Belfast Telegraph

SuperCupNI: From Beckham to Busquets, biggest names have cut their teeth on North Coast with trend all set to continue

An incredible 27 former Milk Cup players featured at 2018 World Cup so get ready to go talent spotting

By Sam Gamble

In 1982, in a quiet lounge upstairs in a bar in the heart of Coleraine, one of the world's most famous youth football tournaments was born. Coleraine man Victor Leonard and Belfast-based youth football administrator Jim Weir sat down with the late great former Northern Ireland and Celtic midfielder Bertie Peacock in the bar bearing his name, to discuss their idea of establishing a youth football tournament on the North Coast.

It is remarkable to think that from those modest beginnings, scores of stellar careers were launched on playing fields from Limavady to Broughshane and Ballymena to Castlerock, most famously the David Beckham-led Class of '92.

The production line of star quality continues to this day with the World Cup just ended in Russia featuring 27 players whose first experience of tournament football was at the Milk Cup, now the SuperCupNI.

And a circle will be completed at Coleraine Showgrounds tonight when Phil Neville - who played on that fabled United youth side of Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie and brother Gary Neville - flies in to watch his own son, Harvey, play for United U19s against Celtic (whose Ulster-born manager Brendan Rodgers is another Milk Cup old boy) in a challenge game to launch this year's SuperCupNI, kick off 5.00pm.

Robbie Savage, who also played on Beckham's winning United team, will have a son, Charlie, in the United junior section side next week.

Other famous names associated with the Milk Cup include those who declared the tournament open following the traditional Sunday night parade of teams through Coleraine town centre to the Showgrounds, among them Graeme Souness, Denis Law, Norman Whiteside and Brazilian World Cup winner Branco. Northern Ireland 1982 World Cup goalscoring legend Gerry Armstrong will perform the honours tomorrow night.

Victor Leonard, now the tournament chairman, has been a constant over those 36 years. Little did he know, back in 1982, he would go on to form a working friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson whose manager's office door at Manchester United was always open to Milk Cup callers.

Victor recalls: "That first meeting in Bertie's Bar was to explore an idea that Bertie, Jim Weir and I had of starting up a youth tournament to attract teams from outside Northern Ireland to give competition to our local teams who were restricted to playing one another.

"We thought it would be beneficial for them to compete against and learn from different styles. We could never have foreseen how the tournament would grow or the careers that would emerge from it."

Much of that would stem from Bertie's vast network of contacts in the game, including Sir Alex who had hero worshipped Bertie in his Celtic heyday, and from long term sponsors, the NI Dairy Council, who coined the Milk Cup name, underwriting costs that grew in tandem with the event.

Victor added: "Thanks to the contacts Bertie had we were able to attract 16 teams including Motherwell who won the inaugural 1983 tournament which was known as the Northern Ireland Cup. Rangers were winners the following year and Newcastle United in 1985.

"By then, we had our sponsors from the Dairy Council on board, headed up by a great driving force in Mike Johnston. We became the Milk Cup and that relationship spanned 30 amazing years," he adds.

Sir Alex responding to Bertie's invitation to enter a United team was the catalyst for the tournament going global in terms of reputation and quality.

Ferguson believed competitive tournament football would be better for the development of his crop of emerging young stars than sending them on a round of meaningless pre-season friendlies.

And so it proved as that famous Class of '92 went on to form the nucleus of United's Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble-winning side of 1999.

It was that side, also, of whom Alan Hansen memorably and dismissively said: "You'll win nothing with kids." Had he been at the Milk Cup, he would have been spared that statement which will forever haunt him.

Those were halcyon days with crowds thronging the tournament venues and full houses for finals night at Coleraine... but there were worrying times, too, most notably during the first Drumcree crisis of the 90s.

With national TV depicting a country in flames amid widespread disorder, families of boys due to travel with cross-channel clubs were naturally concerned.

Again, Bertie and Sir Alex came to the tournament's aid, as Victor explains: "Assurances that the north coast was untroubled were given by both, backed up by an eve of tournament visit by parents, organised by our committee and conducted by Bertie.

"He showed them around the north coast area where their sons would be based and they found it an oasis compared to elsewhere at the time and the tournament was saved.

"The area's natural beauty has always been a unique selling point for the tournament and on that occasion it was priceless."

Ryan Giggs is another star name that always comes up in Milk Cup conversations. He made his appearance in 1990, but when he broke through to the United first team, tournament officials were left scratching their heads as they searched their records for mention of him.

Eventually, they discovered he had played under the name Ryan Wilson before taking on his mother's maiden name, Giggs, following a parental separation.

The year 1986 saw Northern Ireland's first winners as Craigavon United, who had lost to Rangers in the previous year's final, went one step better and defeated Crewe Alexandra in the U14 decider.

Liverpool secured the U16 title in 1988 and a year later Manchester United claimed their first title under Brian Kidd.

Giggs was one of the future stars on show in 1990, but it was Nick Barmby's Spurs side that claimed the U16 crown.

A year later United returned with the future Class of '92 with the Neville brothers, Beckham, Butt, Scholes and flying Northern Ireland winger Gillespie sweeping to the U16 title.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Denis Law was the star attraction at a gala dinner in Portrush in 1992 and the announcement was made that six county teams would now be Northern Ireland's entrants at U16 level. For the first time there was a winner from the continent as the Slovakian national team won the U14 title.

Sir Alex unfurled the flag at the Showgrounds in 1994 and a year later Wales were the inaugural winners of the Elite section.

The diminutive figure of Joe Cole was the name on everyone's lips in 1996 as the gifted Londoner helped West Ham to the U14 title. One year later Cole continued to dazzle on the north coast as the Hammers retained their title and there was delight for Northern Ireland fans as the U19 national team won the Elite section for the first time.

In 1998, the county teams were added at U14 level as the tournament continued to reach new heights.

The dawn of a new Millennium saw Souness in Coleraine to launch the 2000 tournament.

Kilmarnock's Kris Boyd hit top form in the Premier section, but it was Turkey, with future international striker Semih Semturk in their ranks, who triumphed in the decider as they edged out Manchester City.

The year 2001 saw a heavily fancied Manchester United, including future England international Kieran Richardson, hammered in the U16 showpiece by Paraguay at a packed Coleraine Showgrounds.

A year later former World Cup winner Branco opened the competition, but Brazil couldn't win their first ever title in the Elite section as they lost to Paraguay. Manchester United won their first Premier U16 title since 1991 as they defeated Preston.

The 2003 tournament heralded the competition's 21st anniversary and to thank the county teams for their commitment to the tournament, each of the sides played their opening matches at home.

In 2004, finals night at the Coleraine Showgrounds was shrouded in sadness and heartache with the passing of founding father Bertie Peacock, a true legend in the game. The tournament had grown in stature thanks to his unwavering support and dedication. On the field, Maccabi Haifa from Israel took the Junior title, after they thumped a much fancied Everton side, which featured future England midfielder Jack Rodwell.

In 2005, Barcelona beat Brendan Rodgers' Chelsea in the Premier final with a certain Sergio Busquets patrolling the centre of the park for the Catalan giants.

County Down striker Aaron Boyd was the first local winner of the Player of the Tournament prize since 1989 in the Junior section in 2006, and alongside Fermanagh's Richard Flaherty, he received the Bertie Peacock Foundation award.

This award was introduced in memory of the late, great man himself.

Federico Macheda, a Premier winner with Man United in 2008, and Danny Welbeck were star strikers at the end of the noughties, while Ross Barkley inspired Everton to a Junior success over Wolves in 2008.

In the Elite section, Northern Ireland ended their 11 year wait for the title as future Rangers and Northern Ireland striker Andrew Little helped the Green and White Army to success over Chile in the decider.

In 2009 Northern Ireland retained their crown against Denmark in the Elite section and history repeated itself in the Premier and Junior finals as Robbie Brady, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane inspired Manchester United to victory over Harry Maguire's Sheffield United, while Everton took top spot in the Junior section.

There was another landmark moment in 2010 as Etoile Lusitana from Senegal became the first ever African winners and Ruben Loftus Cheek inspired Chelsea to their inaugural Junior crown.

The year 2011 saw Aspire from Qatar secure Asia's first ever title as they scored 24 goals in five days including a 6-1 win over Manchester United in the Premier decider.

For the tournament's 30th anniversary in 2012, each of the home counties welcomed top class opposition to their local areas. The shock result of day one saw Manchester United fall to County Tyrone in Castlederg.

In 2013, World Cup 2018 star Hirving Lozano netted the winner in the Elite final as Mexico secured the title.

Antrim made history in 2014 as they became the first ever county winners, defeating Club America on penalties in the Premier final, while Right to Dream from Ghana secured their first title in the Junior section.

Two years later they won their first ever Premier title, while Antrim followed up their Premier success with Junior glory in 2017.

And now it is on with the games for 2018 with Victor Leonard raising the bar for every player involved by pointing to those 27 World Cup stars in Russia who came through the tournament ranks.

"Stars are made at the SuperCupNI. The record books show that," Victor reminds us.

"It will be interesting for fans to pick out the players this year who they will be talking about at future World Cups.

"Talent spotting has always been one of our major attractions," he adds.

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