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‘Alex Ferguson was a strong supporter’: The Northern Ireland tournament that nurtures football’s future stars

SuperCupNI - previously known as the Milk Cup - has given players such as David Beckham, Arjen Robben and Trent Alexander-Arnold an early taste of international competition

Teden Mengi of Manchester United scores in the 2017 SuperCupNI against Colina in Portstewart. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Sergio Busquets is the dream. In 2005 he was also the reality. Up there on the north coast, Busquets, turning 17, played for Barcelona’s youth team in what many of us still think of – and still call – the Milk Cup. Locals were given a sight of a generational talent who less than four years on would be part of the Xavi-Iniesta Barcelona midfield winning the Champions League in Rome against Manchester United.

This is just one of the many things the Milk Cup – or the SuperCupNI as it became – can offer. Busquets’s young Barca won their section in 2005, defeating Chelsea in the final. Chelsea’s youth – including another future Champions League winner in Ryan Bertrand – were managed by a 32-year-old coach called Brendan Rodgers. Years earlier Rodgers had played as a boy in the competition.

Before Busquets and Rodgers there had been the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Damien Duff. After them came Arjen Robben, Robbie Brady, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohammed Kudus. Wataru Endo has been, Jaden Sancho, Hirving Lozano. You could go on and on because the Milk Cup/SuperCup has been a platform for some of the most gifted adults in world football to perform as aspiring teenagers.

In 1994 Alex Ferguson opened the tournament, following in the footsteps of the legendary Peter Doherty (who was Ferguson’s father’s favourite player). In 2012 it was David Moyes, walking in the footsteps of his Portrush mother Joan.


The competition is getting ready to go again soon – July 21st-26th – with last year’s winners, Celtic and West Ham United, joined by, among others, Man United, Rangers, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers and the West Cork Academy, who have been drawn against Barcelona’s Dubai Academy.

The Co Antrim team celebrate winning a penalty shootout against Manchester United in the 2018 SuperCupNI final at Ballymena Showgrounds. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The Dundalk Schoolboys League, who once had Steve Staunton starring, are back again and meet Premier League Brighton. There is a growing girls’ section. If you can get yourself to the north coast, go.

Yet on the phone from Belfast, Jim Weir sounds anxious. Weir was one of the three men who met in Coleraine in 1982 to set all this in motion. Four decades on, he’s still there.

“We’ve just got enough to survive and no more,” Weir says.

The organisers have the funds to stage a successful 2024, but 2025 is what concerns them.

“We need a sponsor to provide the tournament with the standards it needs,” Weir adds. “We had the Dairy Council [hence Milk Cup] and they were very good. But the dairy industry was restructured, the Dairy Council as we knew it ceased to exist and we’ve never been able to replace that, you know?

“You may not be aware that while most of the teams pay for their accommodation and flights, some of the big boys request accommodation is paid for and, in a few cases, flights as well. It limits our scope.

“And Covid has affected organisations everywhere. We’re no different. We’re rebuilding now, got a new tournament management team of younger people. That looks quite promising, but what we’re looking for is a helping hand.”

Weir knows it’s a competitive sporting environment where money is concerned – look at Casement Park and Dalymount Park – but when he says “we think it’s worthy of support”, Weir is understating it.

A declaration of interest: anyone who played for Willowfield Boys or Arrows or Swifts in east Belfast in the 1970s and 80s knows Jim. He ran team after team, year after year from the Woodstock Road and there were plenty of Saturdays and Wednesday nights when the organisers of Belfast’s youth leagues understood this was not the easiest city to navigate. In the teeth of the Troubles, to propose an international tournament was optimistic.

1983 Milk Cup programme

But Weir and Victor Leonard hoped and when the two met Bertie Peacock in Coleraine, the former Celtic and Northern Ireland great agreed. So in July 1983 – a month of nine sectarian killings – the “Northern Ireland Cup” began. The 60p programme had greetings in five languages. Motherwell were the first winners of what was an U-16 competition.

“Aye, right in the heart of the Troubles,” Jim says. “It was very difficult to get teams to come in those days. It wasn’t so long after Northern Ireland had had to play their “home” matches at Goodison Park and those places.

“Lots didn’t come. In one of the really bad years, when there was fire on the roads, we’d to invite the coaching staff over to show them it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The clubs have a duty of care to their boys and if you lived in England and saw Northern Ireland on the TV screens, you’d be reluctant to let your son travel. Everton were the first. It was a really difficult fight at the beginning.”

External encouragement was appreciated all the more.

“One of our best supporters, who’ve been with us 40 years, are the Dundalk Schoolboys League,” Weir says. “In those early years they were keen supporters – and it was hard for them, they were getting the same news. Same for Home Farm and Cherry Orchard.

“Alex Ferguson was a strong supporter. He knew Bertie Peacock from his Celtic days in Glasgow. Alec said: ‘Bertie, if you say it’s safe to come, we’ll come.’ He honoured that 100 per cent.”

Clubs such as United gave the tournament strength and prestige; the tournament gave them serious opposition and youthful experience. It was significant enough for Ferguson to discuss it years ago with The Irish Times, talking about “each year it seems to get better and better.

“They’re wonderful people and they appreciate Manchester United coming. There’s a lot of United supporters in Northern Ireland who want to see us win all the time. What the organisers understand is that we develop players – we don’t go to win a tournament, it’s not the be-all and end-all. We have won it, but the important thing is to give players the chance to live away with Manchester United for the first time. So it’s a great preparation for our young players.”

It says much of the competition’s reputation that after Barcelona’s win in 2005, in 2006 it was Spartak Moscow triumphing and a year later Fluminense, of Rio de Janeiro. In 2008 it was the United of Federico Macheda coming out on top while Everton, with Ross Barkley prominent, won the junior section.

Across 18 pitches, staffed by volunteers driving buses, doing laundry, it returns. Tickets are cheap. On July 22nd in Ballymoney you can see United’s U-16s v a Co Fermanagh select (previously featuring Kieran McKenna) or in Limavady, Celtic v Charlton Athletic.

You’ll not forget it.