‘The finals will be back in Coleraine when the facilities are there’

SWEET SUCCESS...Everton star Hallam Hope receives the Milk Cup trophy from chairman Victor Leonard at Goodison Park. CR2-127s
SWEET SUCCESS...Everton star Hallam Hope receives the Milk Cup trophy from chairman Victor Leonard at Goodison Park. CR2-127s

Victor Leonard has been involved with the Milk Cup since its inception some 30 years ago. He has saw many highs and many lows during that time. Times Sport caught up with him last week when he talked candidly to Sports Editor Steven Crawford about the tournament’s future and in particular the burning question of the finals night coming back to Coleraine.

It’s the question everyone wants to ask - when will the finals be brought back to Coleraine?

I’d love to bring the finals back to Coleraine. If there was a stadium at Rugby Avenue it would be back tomorrow. When we moved the finals to Ballymena we wrote a letter to both councils stating that the finals would be back in Coleraine as soon as the facilities were there.

If we can get the facility at Rugby Avenue we would look as bringing in a second week of competition which would be more structured for local teams. It’s an idea which would be more in keeping with the old format of the competition.

So the future of the finals night is away from Coleraine Showgrounds?

There is a lot of work needed at The Showgrounds though in terms of the facilities.

The club committee have done a brilliant job and are working really hard up there and first and foremost they have to concentrate to put a team out on to the pitch, but the ground does need changes.

I think we have sat back too long and now we’re in a recession and the money just isn’t there. Ten years ago I should have said ‘come on let’s get this thing moving’.

We should all come together now and move this on. I have fears for the long term future of the competition if we don’t get this sorted out now.

The Ballymena model is how things should be in Coleraine and ultimately it would not only benefit the Milk Cup but also Coleraine FC.

The Milk Cup is only one week, but the ground is used by Coleraine 40-odd weeks of the year, so if a major development is in place it can only benefit the club and it’s future.

We can’t afford to let this rumble on for another five or ten years now it has got to happen.

Was it the toughest decision you’ve ever had to make to take it to Ballymena?

It was the toughest decision I think we’ve had to make. I understand the criticism we got. The mistake was made around the 21st year and I blame myself for not doing it earlier. If we had then maybe someone would have sat up and took notice that something was wrong.

Our worry was if we hadn’t took the decision to leave then I would have feared for the tournament’s long term future.

So how did the tournament first come about?

Myself and Jim Weir were involved with youth football. I helped with the Coleraine and District Youth League and Jim was the secretary of the Boys FA.

We got to know each other well through the years and we started talking about holding an event.

We arranged to go and meet Bertie. We had the idea, but we wanted to run it past Bertie the football man.

You had to think of all the practicalities. Obviously the Troubles were a major factor, so the challenge was really difficult for us. I remember that first year with two weeks to go we needed to find three more teams to takes us up to 16.

Bertie gave me the number of a journalist at the Daily Record and he managed to get us Motherwell and out of the blue we managed to get the Algerian national team too, so we just managed to get the right number.

They were good days. Money was as tight then as it is now.

How tough was it to persuade teams to come over in those early days with The Troubles?

Thankfully things have settled down in terms of the Troubles but I remember a few years ago when we had the situation over here that roads were being barricaded just a week or two before the tournament was due to start. The national media were reporting that you couldn’t really come into Northern Ireland.

Bertie got on the phone and phone round a few managers to reassure them that things were okay up in the north coast. And I remember Sir Alex saying to him ‘If you’re telling me that Bertie then United will be there’.

That news filtered back to other clubs and thankfully the tournament went ahead.

How important was it to have someone like Bertie Peacock involved with the Milk Cup?

Bertie was an absolute role model. He opened up so many doors, not just for the Milk Cup but for the football club and the town. He was a one off and is irreplaceable in terms of the Milk Cup.

He was held in such high regard within the game. I remember going to Old Trafford to meet Sir Alex and they just had so much respect for Bertie and it was the same when Bob Paisley came over here.

He was just one of the people here in Coleraine, and that’s the way he wanted it, but outside of here he was nearly looked upon as being a god. He was an absolute gentleman.

We now start every opening parade from Bertie’s statue, and we always will, I can tell you there’s a lump in my throat every time. We know he’s there with us in spirit. Bertie sacrificed a lot for the Milk Cup.

The tournament has built up a lot of good friends over the years?

Sir Alex has been a great friend of the Milk Cup. We received an email from him this week just wishing us all the best for this week. Air Alex has opened a lot of doors for us with getting other teams on board.

We were also fortunate to go and visit him a few times in Manchester and he couldn’t have been more welcoming.

We’ve also been lucky to have had Bob Paisley coming over three times and staying for the whole week as he loved it so much.

And David Moyes who is opening this year’s tournament is another great supporter of ours. Obviously he has local connections with his family in Portrush so I know it means a lot to him to be here.

And you have another good friend and Milk Cup ‘old boy’ taking over at Liverpool I’m sure you’re delighted about that?

I’m delighted for Brendan. I hope he does well, he has a difficult job trying to take them back up to that level. But Brendan studies football and has been all over to watch coaches and in particular the Spanish and Barcelona teams.

We were delighted to have Liverpool back this year again in our 30th anniversary, but we are hoping that now with Brendan in charge we will get them back here regularly like they did in the good old days when Steve Heighway was in charge and Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler played.

It would be great for the fans too as there are a lot of Liverpool fans in Northern Ireland.

What are your highlights from your time with the Milk Cup?

One of the stand out memories was seeing the late Jack Doherty with a tear in his eye as the opening parade came into the Showgrounds, he told me that it was one of the proudest moments of his life.

The opening parade is a very special thing for us seeing the people come out and cheer these young lads on is superb you see the warmth of the people of this town and area and I know that it makes a real impression on the players and officials.

And the hard work all the volunteers put in to make sure the tournament is such a success, they have great pride in the competition. It is a real people tournament.

What does the future hold for the Milk Cup?

The most important thing that we can hand a tournament over that has the right infrastructure. But as I say we have to push that on and make sure we have a quality product to pass on. We want it to come back to Coleraine but we have to start asking when? I’d love the people of Coleraine to really start asking that question and demanding answers so that we can have the facilities here in the town to bring the finals back. If we don’t we’re going to be further down that queue again.

You think of the people involved over the years such as Bertie, Jim Weir. Everyone was really hand picked and they all had a job to do. It has always bee a lot of hard work and it never gets any easier, especially with the present economic climate. Things like that make it become more of a challenge.

The Dairy Council have been absolutely fantastic to us though. They have given us great support over the last 29 years. Hopefully we’ve been good for them. It is very hard to get sponsors in especially in these lean teams.

We have a lot of very kind sponsors who we’ve built up a relationship with over the years. We were lucky that our own jobs allowed us to go out and meet people, but we can’t ask people in the future to do that and we would have to look at the possibility of creating some sort of role.