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SuperCupNI: County Antrim sides have bridged gap on big guns, says coach Sam Gamble

By Keith Bailie

Published 21/07/2016

Slipping standards: Co Fermanagh coach Sam Gamble
Slipping standards: Co Fermanagh coach Sam Gamble

When County Antrim lifted the Premier Section title at the Milk Cup last year, it was hailed as an almighty achievement.

And rightly so, as Andy Hunter's boys became the first Northern Irish side to win the section in its 32-year history.

But does Antrim's success prove that the County sides have improved, or has the standard of teams visiting the north coast dropped?

Famously, Manchester United dropped out of last year's competition. But over the years, the likes of Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United have slipped away with much less fanfare.

County Fermanagh coach Sam Gamble agrees that the standard has slipped since the golden era of the mid-00s, but he is keen to point out that the County teams' more professional approach has helped bridge the gap between the local sides and the SuperCup NI's visitors.

He said: "Every year the gap between the County teams and the visiting sides gets a little smaller. It's noticeable in the Premier section, where there are fewer big name clubs.

"But I don't blame the committee, I think it's just the way football is these days. Clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have so many more options. They can afford to send their youth teams to America or Qatar for pre-season training, so a tournament in Coleraine is probably less appealing.

"But it's also important to recognise that the County sides have upped their game.

"It used to be a manager, an assistant and if you were lucky, a physio. Nowadays, the county sides train four nights a week. They have access to things like strength and conditioning coaches, which was unthinkable a few years ago. If you look through the coaching staff, there is a lot of Irish League experience.

"The County sides will be very competitive again this year."

There are still some big names in this year's SuperCup NI, formerly the Milk Cup, including two of County Fermanagh's opponents in the Premier event.

Gamble, who is the assistant to manager and ex-Ballinamallard United man Darren Higginbotham, says the boys from Fermanagh are excited at the prospect of facing Championship side Newcastle United and the famous African football academy Right to Dream.

He said: "We are excited about our draw. Obviously playing Newcastle and Right to Dream will be very difficult but that's what the SuperCup is all about.

"You want the opportunity to test yourself against quality sides, and that's exactly what we have. We've even got a local derby against County Tyrone, so we have three very exciting matches to look forward to."

In the Junior Section, Fermanagh will face American side Strikers, Dundalk and English club Swindon Town.

With Kyle Lafferty, Michael McGovern and Roy Carroll all part of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad, we have already seen that Fermanagh lads can mix it with the best of them.

Belfast Telegraph

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