Fermanagh's Milk Cup hopes are rising
Martin Mawhinney begins the countdown to next week's Milk Cup with a daily focus on our local County teams
Once upon a time, the County of Fermanagh seemed to be a little bit of a hidden gem in footballing terms.
The old 'West of the Bann' tag seemed to suggest that prospects in the game there were in some way limited – a factor that appeared to be highlighted by the annual triumph of East over West in the qualification game for the Northern Ireland Uefa Regions Cup team.
Of course, there has never been any truth in this philosophy, and the prominence over the past decade of Northern Ireland players like Roy Carroll, Andy Little and Kyle Lafferty has served to underline as much.
But, arguably more than anything, it has been the emergence of Ballinamallard United as an Irish League force to be reckoned with that has truly brought Fermanagh to the forefront of the local game.
Many outside the area thought the big story was the Mallards' promotion to the Premiership last summer, when in actual fact, they surprised the vast majority with a fifth-place finish.
Can they go one better again next season? It would be a tall order to break Belfast's newly-dubbed 'Big Four,' but no-one should ever rule out anything with this special club. In the meantime, it's no coincidence that Ballinamallard have a tangible presence at this year's Milk Cup.
The influence runs right through the Fermanagh camp at the celebrated tournament from the Junior right through to the Premier set-up.
At the helm of the Junior squad, Andy McCutcheon may be taking charge for his very first year, but he will have a few familiar faces to help him along the way.
Matthew Smyth, Jordan Coalter, Timothy Boyd, Callum Frempong, Kyle Coalter, Jordan Toal, Luke Henderson, Conal Quinn and Conor McGee all play for Ballinamallard Youth, who McCutcheon manages in the National League.
And, right by his side throughout the whole adventure, will be assistant John Quinn, the experienced coach who, as well as leading Ballinamallard's Youth team to the IFA Reserve League in their first ever season there, also managed Fermanagh's Premier team at last year's Milk Cup.
In addition, the sideline is shared with Ballinamallard Youth goalkeeping coach Adam Poots and fitness coach Tony Frempong.
McCutcheon admits: "Going into the job, I did my research and inquired about who was available. These are people whose judgment I trust.
"As far as the players go, I suppose it was always going to be like this. I know how far they can go in terms of performance."
The 28-year-old coach stresses he is taking a realistic outlook ahead of the competition, focusing on the overall experience as much as the results.
In particular, he is looking forward to facing Japan FA on Monday.
"We've really got to get the most out of that game," he adds. "For a lot of these boys, it may be the only time they get to play against a national side."
The Mallards theme continues into the Premier Under-17 squad, where Gareth McGuckin is the man calling the shots. Once again it is the youthful conveyor belt of talent at Ferney Park shining through, with Ciaran Smith sure to play a key role. At just 16, the promising central midfielder is arguably a year young for this senior outfit, but he has huge ability.
Moreover, Enniskillen Rangers feature heavily in manager McGuckin's thoughts, with seven of their players selected in his squad. Like McCutcheon, he is sticking with what he knows, having coached Jamie-Lee Fawcett, Ashley Hoey, Jamie Connolly, Aaron Burns, Stuart Rainey, Connor McAuley and Brendan Lilley at Rangers, leading them to a League and Cup double.
Their group has thrown up the challenge of Mexican side Club America and the Otago side from New Zealand. However, it is the pairing with County Tyrone which perhaps stirs the greatest intrigue of all. It's an encounter which brings back memories for McCutcheon.
"We played them when I was in charge of the Junior side two years ago," he winces.
"We played well in the first 20 minutes, but just before half-time, they went 1-0 up. Then we were hit by a sucker punch, as Jamie Amos was sent off."
McCutcheon is targeting four points from the group stage.
The five who are representing Lisnaskea Rovers, in particular, will doubtless have the memory of the late fellow clubman and 2002 junior Milk Cup representative Brian Og Maguire, who lost his life in a tragic work accident last autumn, in their thoughts throughout next week.