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Northern Ireland youngsters have much work ahead to catch up on full-timers

By Keith Bailie

County Down coach John Bailie believes young footballers in Northern Ireland are still a step behind their contemporaries in England.

In recent years the results of county sides at the SuperCupNI have improved, while the Irish Football Association's ClubNI training programme has provided aspiring footballers with additional training sessions.

Despite these improvements, Bailie - who played in the Irish League for both Bangor and Ards - believes there is still a lot of work to be done.

"Kids in Northern Ireland are at a disadvantage when compared to children in England because there aren't full-time teams who they can train with on a daily basis.

"Our boys probably train for two hours a week with their local club, while young lads in England or Scotland will have five or six sessions a week.

"For the SuperCup, we train three times a week for six weeks, which gives us 18 sessions before we head to Coleraine. English lads get that sort of exposure on a regular basis.

"The IFA's ClubNI programme is a step in the right direction, although I know there have been teething problems between the association and the clubs, over the release of players.

"It's too early to say whether ClubNI has eased the issue but I welcome anything that increases contact time. The litmus test will be in a few years time, when we see how many ClubNI graduates make the Northern Ireland team."

Bailie saw the difference first-hand last weekend when he took his County Down side to Glasgow to play Rangers Under 17s in a friendly.

"We drew 1-1, which is a good result, but they totally dominated the game. We avoided defeat only because we got our fair share of luck, but you won't get lucky five days in a row at the SuperCup.

"It was an eye-opener for the boys as it showed them that they will have to play much better in the tournament."

Bailie's boys will open the tournament on Monday against African side Lusaka, before playing County Armagh on Tuesday and MS Select on Wednesday.

"The draw is the draw, you just have to take what you're given. What I would say is, I would prefer not to play another county side. It seems a shame to have all these teams visiting Northern Ireland, only for two local sides to end up playing each other.

"But it happens most years, so we're used to it.

"Our other two games will be interesting, as Lusaka played well against us last year, and MS Select from New Zealand.

"I feel we have a team that can compete with anyone at this tournament. There's no reason why we can't make the semi-finals, but at the SuperCup you could just as easily lose all three games."

County Down's Junior side, who are managed by David Bryson, will play Partick Thistle, ClubNI's Under 14s and Southampton.

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