Belfast Telegraph

Red Devils were missed ... but not that much

By Keith Bailie

When Manchester United dropped out of the Dale Farm Milk Cup in May just days before the draw the doom-sayers were queueing up to predict the death of the 33-year-old youth tournament.

There was yet more woe for the organising committee on Sunday when the traditional parade through Coleraine town centre was cancelled due to bad weather, all while African side Lusaka slept on the floor of Copenhagen airport after visa issues forced them to miss their flight to Dublin.

Some might describe 2015 as the Milk Cup's Annus horribilis, but yesterday's finals nights at the Ballymena Showgrounds was a show of defiance, with the valiant efforts of local side County Antrim and an eye catching display from Ghana's Right to Dream proving there is still life in prestigious youth tournament.

Reflecting on 2015, Milk Cup committee member Jim Sandford said: "Manchester United have always been looked upon as the headline act and we've missed them, but the tournament is still of a very high standard this year.

"We've La Liga sides, we've teams from South America, North America and Africa and the county sides are improving all the time. So we've had another great year of football.

"The reason we took the decision to postpone the draw was because we felt the story would all be about Manchester United not about all the good aspects of the Milk Cup.

"However, when we had the draw a month later the media were still asking about Manchester United. Even last week I was still being asked about Manchester United, but once the football started the story moved on with Lusaka, Right To Dream and County Antrim making the headlines. At the Milk Cup, we don't look back. You play with the cards you're dealt."

Despite this year's late drop out, Sandford is open to the possibility of Manchester United returning in 2016.

"Manchester United are coming over to meet us later this year and I met them on a trip to Manchester last month. There are plans for more discussion with senior members of staff.

"The thing we can't afford to happen is that they agree to play in October and then pull out in May, because that's what really damaged us this year."

While the Milk Cup's Junior (under-15) and Premier (under-17) competitions will remain in place, the organisers are looking at the possibility of expanding the competition.

Sandford said: "We've already dipped our toes in the water with playing the county games in their home counties in 2012. In 2014 we held and mini under-13 tournament and this year we kicked-started the competition with a girls match, so they are avenues we've already investigated and will look into further."

Manchester United weren't the only notable absentees this year. The Elite (under-20) section, which was won by Stephen Craigan's Northern Ireland last year, was axed.

Sandford explained: "Unfortunately we had to scrap the Elite section this year, which I know was popular with Northern Ireland fans. Our tournament falls outside the international window, so we couldn't demand clubs released their players, which made it difficult to attract teams."

While there's no doubt 2015 was a difficult year for the Milk Cup, the organising committee showed they can handle just about anything. Just ask Lusaka, who played all five matches and arrived in back in Zambia on schedule despite purchasing the wrong visas.

Belfast Telegraph


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