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Manchester United to face Northern Ireland in Under 18 challenge as SuperCupNI curtain raiser

Manchester United will take on Northern Ireland in a glamour Under 18 curtain raiser to this summer's SuperCup NI.

Some of Old Trafford’s brightest future stars will tackle the best Northern Ireland teenage talent in Coleraine as Manchester United’s Under 18s coach Kieran McKenna jumped at the opportunity to take part in what turns out to be a special homecoming for the Fermanagh man.

The challenge game at Coleraine Showgrounds on Saturday, July 22, is expected to sell out quickly as United fans get the chance to celebrate the club’s return to the international youth tournament after a two-year absence.

Current United stars Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have both played in the SuperCupNI and fans will be eager to cast their eye over the club's next crop of promising talent.

McKenna, who played for Enniskillen Town and Ballinamallard United before signing for Tottenham Hotspur, has happy memories of the competition himself and is happy and honoured to be getting involved all over again with a squad of young stars he has been working with since he joined United’s coaching staff from Spurs last September.

McKenna also captained Northern Ireland in the Elite competition in 2005 and has now forged an excellent reputation for developing young talent after coming through the ranks at Spurs.

"I was involved with Tottenham since a 14-year-old lad coming across from Northern Ireland to train with the youth team," he says. "I was full time at 16 and had seven fantastic years as a player.”

Unfortunately, the last two years were heavily disrupted by injury and he was forced to end his playing career at 23.

"I learned a lot and Tottenham have had a lot of success with Academy but to join Manchester United, there is no bigger move you can make. It has a fantastic Academy and it was a dream come true really. I was a massive United fan growing up. My dad took me to my first game in the 1994 season to see them lift the Premier League trophy."

Kieran places huge significance on young players testing themselves against high level international competition and knows the challenges and benefits playing at a tournament such as the SuperCupNI will bring United’s young players in July’s Junior tournament in Northern Ireland.

“There is an importance placed on developing the individual and generating outstanding individuals who can play in the first team as a main priority,” he says.

In recent years fans at the SuperCupNI saw future stars such as Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard in action at the tournament. Striker Rashford, now an established England international, was part of the United squad that won the Premier title in 2014, along with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson who scored the only goal in the final against French side Vendee.

Adds Kieran: “If our boys get in the first team, they will play against South Americans and others from all over Europe, Asia and the rest of the world so they need to get used to playing against those kinds of teams collectively as well as individual players. Their styles of play are different to British players so the boys who represent us at international tournaments gain some invaluable experience.”

Kieran has special memories of competing in the Milk Cup as it was called then. He was 13 when he represented County Fermanagh in the Junior Section and then in the Under-20 section for Northern Ireland. “We beat Brazil in the semi-finals but were beaten by USA in the final. It’s a good tournament and I really enjoyed it. It’s great for the Irish fans over there as any time United play in Ireland at any level, there is immense interest.”

Former Milk Cup winner Nicky Butt now heads up Manchester United’s Academy. He was part of the famous 1991 team that lifted the Premier crown in Coleraine with some of the club’s future big names such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Robbie Savage and Paul Scholes.

The Northern Ireland squad to face Manchester United has still to be finalised but coach Steve Frail says its presents a massive opportunity for his players. The Glaswegian says: “This is such a prestigious tournament and I’m hoping to use as many home-based players as possible.

“We are talking about playing the cream of youth football and it will be a terrific occasion for players and fans of a great tournament.”

Steve renewed his acquaintance with the competition last year as part of the Irish FA’s ClubNI coaching team. “I was able to take in a lot of games and the standard was excellent.

“I was with Hearts a few years ago when they played in it and although we didn’t do so well, the whole experience was fantastic for the boys. It is such a well organised event.”

SuperCupNI chairman Victor Leonard says Manchester United’s enthusiasm to be involved in next month’s game is not surprising.

“We have maintained a strong, friendly relationship with Old Trafford over many years and particularly in the past two years when they were not able to compete. We are thrilled to not only have them competing at Junior level but also participating in this new venture for us with the Under-18 game.

“We are constantly exploring different ideas to enhance the event and will be taking several innovative ideas forward as we look to develop it in the years ahead.

“To have United playing at this level is massive for us. Manchester United are a major global brand and the game will attract huge media interest.”

This year the key role the SuperCupNI has played in assisting the development of future players in top flight football has been recognised by the Premier League in England which is providing financial assistance.

Following the Manchester United-Northern Ireland game at Ballycastle Road Showgrounds on July 22, the tournament’s traditional welcome parade featuring competing teams will conclude at the ground with the opening ceremony.

Finals night is Friday, July 28, at Ballymena Showgrounds.

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