Three men had a dream as they sat in the upstairs lounge of a Coleraine restaurant. A dream that a prestigious youth international football tournament could be staged in Northern Ireland — one with global appeal.
Jim Weir, driving force of the NI Boys FA, and Victor Leonard, chairman of a local youth league, called on the services of the late Bertie Peacock, ex-Northern Ireland and Celtic captain, to assist them. The rest is history.
After a year as the Northern Ireland Youth Cup, visionaries at the old Milk Marketing Board, now the Dairy Council, also recognised the possibilities.
Backed by late chairman John Lynn and chief executive Mike Johnston, a lasting 27-year relationship began.
Totally volunteer-run to this day, it is a credit to the organisational team, led by Mister Milk Cup, the indefatigable secretary Jim Sandford who commands his troops for the week in the Coleraine, Ballymena, Limavady and Ballymoney Council areas with the authority of a five star general.
One of its most fervent supporters is Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who describes it as “a real winner — a wonderful event.” Other distinguished members of football’s hierarchy sing its praises.
The list of young pretenders, some of them now megastars, who have graduated from this tournament, is mind-boggling. It reads like a Who’s Who of the game, headed by David Beckham who was a member of the 1991 Manchester United squad which won the Premier Section.
Paul Scholes was also in that line-up along with Gary Neville, Colin Murdock, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage.
Later, knowledgeable Milk Cup watchers noted the name of Wayne Rooney with Everton. Liverpool star names include Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Dominic Matteo. Brazil supplied Lucas Leiva (Liverpool) and Carlos Rincon (Inter Milan) and from World Cup semi-finalists Uruguay came Fabian Estoyanoff.
Barry Ferguson and Charlie Millar were in the Rangers panel and others who graced the series were Nick Barmby (Spurs), Lee Clark and Michael Carrick (Newcastle), Owen Hargreves (Bayern Munich), Steve Staunton (Dundalk Schoolboys 1983), Aaron Lennon and Scott Carson (both Leeds), Joey Barton (Everton), Jermain Defoe (Charlton) and Simon Poulson (Denmark).
No fewer than 20 players competing in this summer’s World Cup finals benefited from the Milk Cup experience. I mention only a few — England’s Peter Crouch, James Milner, Michael Carrick, Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore (both USA), Alberto Medina, Edgar Benitez (Mexico), Thomas Mueller (Germany), Edgar Barreto (Italy).
Many Northern Ireland players have come through the ranks, among them Steve Lomas, Jim Magilton, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley.
Names tell the story of a competition which is of immense value in projecting the real image of Northern Ireland even during years of adversity. The dream of those three men had become a reality.
I leave the last word to Victor Leonard: “Friendship and fun have been our strong points. Everyone enjoys themselves at the Milk Cup whether they watch it, play in it or organise. That’s a brilliant testimony. We have created something very special for this area. It brings happiness and harmony.”