Football: Our boys sense victory
First established in 1925, there is no question that today, the Victory Shield is the most prestigious trophy in the Under-16 football calendar. Contested between Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, it can also be considered as football's major Home countries' championship, since the senior version of that tournament met its demise in 1984.
The tournament is contested on six individual nights, over the course of two months, with each team playing the other once. The title winners are decided via a league system.
The games take place across the British Isles, with England and Wales this year getting to play two matches at home, with Northern Ireland and Scotland having that opportunity once. Northern Ireland's game will be against Scotland, at the Ballymena Showgrounds on 8th November.
The first match of the 2007 Victory Shield occurred on Friday, and saw Everton youngster Lee McArdle give Wales a 1-0 victory over Scotland, in one of their home games in Carmarthen.
Next on the schedule is Northern Ireland's away contest with England, to be held at Blackpool's Bloomfield Road stadium. The match will air live on Sky Television - who also sponsor the event - a fact that cements the tournament's stature, in the mind of Northern Ireland manager Dessie Curry.
"It's a fabulous competition, because Sky make it so high profile," he said. "Their coverage is paramount, because it enables these young players to play at high-quality stadiums, in front of large crowds, as well as the cameras. In terms of experience, that's vital."
Although several members of the squad play their football at a club academy in England, most of the squad will not have previously experienced this type of exposure, or pressure. But Curry urges that the opportunity to play at this level, at their age, is important to their development.
"Many of the boys will not have experienced anything like this, and it is important for them to learn to cope with this type of scrutiny. I'm looking at the development of these players, and there's no question that this sort of event can help them in their future careers."
Northern Ireland's squad is much-changed from that which finished bottom of the table in last year's competition. Curry believes that this group is superior, however, and is certain that they can be more competitive this time around.
"I think that this squad compares favourably to last year," he said. "I'm sure that we can perform better than we did last year. Our fitness has improved, and the camaraderie in this team is very good. England will always be a tough proposition, but I feel we're on a par with Wales and Scotland."
The England game will therefore be a major test for Northern Ireland, especially after their 3-0 defeat, also at Ballymena Showgrounds, in November 2006. But the squad should take heart from the scoreline two years ago, in which they triumphed 1-0, thanks to a stoppage time winner from Manchester United's Corey Evans.
"It's difficult to predict how the England game will go," admits Curry. "Obviously, we're aware of what happened last year, but we aim to win, and our gameplan will reflect that. We're the underdogs, and we'll perform better with that mindset."
Looking to the long-term future, Curry is upbeat about the future of Northern Ireland football, especially in consideration of the Victory Shield squads that he has taken charge of. That optimism has been augmented by the capture of James Gray - son of former international Phil Gray - who opted to play for Northern Ireland, despite being eligible to play for England.
"It's wonderful that James has decided to play for Northern Ireland," he concluded. "And judging by this squad, we can be optimistic for the future. Of previous Victory Shield squads, around 60% of players go on to gain caps at senior level, and we'd like to think that 80% of this squad will soon have a full-time contract with a club. In fact, Andrew Mitchell and Neil Dougan are already with Manchester City, and Gray is at Middlesbrough."
Previous Northern Ireland senior internationals who have come through the Victory Shield ranks are Harry Gregg, Norman Whiteside, and Jimmy Nicholl.
Perhaps one day, the names of Mitchell, Dougan, and Gray, for example, will be just as well known.