It’s a well-trodden path for players in Northern Ireland. They make the grade at their home town club and emerge to become targets for clubs in England. Many choose to pursue a career across the water, where the game is bigger, as are the wages.
Coleraine’s Martin Smith has recently departed the Bannsiders to follow a route into the English game. He has been snapped up by Swindon Town, bossed by Phil Brown and who play in Sky Bet League Two.
As he made the arrangements to join up with his team-mates at the County Ground, Smith took time out to pay tribute to his former club and to thank the fans for their support during his time with them.
“First of all I want to say thank you to my teammates, a special group and what we did this year together will remain with me for the rest of my life. Thank you to Oran Kearney and his coaching team for giving me the opportunity and welcoming me to the club with open arms, all the backroom staff who make the club tick behind the scenes and chairman Colin McKendry and the board for the way they looked after me during my time here.
“The club as a whole have a place in my heart forever and I can’t wait to return as a fan and support the club. Most importantly thank you to the fans, what we done this year wouldn’t have been possible without you, keep supporting the team and they will reward you all with more trophies in the future.
“The best fans in the country. It’s time to move on to the next chapter in my football career so all the best and I’ll see all of you Bannsiders again soon.”
His touching comments came before his former outfit suffered disappointment with a late penalty conceded in a 1-1 draw in a Europa League first-leg qualifier in Serbia against Spartak Subotica.
The morale-sapping spot-kick came on 96 minutes to deny the Bannsiders a win after Ian Parkhill fouled Nemanja Glavcic and Mile Savkovic scored. But coach Terry McKendry, taking on duties in the absence of holidaying Kearney, said the result was one which filled him with pride despite the late setback.
“I looked at the penalty again and thought it was soft. Our first instinct was that we were absolutely gutted for the players because they had worked so hard and were excellent to a man. But then you get back into the changing room and you realise the game is still alive, while this time last year the game was dead and buried. Our lads were out on their feet. Spartak are a very technically gifted side and had a lot of possession.”
Darren McAuley gave the visitors the lead in the first half which, ultimately, gives his side a chance of progressing through the tie, with the second leg at Ballycastle Road on 19 July. And McKendry added:
“I’m proud as punch because the players took everything that we had been working on during the last few weeks into the game. It’s different when Oran and William aren’t here but the players were superb.
“To get a draw away from home in Europe is probably more than I thought we could achieve, but when we got the early goal we had something to hold on to. The tie is very much still alive. We are still in with a chance and it’s all credit to the players. To go through to the second round would be immense for a part-time club and great financially.”