Steven Davis wants Southampton’s brightest talent to live the dream at the Milk Cup this summer.
The Northern Ireland skipper is urging the Saints youngsters not to be intimidated by the quality of players competing in Europe’s premier international youth football tournament.
Southampton will end a 12-year gap since their only other appearance at the event when their squad included current Norwich City midfielder Andrew Surman and Matt Mills, now playing with Bolton in the Championship.
Davis says the Milk Cup played a pivotal role in the formative years of a career which has taken him to Aston Villa, Fulham, Rangers and Southamption as well as wearing the captain’s armband with Northern Ireland.
The Cullybackey man played at Junior level for County Antrim, as well as in the Elite Northern Ireland international team and has happy memories of his north coast experience.
“I think the best advice I can give the young boys from Southampton is to go and savour every moment of the week,” he says. “With a busy schedule of games, it passes quickly but it takes you into a whole new sphere that challenges you at a higher level.
“The Milk Cup was the first time my appetite was really whetted for making it across the water.”
Davis was an integral part of a County Antrim Junior squad which competed against Middlesbrough, Charlton Athletic and Chinese side Tiger Star in the 2000 competition. It was the same year future England star Wayne Rooney played for Everton and Anton Ferdinand turned out for West ham United in the same age range.
Davis recalls: “We had a very good side. I remember playing alongside Jeff Hughes, Albert Watson Craig McClean and Jim Ervin.”
They did reach the final of a secondary competition but were beaten on penalties by County Londonderry. It wasn’t to be Davis’ last contribution to the Milk Cup though.
He returned three years later as part of Northern Ireland’s U-19 side which lost 1-0 to Brazil in the Elite competition at Windsor Park. The squad included Michael McGovern, Chris Kingsberry, Kris Lindsay, Sammy Clingan, Chris Brunt, Sean Ward, Dean Shiels and Ervin.
“I remember we were beaten late on by a Dennys goal but it was a great occasion to play a Brazilian side at the international stadium.
“All in all, I have some great memories of the Milk Cup and I always saw it as a chance to play against quality players from different countries and higher leagues.
“When you’re playing for your county against high profile clubs from England, Europe and beyond, it makes you want to go on and make the most of your opportunity.”
Steven still follows the event: “I always like to see what’s happening there and this summer it will be even more interesting for me with Southampton’s involvement.”
The arrival of new manager Mauricio Pochettino has further strengthened the youth academy’s role at Southampton. He is a strong advocate of developing young players through the club structure.
At his previous club Espanyol, many of his players had progressed through the youth academy before he blooded them into the first team. In his four years with the Spanish club he handed 23 debuts to players who started out in the academy.
Milk Cup chairman Victor Leonard says securing Southampton’s return is a big plus for the organisers.
“It is extremely pleasing for us to attract another Premiership club but the fact that they feel our tournament can benefit their young players is an indicator that after three decades we are still getting the mix right in terms of local, national and international competitors at the Milk Cup.”