Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Armagh's Premier squad in full bloom for Milk Cup

Martin Mawhinney continues countdown to next week's Milk Cup with daily focus on our local County teams

County Armagh Milk Cup Premier squad
Armagh's Aaron Duke

Once selected, every young footballer harbours a dream of playing against the top teams in the Milk Cup – and for Armagh's Premier squad that dream is going to come sooner than most.

Not many players from Northern Ireland have a chance to score against a Premiership club in their lifetime, but Brendan Grimes' boys from County Armagh have a double chance, as they face Liverpool on Monday followed by Newcastle United on Tuesday.

It's an ideal chance for a player to make a name for themselves, as returning striker Aaron Duke knows well.

The 17-year-old, who was the youngest member of Linfield's Under-19 side last season, came on as a late substitute against Tottenham Hotspur last summer to score a late equaliser for the Orchard county and hopes to do the same again on the big stage this year.

Thinking back to his strike last in last year's competition, Duke  said: "It was brilliant. I really enjoyed the atmosphere, but what really made it was the fact that my dad (Dollingstown manager Gary) is a big Spurs man.

"I'm a Man United supporter, so obviously I'd love to score against Liverpool. It would be a dream come true."

Duke's county boss Grimes admits he couldn't believe his luck at the cards dealt to his enthusiastic squad in his second season in charge.

The Premier squad manager smiled: "We couldn't have picked it better ourselves. You want to be playing the best teams, and the Chilean club we are playing on the Wednesday aren't likely to be too far behind.

"The best thing for our boys is that the games against Liverpool and Newcastle kick off at 8pm, so it means, with all the support for English football over here, we should have big crowds."

And he isn't concerned about the potential of his side freezing when their big moment arrives, or the possibility of them conceding a bagful of goals.

"If you're well organised, that's something you hope won't happen," said Grimes.

"Of course there is a difference in standard – they have academy players who come from all over the place, while we are only able to select from a small county, with players who train once or twice a week.

"But if we approach the games in the right way, and close down our opposition, just as we did against Spurs last year, we can give them a game.

"The motivation is already taken care of. If they aren't motivated to play Liverpool and Newcastle, we are falling down badly somewhere."

The build-up to the Milk Cup has been a unique experience this year for Grimes, who for the first time in 17 years' involvement with the Milk Cup has been without the guidance of colleague Gerry McKee.

It truly is the end of an era as McKee takes a back seat after 25 years managing YTP, Junior and Premier squads in the competition in order to focus on his role as Development Officer for the Northern Ireland Boys FA.

Stepping into McKee's shoes, in charge of the Junior Squad for his debut season as a Milk Cup manager, is Pat McGibbon.

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland international and ex-Newry City boss may be more accustomed to coaching senior footballers, but he is also well experienced with younger age groups.

He runs a coaching programme for 5-12-year-olds in his home town of Lurgan, and also has already worked with a handful of the players in his Junior squad in the Irish FA's County Excellence Programme.

Yet McGibbon won't be drawn on which age group is his favourite to work with.

He said: "I've seen all parts of the spectrum, and you do find that you have to change your personna, depending on the group.

"The bottom line if you're coaching, though, is that your players enjoy it, that you have a passion for the game, and that you're able to deal with people. That's what management is all about."

As a central defender, McGibbon pulled the shirt on for Craigavon United in the Milk Cup, before the introducton of the County system, under the watchful eye of talent spotter supreme Dessie McGuinness.

The man described as 'Mr Lurgan' by McGibbon, and known fondly by many as 'Bunker' had a huge influence on the current Junior boss, and his achievements were vast.

Not only did McGuinness lead Craigavon to the Milk Cup in 1986, but also took charge of a team that contained a handful of future Northern Ireland household names including Neil Lennon, Gerry Taggart, and Gerard McMahon.

"I was a late developer, and it was a few years after the Milk Cup before I got playing cross-channel, but Bunker gave me that opportunity, and I want to do the same for these boys."

And what an opportunity. Armagh's Juniors round of their Milk Cup group with a glamour tie against Everton, and they'll be eager to have a few points on the board before that mouthwatering encounter.

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