Milk runs dry but show will go on
Determined organisers insist the show WILL go on for Northern Ireland's world famous summer youth football tournament but – almost incredibly – the Milk Cup's instantly recognisable worldwide trading name officially is no more.
Yesterday's announcement from the Dairy Council that it would not be renewing its financial backing was not totally unexpected.
However, the stark reality is that things will never quite be the same for a competition that blossomed against incredible odds thanks to 30 years of unstinting support from the body charged with promoting dairy produce here.
Dairy Council chief executive, Dr. Mike Johnston, associated with the tournament sponsorship from day one, insisted it wasn't an easy decision but added that the time had come for the industry to explore new marketing and promotional options.
Business reasons finally dictated the parting of the ways, he stressed.
"The tournament will carry on," responded Jim Sandford of the organising committee.
"We acknowledge the support of the Dairy Council down the years and we move on from the solid base of our 30 year partnership."
Tournament chairman Victor Leonard described one of UK sport's longest running partnerships as "a remarkable and generous example of dedicated support for youth football."
In its heyday, the tournament helped launch 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 tournament organisers 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.
While Victor Leonard is at pains to stress that the 2014 Northern Ireland Cup – now reverting back to its original 1983 trading name – will be staged next summer, there is no doubting they now face a massive shortfall in funding.
Surely those Stormont departments responsible for promoting sport and tourism will waste no time talking to the organisers to ascertain how they plan to proceed and what help they can give in protecting a jewel in the event tourism crown?
From a competition that started life as the pipedream of youth football stalwarts Jim Weir and Victor Leonard and was catapulted into reality thanks to the untiring enthusiasm and diligence of the late, great Bertie Peacock, this remarkable germ of a notion was eventually born in 1982 and delivered a year later when 16 teams, mostly from both sides of the border, arrived in Coleraine to set the ball rolling.
Through the darkest days of Northern Ireland's bloody conflict the Milk Cup, as it quickly became known, bucked the trend. Some of the world's biggest football clubs sent representatives and the tournament expanded from one age group into three.
So why has the Dairy Council blown the final whistle? Dr. Johnston said: "We needed to find room in our budget to do other things. We won't be diverting the funds into another sponsorship – they'll be used, for example, to drive sales of other dairy products.
"Basically, the decision is the result of a strategic review of our spending and after 30 years supporting the Milk Cup, we feel the time has come to take a new direction." He said that having been involved from the outset, he feel a great sentimental attachment to the event and wished the organisers well in their search for new backers.
"Its a fantastic tournament with a lot to offer which is why we became involved in the first place. We wanted to support an event that would bring something beneficial to the communty here – that was the incentive and the tournament delivered in that respect by giving local players the chance to compete against teams from different countries and different cultures."
The 2014 NI Cup is already at an advanced stage with clubs and teams from across the world tripping over themselves to enter.
Organisers now say it will be different while retaining a familiar feel. Expansion and new look format is promised. What is certain is that the next instalment will be a challenging one.
Milk Cup memories
Becks and the boys: Who could ever forget 1991 and a lad called Beckham captains Man United to the Premier title with a win over Hearts at Coleraine Showgrounds?
That United team was bursting with future stars including Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Robbie Savage and Ben Thornley as well as our own Colin Murdock and Keith Gillespie.
Shiels' Samba smasher: Dean Shiels' stunning goal against Brazil to help Northern Ireland record a fabulous 2-1 victory over the Samba boys in a 2004 group game.
The goal was exceptional from a guy who went on to lift the Golden Boot award and win senior recognition.
Gary's pure gold: Remember Gary Bollan? You should do! Dundee United won the 1987 Junior event, extra time winners over Crewe and brilliant Bollan hit 14 goals for the Scots along the way to lift the Golden Boot. He went on to play for Rangers and a total of seven Scottish clubs.
Charlie the darling: Glasgow giants Rangers used to grace the competition.
Charlie Millar was a stand out performer in 1992 and his goalscoring exploits in the Premier final victory over Nottingham Forest led to the decider being forever recalled "The Charlie Millar Final."
He netted a couple of goals to reach double figures for the 10th anniversary Premier tournament.
Elite elation: The Elite win by Steve Beaglehole's Northern Ireland in his first tournament in charge back in 2008 ended an 11-year wait for success in the Under-20 category.
His side went on to lift the crown again the following year. In 2008, future senior stars Andrew Little, Ryan McGivern and Daniel Lafferty were in the squad.
Parade power: The faces of the players year after year as they march through the centre of Coleraine during the welcome parade and take the applause of the thousands of well wishers lining the route to the Showgrounds... priceless.
It is something all the players remember for the rest of their lives. Chelsea's Joe Cole still says it was a great feeling: "We felt like real super stars," he told a BBC documentary programme a couple of years ago.
Barmby brilliance: The goalscoring ability of Nicky Barmby when he led the line for Spurs in 1990 as they swept all before them and won the Premier final 2-1 against Crewe Alexandra.
Milk magic! Traditionally, the winning teams have been drenched in milk after their captains receive the silverware, sparking fantastic scenes of celebrations. Sadly, those milk-laiden moments are suddenly no more.