakehurst though, as they are bundled out by the now only non-League club remaining in the competition, Ballyclare.

After that Round of shocks, there are now only six Premier Division teams left in the last sixteen of the Northern Irish Cup, alongside seven First Division sides including ourselves, two from the Second Division, and the non-League side from Ballyclare. When the draw is made for Round Six later in the evening, there is one all Premier Division clash paired up, meaning a maximum of five top tier clubs can make the last eight. We won't be able to affect that number, as we are drawn away to First Division and local rivals Limavady United, currently our nearest challengers in the second tier and also one of our nearest and most bitter rivals. We have drawn our last two meetings with them, both since my arrival, we had won three in a row against them before that and have never lost against them since the save began. We'll make the short trip in early February. This competition is getting very interesting, and we won't be the only ones liking our chances of potentially causing a Cup upset to lift the famous old trophy this season.

Many of the big wins that have come through my career have come accompanied by an injury, and this one is no different. Gavin Whelan has suffered a damaged heel, and he will be out for three weeks or so. Fortunately for us, it's a position where we have a fair few options, but with three goals and nine assists this season so far, it will be hard to replace his productivity over the next few weeks.

Monday 11th January
Four of our team are included in the First Division's Team of the Week, with goalkeeper Gerard Doherty joined by Stewart Devine, Declan O'Hara and a very deserving Andy McMillan.

It's quite the day for Doherty, as the 34 year old goalkeeper has this morning signed a one year extension to take him through to the end of next season. It's a much deserved deal, though he has also done us a solid by accepting a pay cut down to £100 from £150 per week as well. We're now over £100 under our weekly Wage Budget.

And Doherty isn't the only one signed up today, as on form teenage striker Andy McMillan has agreed to play another season at least for us on his current appearance fee and goal bonus only deal. With a record of a goal every other game on average this season, the soon to be nineteen year old is continuing to see his reputation grow.

Tuesday 12th January
Stewart Devine signs his new contract offer as well today, the 31 year old Scottish left back has been one of our best players this season, and signs a one year extension on the same £60 per week terms that he was already getting.

We've got Queens University Belfast away tomorrow night in the First Division, and we're nailed on favourites to pick up another three points according to the bookies. Hopefully McMillan and Devine will celebrate their new deals with a hand in a win that will move us another step closer to the promotion we crave. Queens come into the match embroiled in a relegation battle that looks like it will involve as many as half a dozen clubs. Their need is greater than normal in this round of games, with two of the other clubs around them playing each other as Bangor host Police Service of Northern Ireland. We haven't lost to Queens since I arrived at the club, but we'll need to be wary of their top scorer, 18 year old Bob Foster.

Wednesday 13th January

Northern Irish First Division
Newforge Lane, Belfast
Queens University Belfast v Coleraine
Attendance :-
263. Weather :- Wet, 1c.

It's our third game in just over a week, and with Gavin Whelan in the treatment room, Michael McCartney starts in the midfield, with new signing Michael Hassan brought into the matchday squad on the bench for a potential Coleraine debut. Joining him is Pat McIlroy, who replaces Gerry Nixon. There are 25th League Appearances for Coleraine for both Tony Jones and Chris Johnston, while Stuart Shaw plays his 75th Career League game, and Declan O'Hara plays his 375th.

A rather quiet first half came to life a little in the 20th minute when Bob Foster used the right channel to get into our penalty box and to the byline, Declan O'Hara timing his tackle perfectly to take the ball away without fouling the striker. Within a short while we had pegged Queens back into their own final third, in fact every player except our own goalie was in that third of the park. As we pushed the ball around and probed for a gap in their defence, Matty Robson sent a low ball into the box for Michael McCartney, and Ian Quinn dived in with a challenge off his feet that resulted in a spot kick. Tony Jones coolly slotted the ball past Paddy Agnew's dive, and we had a 28th minute lead. We turned up the heat for a second goal, McCartney sending a shot just wide, before O'Hara headed a Robson corner delivery against the near post. But it wasn't all smooth sailing, as both Stewart Devine and Stuart Shaw picked up injuries in the three minute spell before the break.

Neither was risked for the restart, Ryan Young replacing Devine with O'Hara moved out to left back, while Pat McIlroy came on for Shaw. That development gave Queens a shot of confidence at least, and Foster stung Gerard Doherty's hands with a driven shot that the keeper couldn't hold, Liam Fagan sending the rebound well over the bar. They kept creating chances though, Quinn trying to make amends for giving away the penalty with a shot from range, but his effort also cleared the bar. With just over twenty minutes to go I dragged us back into a more defensive formation, bringing Andy McMillan off and replacing him with Michael Hassan, the debutant asked to sit in the middle of the park as we switched to three in midfield and just one up front. We were given another warning shot as a dipping shot from Foster just cleared the bar, but he didn't miss next time, substitute Graham McLaughlin making a run down the left, and his cross had all the pace the ball needed on it, Foster diverting it downwards and past Doherty and into the bottom corner to level things up. With Ryan Young now hobbling around badly and us out of substitutes, it wasn't looking very good for us to get ourselves back in front. Enter young Scottish defender Jones once again. The right back picked up the ball just over halfway and made his way down the wing, angling his run into the box, then firing in a low cross that took a deflection off Hassan, keeper Agnew pushed it against the near post, and the ball came back off the prone keeper and crept over the line! Queens now had no choice but to go all out, and during injury time they won three corners, the last of them eventually seeing the ball drop to defender James O'Hare, who skied it well over, and our run continues.

Queens University Belfast (0) 1 - Bob Foster (72)
Coleraine (1) 2 - Tony Jones (28 pen), Paddy Agnew (86 og)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Stewart Devine (inj - Ryan Young 45 (inj - 76)); Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney; Chris Johnston, Matty Robson; Stuart Shaw (inj - Pat McIlroy 45), Andy McMillan (Michael Hassan 69).

Unused Substitutes :- John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 48% - 52%. Man of the Match :- Bob Foster (Queens University Belfast).

The Queens University supporting natives of Belfast will be absolutely gutted to come out of that one without anything to show. But we're not completely happy with life heading back home either. Ice packs are very much the order of the day for the bus journey home, as we've suffered three injuries that will all mean time on the sidelines. Striker Stuart Shaw will miss four weeks with a calf injury, while Stewart Devine (twisted ankle) and Ryan Young (groin strain) will both be missing from our defence for four to five weeks. That knocks a big hole in our depth at a crucial time of the campaign.

However, we're now into the second half of the season, and our lead at the top of the First Division has increased out to eleven points with Limavady United held to a 2-2 draw at home by Annagh United. We have a ten day break now before two home League matches, followed by a game away against PSNI in the Intermediate Cup to round off January.

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  • 4 months later...

Thursday 14th January 2016
Our seventh win in a row is a new club record.

Friday 15th January
An effort to bring in Stockport County defender Mark Heath on loan till the end of the season, and help us out with our defensive injury issues, has failed. 17 year old Heath, who has made a dozen career appearances in Coca-Cola League Two for County, has instead decided to spend the rest of the season with mid table Blue Square North club Alfreton Town.

The knock backs continue too, with Free Agent midfielder Nathan Fairhurst rejecting our offer of a deal to join us right away. The former Preston North End, Greenock Morton and Derry City man is instead holding out for an offer from a better club, with Rotherham United said to be interested. This one hurts, it really shows how low our reputation is right now.

Sunday 17th January
With our Senior Squad starting to get stretched to the limit, we may have no choice but to rely on our young players. Colin Canning issues a timely reminder as to what he can do, the 17 year old right winger putting in a man of the match performance with an assist and the final goal in a 3-0 win away to Donegal Celtic Under-18's, a Group 1 game that was played in a snowstorm, and temperatures that dropped to -5c during the afternoon. Left winger Stuart Wilson and free scoring defender Paul McMaster score the earlier goals for our age group side.

Tuesday 19th January
We continue to be unable to convince players to move to The Showgrounds. Today we have missed out on long term goalkeeper target Stephen Calder, who has decided to move to Irish League side Athlone Town. Also deciding his future lies south of the border is defender Matthew Lowton, the former Sheffield United youngster opting to reject a deal with us to move instead to Wexford Youths, a deal that has delighted the fans of their club, while dismaying me as we once again miss out on a long term target that would have been able to help us improve our fortunes in the Premier Division should we manage the promotion that we've put ourselves in a great position to achieve.

Wednesday 20th January
We continue our hunt for options to give us that last push towards promotion. An English defender who has been playing in Ireland is our next target as he is now out of contract. But immediately he receives offers from around 20 other clubs, including Lurgan Celtic, and our expectations of a successful transaction now have a very low percentage.

Thursday 21st January
Our goalkeeping options have reduced yet further. 19 year old out of contract youngster Trevor Smyth has suffered a sprained ankle in training, and will now be out for up to two months.

Friday 22nd January
This weekend is game week fifteen for the majority of the Division, and a quirk of fate in the fixture schedule has made it an important one. The top five clubs are all facing clubs that lie in the bottom five, making it a must win fixture for those at the top, and a bit of a bonus opportunity for those at the bottom.

For us, it is a home tie with Bangor, who are three matches unbeaten at the moment, but still lie in 13th place going into this match. This fixture was once a regular in the schedule of the Premier Division, but since the save began, Bangor have managed just one win in a dozen attempts against us, and have lost each of the last three matches between the clubs. We're the overwhelming favourites to beat them again this time around, despite our injury worries.

Saturday 23rd January

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Bangor
Attendance :-
239. Weather :- Dry, 7c.

Two changes are made from the win in the capital against Queens University last time, both changes forced through injury. The biggest decision is at left back, where the regular Stewart Devine is out, and we don't have a Senior specialist left back to replace him. Deciding against breaking up the centre back partnership, and leaving Declan O'Hara where he is instead of moving him out to left back, there is instead a call up from the Youth side for Lee Mooney, a first year player and local lad, who will get his Senior debut this afternoon. The other change is up front, with Gerry Nixon brought in to replace the injured Stuart Shaw. There is one change amongst the substitutes, with centre back Robert Donaghy brought into the matchday squad.

Two early chances came our way, Matty Robson sending in a swinging free kick that just missed the target, before a nice team passing move saw Andy McMillan play a square pass to Gerry Nixon, but the striker sent his shot high and wide. Nixon would then miss the target with a header from a Michael McCartney free kick midway through the half, before finally managing to get a shot on target, a well struck effort from the edge of the box that stung Ryan Brown's hands, but the Bangor keeper managed to keep that one out fairly easily. The visitors would finally show some attacking intent just after the half hour mark, Kyle Ralph was an early substitute when Lee Kelly was injured, but his attempt to hit the top corner was off target. We continued to push for an opening goal, and a set piece remained the most likely route, Robson sending a low free kick into the box that found its way past everyone and right through the box, before being sent back in from the other side by Chris Johnston, the cross finding Andy Dickinson who sidefooted an effort wide. The first half remained goalless.

I told my players to remain patient, and that the golden chance would come, but it was Bangor who had the best chance created so far and a chance to go in front in the 52nd minute, Keith Steenson leaving a short pass towards Dickinson too short, and Tony Stewart nipped in to round the centre back, but couldn't get his shot past keeper Gerard Doherty, who made a good save to keep the striker out. Full back Tony Jones tried to catch Brown out at the other end, whipping in a free kick that everyone expected to be sent into the middle, but instead tried to catch out the keeper at his near post, the plan being undone by Jones inability to keep the ball down. Jones was once again involved as the mid point of the second half approached, down his normal right side this time, he managed to get by two Bangor players to get to the byline, before standing a cross up into the middle, Nixon getting his head to it, but his effort came off the top of the bar on its way over. Nixon kept trying, this time played in by a Declan O'Hara header from halfway that was over the visiting back four, but Brown tipped over the Scottish strikers shot. At this point I turned to my bench, Nixon, along with Johnston replaced, as Pat McIlroy and Michael Hassan came on in their place. And within seconds of the changes, we had broken the deadlock. Robson sent over a free kick from the right that swung in towards the near post, and Dickinson timed his jump perfectly to get above the defence and glance a header home from six yards out! That was us in the driving seat, and prompted Bangor to use their two remaining changes, including replacing their earlier change Ralph. Ten minutes later, forward Marvin Hyam drifted in a Bangor corner, and near the penalty spot there was a coming together between Jones and Neil Smart, the referee blaming our Scottish defender for that one, and pointing to the spot. Mark Treanor stepped up, and slammed his penalty kick down the middle as Doherty picked his side, and the game was all square to leave us back where we were. But with Bangor now back in an ultra defensive setup for the remaining minutes, we would not be denied. Jones would make amends for giving away the penalty, sending over a free kick from the left near the corner flag, and picking out the head of O'Hara, the veteran centre back redirecting the ball into the net via the underside of the cross bar with just seconds remaining of the indicated injury time. We'd left it late, but we had got the job done!

Coleraine (0) 2 - Andy Dickinson (73), Declan O'Hara (90+2)
Bangor (0) 1 - Mark Treanor (84 pen)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Lee Mooney; Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney; Chris Johnston (Michael Hassan 72), Matty Robson, Gerry Nixon (Pat McIlroy 72), Andy McMillan.

Unused Substitutes :- Robert Donaghy, John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 49% - 51%. Man of the Match :- Andy Dickinson (Coleraine).

Our prolific nature from set piece situations has once more bailed us out, and it looked all afternoon like it would be from a set piece that we would find a way through. Despite already being eleven points clear, it was a crucial win too. Not just as it got us our eighth consecutive League win, but also because the four other teams in the top five all managed wins today as well. The chasing bunch continue to pursue us, but we are eleven points ahead still, and now there are just eleven games to go.

And there is more good news too, as Gavin Whelan is declared fit to return to training next week. The 32 year old attacking midfielder with three goals to his name so far this season in all competitions, has recovered from his foot injury. He is also sitting on a contract offer to extend his stay at The Showgrounds into next season.

Monday 25th January
Gerard Doherty is of course included in the First Division Team of the Week, joined this time around by the goalscoring centre back pairing that sit in front of him, Andy Dickinson and Declan O'Hara.

We're right back into action tomorrow night, with another home game. No visitors from the bottom end of the table this time though, as we will host Wakehurst. They are very much in the running for the Playoff spot, coming into the match in fourth place. And they are hoping a win at The Showgrounds will have them aiming for the top spot. They were unbeaten against us in a pair of games in the last calendar year. But the bookies don't fancy them to repeat that feat this year, as we are pegged as convincing favourites to extend our winning run.

Tuesday 26th January

Northern Irish First Division
The Showgrounds, Coleraine
Coleraine v Wakehurst
Attendance :-
227. Weather :- Breezy, Downpours 2c.

It's a filthy weather evening near the north coast of Northern Ireland, with cold temperatures exasperated by a stiff wind and some very heavy downpours. There is just one change to the side from the late, late win over Bangor here on the weekend, with Pat McIlroy brought into the starting lineup, replacing Gerry Nixon who take his place on the bench.

Andy McMillan had the first chance of the game, the striker using his strength with his back to goal, rolling his marker and sending in an effort from the edge of the box that cleared the cross bar. By the time the ball went into the Wakehurst box again in the 5th minute, we had been forced to revert back to the lineup from the weekend, with Pat McIlroy forced off with an injury, Gerry Nixon coming on in his place. It didn't stop us nearly taking the lead though, Tony Jones sending over a free kick from the left that found it's way to Chris Johnston on the far post, the winger striking a controlled volley aimed inside the near post, keeper Josh Pelling turning the shot aside. At the other end of the park, dangerous striker Gary Stockley followed McMillan's lead with a shot on the turn, that one was also over the bar though. Then midway through the half, a loose ball from Dil Chagger saw Keith Steenson pinch possession and pick out Nixon. The striker played a one-two with McMillan before trying a speculative curling effort that ruffled the side netting on it's way wide. Moment later we were ahead, and it came from a familiar route, and an increasingly familiar source, Andy Dickinson getting on the end of a Matty Robson corner delivery and powering a header into the near top corner. Nick Welsh's effort to find a quick leveller at the opposite top corner was just off target, with Lee Mooney doing his best to make things difficult for the Wakehurst forwards. The visitors were much more involved in the game now though, with Junior Wells missing the target from a long way out. Still 1-0 in our favour at the break.

It would be the visitors who would be in control early in the second half, Stockley again chancing his arm with no luck when he again missed the target. But he wouldn't miss next time. Michael McCartney left his feet to make a challenge and missed, leaving Welsh able to find overlapping winger David McConnell. His deep cross picked out Chagger, who knocked it down for Stockley, the striker this time picking out the far top corner and knotting this game back back up ten minutes into the second half. But their parity would be brief. A series of mistakes and missed chances to clear from down our right allowed the ball to find Johnston, and our winger angled his low cross diagonally and perfectly between the Wakehurst defence, and picking out the superbly timed run of opposite winger Robson, who added to his earlier assist with a goal, drawing Pelling off his line, before dinking his shot over the keeper and into the net! Once more though, with the lead in our hands, my players were guilty of losing their shape, and dropping back deeper than I would want them too. Mistakes started to come too, Steenson losing the ball in midfield and Ben Gate found Wells, his shot taking a huge deflection off Declan O'Hara, who was relieved to see Gerard Doherty get across goal and push the ball to safety. They were gaining in confidence, and made attacking changes, Welsh denied from ten yards out by an outstanding point blank save by Doherty. Another miss from Wells did nothing to dent their confidence, and with just under twenty minutes to play we were sliced open. Gate and sub Joe Herron did the leg work down the right, before Chagger picked out Stockley in the box. The striker got past Mooney too easily, the young defender couldn't get back goal side and stop the striker blasting a shot inside the near post, Doherty unable to get enough on it to keep it out, and once more the visitors had got themselves level. My big problem now was that my players were unable to regain the shape we had when we started the match, and it was still Wakehurst who were looking the most likely, substitute David North blasting over the best chance they would create with only two minutes remaining. I made another change, a defensive one. McMillan came off, Robert Donaghy came on as we would go to five at the back, and two protecting them as well. There was still a twist to come in this game yet though. Already well into injury time, we won a free kick in an advanced position of the park. Despite being asked now to operate defensively, several players took it upon themselves to arrive late in the box for the Robson delivery from the right, and that caused chaos. The ball was cleared, but only as far as McCartney, who got it right back to Robson. As he sent in an inswinging cross, at least three of my players were stood offside. But one of them was not Nixon, who arrived at the far post with perfect timing and sent a sidefooted shot past a helpless Pelling and high into the roof of the net! There was an agonizing few seconds where everyone seemed to wait for the flag to go up, but it never did. And for the second time in four days, we had fished a win out of dead cert looking draw.

Coleraine (1) 3 - Andy Dickinson (25), Matty Robson (58), Gerry Nixon (90+1)
Wakehurst (0) 2 - Gary Stockley (55,71)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Lee Mooney; Keith Steenson ©, Michael McCartney; Chris Johnston, Matty Robson; Pat McIlroy (inj - Gerry Nixon 4), Andy McMillan (Robert Donaghy 86).

Unused Substitutes :- Michael Hassan, John Robertson, Ryan Twist.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 49% - 51%. Man of the Match :- Gary Stockley (Wakehurst).

Gary Stockley is one of the leading goalscorers in Northern Ireland this season, and visiting Manager today Rodney Crawford may well be rueing his decision to bring off his striker with eight minutes to go and his club looking set for a share of the spoils at least. It's hard to suggest the 19 year old former Arsenal youngster didn't deserve Man of the Match, but with a goal and two assists, surely Matty Robson should've been the rightful recipient this evening?

Pat McIlroy was the recipient of a particularly nasty gash on his leg in this game, and the striker joins our injury list, with him likely to be out for around three to four weeks while that wound heals. It's not all bad news though. We have extended our winning run to a new club record of nine wins, and with Limavady United held to a draw away to Bangor, it is now Distillery who take up the mantle as our nearest challengers, with our lead extended out to twelve points with thirty left to play for, and Cup football about to move back into our main focus.

32 year old midfielder Gavin Whelan has signed a contract extension that will take the Irish playmaker through to the end of last season, agreeing to a small pay drop from £180 a week down to £150 per week as well. It's all relative of course, a lot of these players who have agreed to take drops in salary will be clawing that money back should we get promoted, with contracts that entitle them to a 25% increase should we move up into the Premier Division. One such player who won't have to worry about that is Derby County goalkeeper Nicholas Furlong, the nineteen year old has refused to accept a loan offer that was agreed to by his employers for him to move over to us for the remainder of the season.

Friday 29th January
It was on the cards when it was clear we were not the only club interested in Steve Robinson, but today confirmation arrived. The 21 year old 6'4 Cleethorpes born centre back is indeed moving to Northern Ireland, but has rejected offers from both ourselves and my former employers Lurgan Celtic amongst others, and will instead sign for Crusaders, making it a distinct possibility that we could come up against him next season.

We'll worry abut that when the time comes. For now we have Cup football matters to attend to. Our final game of January will see us travel into Belfast to face Police Service of Northern Ireland in the Fourth Round of the Northern Irish Intermediate Cup, the Cup for clubs outside the top tier. And we're involved in the only all First Division tie, not that the bookies believe this will be much of a contest. PSNI are on a terrible run of form, and haven't won in the First Division since mid-September, with their only success' coming in their three matches in this competition, and one of them came via a penalty shoot-out. Neither the bookies or anyone else in the media fancy their chances tomorrow afternoon.

Saturday 30th January
The final matchday of January, and it's a double header day of action. The opening part of that takes place in Belfast as well, with our Under-18's hopefully setting the tone at the Grove Park Stadium as Crusaders Under-18's are swept aside 3-0. Young striker Martin Friars opened the scoring inside quarter of an hour, and then added a second right from the restart after half time. The scoring was rounded off in the 73rd minute when free scoring defender Paul McMaster found the net once again, this time from the penalty spot. Our lads are 4th in Group 1.

Northern Irish Intermediate Cup, Fourth Round
Newforge Lane, Belfast
Police Service of Northern Ireland v Coleraine
Attendance :-
159. Weather :- Dry, 1c.

With Pat McIlroy joining the injured list, Gerry Nixon comes back into the side after getting the winner in midweek. That leaves us short on strikers though, and this time I decide not to bring in someone from the Reserve or Youth pool, instead bringing fit again and newly contracted Gavin Whelan into the matchday squad on the substitutes bench. With him able to cover the right wing, it allows me to effectively make winger Chris Johnston our back up striker.

Clearly PSNI were set up to counter attack when the chance arose, but outside that they were only interested in defending and keeping us out. That counter attack mentality almost got them going inside ten minutes, Michael McCartney dispossessed deep inside their half by John Paul Gallagher, and some quick passing play allowed Murray Gamble to take a shot from a long way out, his effort clipping the cross bar on it's way over. Tony Jones was a lot closer in when he took a 15th minute free kick, the Scottish full back curling his shot over the wall, only to see it crash flush against the cross bar. Midway through the half we created our best chance so far, Matty Robson making ground down the left, and then pulling the ball back to McCartney. The midfielder couldn't find room for a shot, but did find Gerry Nixon, the striker aiming a low shot inside the near post, but was foiled by keeper Gordon O'Brien making a smart stop. The left flank was proving to be our most popular route, with even teenage full back Lee Mooney having some joy there and sending over a few nice crosses that PSNI defenders had to deal with. Ten minutes before the break, PSNI got behind our defence, Gamble taking a free kick quickly and playing in Gallagher down the left channel, but he fluffed his lines, torn between crossing and shooting, and eventually blazing a shot well over the cross bar. And they would be punished for missing their chance, Jones whipping in a corner that O'Brien came off his line to punch. The ball made it only as far as McCartney just outside the box, and he didn't even look up, lifting his curling shot over the players in the box and O'Brien, and finding the top corner to give us a lead with his first ever goal for the club.

That goal just before the break gave our hosts little option but to rethink their plan of counter attacking their way to a victory. And that left gaps in their defence that you could drive a sightseeing bus of Belfast through. We got a bit bold ourselves though, and Glenn Rolston blasted a shot at goal that was just high and wide of the top corner he wanted to hit. We were passing the ball around the park beautifully, and it scored us a lot of set piece opportunities, an area where we thrive. And it would come up trumps in the 78th minute, literally with two substitutes stood on the touchline waiting for the ball to go out so they could come on. Jones sent over another set piece from the left, and as the ball came through a crowd of players at a strange height, McMillan had to improvise, unable to get his head down quickly enough to meet it in the more traditional way, the striker used his chest to redirect the ball and the power already on it gave it just enough to direct it into the bottom corner and give us the breathing room we wanted. The centre midfielders were changed before the restart, McCartney and Keith Steenson replaced by Gavin Whelan and Michael Hassan. Inside the last ten minutes, Ryan Twist got some rare game time too as he replaced Robson while the game fizzled out into it's conclusion, and we would take our place in the Quarter-Finals.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (0) 0
Coleraine (1) 2 -
Michael McCartney (43), Andy McMillan (78)
Gerard Doherty; Tony Jones, Declan O'Hara, Andy Dickinson, Lee Mooney; Keith Steenson © (Michael Hassan 78), Michael McCartney (Gavin Whelan 78); Chris Johnston, Matty Robson (Ryan Twist 82); Gerry Nixon, Andy McMillan.

Unused Substitutes :- Robert Donaghy, John Robertson.
Bookings :- None
Possession :- 40% - 60%. Man of the Match :- Michael McCartney (Coleraine).

That was a pretty routine win, and sees us safely through into the last eight of the Intermediate Cup. This is not a glamour competition by any means, but it's been a long time since I've won any silverware, and I won't pass up an opportunity to put a pot in the cabinet. I'm hoping it will be more than just one this season actually. 

And this one is starting to play very much our way. Of the eight clubs left, half including ourselves are First Division teams. The remaining four contain one Second Division club, and three non-League outfits. When the draw is made for the Quarter-Final round, it isn't a seeded draw, but it comes out that way as the First Division clubs all avoid each other. We're drawn at home to Oxford United Stars, the third tier club who are midway down the League, and far from being out of the promotion race at this point.

The real prize for us outside promotion this season would be the Northern Irish Cup. The Sixth Round tie in that competition is our next game, and we are travelling to face fierce rivals and fellow promotion contenders Limavady United next Saturday. So why is this Cup one of our main aims? Well apart from it being a much more prestigious event, it is a potential route into Europe, which is probably our best bet of clearing our debt in a hurry. It's a long shot, I'm prepared to admit that.......

Sunday 31st January
Despite it being a Sunday, it's still the last day of January, and therefore the last day of the Winter Transfer Window. I wasn't expecting much to happen from our end. In fact, I told the media just that early in the day. But early in the afternoon an unexpected opportunity arrived, and I was offered the chance to sign Lü Xin, a very quick and skilful left winger who was born in Larne, but the 22 year old has lived in China since a very young age. A British passport holder, but declared for China, he has spent some time in Europe, playing in the Czech Republic for two seasons. I was led to believe we could sign him on a Free Transfer. So the matter came to an abrupt close when I was then informed by his current club Sanshan University that the asking price was £30,000.

There was time yet for another opportunity to arise, as this time we were offered Glebe Rangers left back Aaron Moore. I did check this time that there would be no fee, and when given the green light, I made my move for the relegation threatened Premier Division side's 24 year old six footer. Everything was signed and done, but the hours had ticked down and time would get the better of us. The deal to bring him in as Senior cover on a short term basis for the rest of the season had gone, and the Window slammed shut with only Michael Hassan's arrival at the club in January.

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2015/16 Northern Irish League First Division Table, Up To & Including Sunday 31st January 2016

| Pos   | Inf   | Team              |       | Pld   | Won   | Drn   | Lst   | For   | Ag    | G.D.  | Pts   |

| 1st   |       | Coleraine         |       | 16    | 13    | 2     | 1     | 29    | 13    | +16   | 41    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 2nd   |       | Distillery        |       | 16    | 7     | 8     | 1     | 22    | 12    | +10   | 29    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 3rd   |       | Limavady Utd      |       | 16    | 7     | 7     | 2     | 33    | 23    | +10   | 28    |
| 4th   |       | Carrick           |       | 16    | 7     | 7     | 2     | 14    | 7     | +7    | 28    |
| 5th   |       | Wakehurst         |       | 16    | 7     | 5     | 4     | 21    | 16    | +5    | 26    |
| 6th   |       | Ballymena Utd     |       | 15    | 5     | 8     | 2     | 23    | 16    | +7    | 23    |
| 7th   |       | Donegal Celtic    |       | 16    | 6     | 5     | 5     | 18    | 16    | +2    | 23    |
| 8th   |       | Annagh Utd        |       | 15    | 4     | 9     | 2     | 23    | 18    | +5    | 21    |
| 9th   |       | Ards              |       | 16    | 5     | 2     | 9     | 14    | 21    | -7    | 17    |
| 10th  |       | Armagh            |       | 16    | 3     | 4     | 9     | 19    | 27    | -8    | 13    |
| 11th  |       | Bangor            |       | 16    | 2     | 6     | 8     | 18    | 24    | -6    | 12    |
| 12th  |       | P.S.N.I.          |       | 16    | 3     | 3     | 10    | 12    | 25    | -13   | 12    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
| 13th  |       | Banbridge         |       | 16    | 2     | 6     | 8     | 10    | 28    | -18   | 12    |
| 14th  |       | Queens University |       | 16    | 2     | 4     | 10    | 13    | 23    | -10   | 10    |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

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5 hours ago, oche balboa said:

Enjoying this story as ever, A frustrating transfer window for you but i think you will have a squad which is strong enough for the title  

Cheers as always Oche. Yeah, a very frustrating Window. I suspect you're right about us having enough to get promoted, but I think this Window may well be a sign of the frustrations we are likely to experience in the Summer as we try and strengthen for the Premier Division with a financial situation that continues to become more precarious, but still seems to be bothering no one at the club.

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