Northern Ireland’s Elite Milk Cup challenge must hit the ground running, insists new coach Stephen Craigan as they bid for cup glory.
Manager Stephen Robinson’s right hand man watched the players enjoy a special welcome from thousands of well-wishers as they paraded through the packed streets of Coleraine at Sunday night’s welcome parade for the international youth tournament but warned that they must perform at the Showgrounds from the opening game.
“The tournament is ideal for our preparation for October’s European U-19 Championship qualifying tournament in Belgium,” said U-19 manager Craigan whose boys will face games against France, Iceland and the hosts.
He wants the players for this week’s warm up to be hungry for success: “This is always a big, big challenge with high expectations from the fans who are magnificent in their support.”
Craigan is something of a Milk Cup old boy, representing his native County Down before playing for Hearts the following year and says the competition acted as a springboard to a full-time career in Scotland.
The 27-year-old remembers his early days at the event: “There was such a buzz about the whole week with so many of the world’s top teams taking part.”
Kilmarnock goalkeeper Conor Brennan has replaced Southampton’s Chris Johns in the squad which also faces a Drumahoe clash with USA on Wednesday and Friday’s meeting with last year’s winners Mexico at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
There are two locally based players included – Glenavon striker Andrew Mitchell and Cliftonville forward Jonathan McMurray.
“The main objective is identifying players who can step up to the U-21 team and from there to the senior side,” says Craigan.
Joining the squad again this year is defender Luke McCullough who has just signed for Doncaster Rovers from Manchester United on a two-year deal following a successful trial.
The 19-year-old, who spent time on loan with Cheltenham last season, never made a first team appearance for United but captained their youth team in 2011-12, appearing with them at the Milk Cup.
He says: “I heard Doncaster were interested in taking a look at me so I went there and I’ve not looked back since.”
Senior team boss Michael O’Neill, who played at the event alongside fellow Northern Ireland international Barry Hunter in a Coleraine team the eighties, is preparing for next month’s World Cup qualifier with Russia at Windsor Park, but has based himself on the north coast to watch Northern Ireland’s players in games against Denmark, the USA and Mexico in the round robin Elite tournament this week.
“The Under-19 UEFA Championships are on the horizon so this is an important week for our younger players to show our coaches Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan what they are about,” said O’Neill after opening the tournament.