The world famous Northern Ireland Milk Cup tournament has lost its dairy industry headline sponsor after 30 years.
News of the shock split emerged today after a meeting between Milk Cup organisers and their Dairy Council backers.
Instead of a hoped-for renewal of the sponsorship, a Dairy Council statement said the decision follows a strategic review of the Dairy Council's activities in Northern Ireland.
Chief Executive of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland, Dr Mike Johnston, said: “This was not an easy decision for us, but no sponsorship is permanent. The Milk Cup has been a hugely important and successful sponsorship for the Dairy Council since we became involved 30 years ago, but the market has evolved, and we need to ensure that our activities meet the needs of the Northern Ireland dairy industry."
He added: “We are delighted that over the past three decades we have played our part in making the Milk Cup one of the top events of its kind in the world.”
In wishing the tournament every success in the future, Dr Johnston, added: “One of the things that attracted us to the event in the early 1980s was the opportunity it provided for local lads to have the experience of playing against teams from other countries and cultures.
"At a time when Northern Ireland was in the grip of a dark period in its history, and amidst negative publicity in international media, it will always be a testament to the tournament that teams from all over the world were prepared to come to Northern Ireland. And over the years, not only have local players benefited from The Milk Cup experience, but also many friendships have been established and have endured. In other words, the legacy of The Milk Cup will live on.”
In its heyday, the tournament launched the careers of numerous Premiership and international stars, including David Beckham and Ryan Giggs and continues to attract some of the world's biggest name clubs to the north coast each summer.
It also enjoyed the patronage of Sir Alex Ferguson throughout his 26 year reign as Manchester United manager.
Now, like Fergie, Dairy Council chiefs have decided to explore new avenues, principally supporting and promoting products other than milk, having poured an estimated £1.5million into the event down the years.
The decision, described by both sides as 'without acrimony', leaves the tournament organsers just eight months to find a new sponsor prepared to pick up the estimated £80,000 organisational tab. One option is to look at sharing the cost over as many as four commercial backers.
It will also mean a name change for an event that had become synonymous with the product whose name it promoted.
"The tournament will carry on," Jim Sandford of the organising committee insisted.
"We acknowledge the support of the Dairy Council down the years and we move on from the solid base of our 30 year partnership."
- Jim Gracey