Antrim's special experience of training with Northern Ireland midfielder Chris Brunt
Martin Mawhinney continues countdown to next week's Milk Cup with daily focus on our local County teams
Published 23/07/2013 | 01:30
If any of the players lining up for County Antrim in the Milk Cup next week are short of inspiration, they won't have far to look, thanks to the side's manager Stefan Seaton.
In fact, they will only have to dip around a month into their respective memory banks to recall the special experience of training with none other than Northern Ireland midfielder Chris Brunt at Greenmount College.
The West Brom skipper, who somehow alluded the attentions of the County Down squad selectors when he would have been eligible to compete in the Milk Cup, has trained with the Antrim squad every June over the past decade to keep his fitness levels up over the Premier League close-season.
And Seaton, who coached Brunt (below) and a countless array of Northern Ireland's other top players at renowned Shankill Road youth team St Andrews, believes the benefits for his players are practically immeasurable.
He enthused: "It's incredibly important that there is a link between professional footballers and those involved in grassroots football.
"Somebody like Chris Brunt is a great inspiration to these boys – he wasn't picked for the Milk Cup, nor for Northern Ireland's Under-17s, or the Under-19s, yet there he is, the captain of a Premier League side.
"The boys were buzzing to be training with Chris, but he was buzzing just as much to be there. He has been a tremendous supporter of grassroots football over the years and deserves credit for that."
Another player who has given the Antrim set-up a lift over the years has been Liverpool starlet Ryan McLaughlin.
The 18-year-old gives every aspiring footballer of the current generation the hope that they can succeed at the very highest level, despite increasingly challenging circumstances.
And, like Brunt, he is a regular at the Antrim Milk Cup squad's pre-tournament training sessions.
Seaton revealed: "Last year, literally a week after he trained with us, Ryan went over to Boston to play in Liverpool's pre-season camapaign, and I was one of the first people he rang. He wanted me to make sure the boys knew Brendan Rodgers was starting him in the team.
"That's the sort of guy he is. I'm able to say to the boys, 'you see that fella there – he was up here doing what you're doing four years ago.'"
McLaughlin has admitted the experience helped him to where he is today.
"Participating for Antrim helped me get noticed by clubs in England," said the exciting Liverpool prospect.
"It is such a big tournament and Antrim have a great history of players representing them and going on to successful careers in professional football, so it was a big help for me."
The Premier team – who will be managed by Seaton for the third year running after two years in charge of the Juniors – kick off with an eye-catching fixture against County Derry.
But it is the Premier team's opener against Manchester United that is most likely to stir the imagination. It's a fixture another Antrim old boy, Johnny Evans of United and Northern Ireland, will no doubt have a keen interest in.
For Premier manager Mark Sweeney, it's an exciting way to start his new role, and he clearly can't wait to get it all underway.
The Crusaders Youth coach said: "Obviously with playing Man United in the first game, it adds to the excitement and expectation. It has given us a real focus and edge to our training. The coaching staff are also looking forward to going up against TUS Altenberge and Strikers FC. It is a tough draw but we will be all ready for the challenge."
There is plenty of quality in the backroom team of both Antrim squads too, with the likes of Davy McAlinden and Ross Hanley assisting the Junior side and Mervyn Montgomery and Jim Gorman with the Premier.
Antrim are further assisted by sponsors Pharmalink Consulting and AES Ballylumford, who, through their financial support, have allowed the county to make this a memorable week and build-up for their players.
And Sweeney says that all involved are determined to repay the support they have received with a good showing in this year's tournament.
The Premier team boss added: "I felt very honoured to be offered the job, and I know several coaches who have guided Antrim in the past, like Laurence Gilloway, Mervyn Montgomery, Stevie Graham and Stefan Seaton.
"To now be included on that list is a great privilege. My idea is to enjoy it, and to ensure my players and staff enjoy it, and to savour the experiences that the tournament will bring. We also want to do County Antrim and Northern Ireland proud."