Milk Cup has left ‘home’ for Ballymena
No World Cup Finals for David Beckham. No Milk Cup Finals this year for the town where his trophy-laden career began.
Ironically, as the Milk Cup’s most famous old boy succumbed to injury, health and safety issues were cited as the reason behind the shock move by the Milk Cup Organising Committee to transfer the finals of this year’s competition from Coleraine to Ballymena.
Chairman and Coleraine townsman Victor Leonard described the move as the ‘most difficult decision’ in the 28-year history of the international youth football tournament, were Beckham famously lifted his first trophy in 1991.
But he stressed that it will be a temporary move, adding that the showpiece finale would return to Coleraine when facilities there are brought back to the required standard.
Capacity and facilities are the major problems at Coleraine. The crowd limit there is now under 3,000 while a Milk Cup Final featuring Manchester United or Northern Ireland, as per the past two years, will attract up to 7,000. Ballymena can accommodate 5,000, even with work on a new stand still to be completed.
Victor explained: “New Health and Safety legislation is coming in which will further restrict the capacity of many venues across a wide range of sports in the Province. It will mean the capacity of Coleraine Showgrounds will be greatly reduced, falling far short of the requirement for our three finals.
“We require a location that provides spectator comfort for four hours as many of our supporters are present for all three matches. We also need to be able to accommodate six teams on finals night and although we have utilised temporary changing rooms over the past decade, we concede that these do not meet the high standards expected by representatives of some of the world’s top clubs at a major international event.
“This is an issue which has been raised with us by officials of a number of participating teams in recent years.
“Considering we have clubs such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Everton and national teams from Brazil, Chile, the USA, it is a point well made.”
However, Victor added that the organising committee had nothing but praise for Coleraine Football Club and the work that has been carried out at the Showgrounds in recent years to improve facilities, including the provision of new floodlighting.
“We have had to make a decision which is largely out of our own control,” he said.
“With new legislation due on ground safety we simply will not be permitted to stage the Finals of our competition at the Ballycastle Road venue because the attendance figure will be reduced well below the numbers we are fortunate to attract on finals night.”
Victor insisted his committee had explored every possible solution and stressed that there had been ‘extensive’ talks on the issue over a period of months, both internally and with Coleraine Borough Council.
“As a Coleraine man, I have always considered the town as the spiritual home of the Milk Cup,” Victor insisted.
“Unfortunately our hands have been tied on this issue. It has not been an easy decision because we are proud of the fact that we provide one of the most popular events in Northern Ireland’s calendar, which attracts visitors from across the globe as well as international media coverage.
“The economic benefit to the region is enormous and our move to Ballymena with the finals will not diminish the overall tourism spin off for the North Coast area.
“We are grateful that Ballymena can accommodate us until such times as there are facilities in Coleraine which permit us to bring the finals back to the area.
“Coleraine FC have helped us over the years and we will continue to stage matches at the Showgrounds, including moving the semi-finals of the Premier competition from Ballymena back to the Coleraine-Ballymoney area.”
Victor insisted that there is no intention to move the tournament away from its current North Coast home: “The location has always been its attraction. Our success over the years quickly made us expand to Ballymoney and Limavady, then on to Ballymena. We also acknowledge the generous support we have received from all the local Councils.
“Over the years we have received several enquiries about moving the tournament along with exceptionally attractive incentives to go.
“However, we do not envisage ever taking that path because we are proud of our roots and grateful for the support we have received from the public.
“We will bring the finals back to Coleraine just as soon as there are facilities suitable for hosting an international tournament.
“In the past number of years, Coleraine Borough Council has been extremely supportive with the upgrade of facilities at Anderson Park, Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock.
“We have no doubt the Council will do everything possible to provide a facility in the Borough to accommodate our Finals and also attract other major events to the greater Coleraine area.
“The North Coast is a magnificent backdrop for visiting teams, officials and the ever increasing numbers of parents and supporters who come to enjoy the competition.
“The tournament continues to provide a stage for young players from across the world to compete at a high level and also impress an array of international talent scouts, representing many of the major clubs from Europe and beyond.
“There is an exciting opportunity available to progress their playing careers.”
This year's Milk Cup kicks off on Monday, July 26 and runs until Friday, July 30, with the hugely popular welcome parade of competing teams still taking place through Coleraine on Sunday, July 25.