Former Northern Ireland international Andy Kirk will again help spearhead Rangers’ search for success at this year’s Dale Farm Milk Cup.
The ex-Glentoran, Hearts and Dunfermline winger is a coach in the club’s youth academy and says his experiences at the tournament as a teenager helped shape his future career.
Kirk, who won 14 international caps, was part of the Northern Ireland squad which first lifted the Elite title back in 1997 but had previously played in the competition twice.
“It was so special to be part of such a massive event as a boy,” he recalls. “I played for Dundonald Youth League in the Junior section in 1993. I remember we beat Everton but lost to Rangers and also had a good win over a team from Bermuda.
“I played for Northern Ireland two years in succession with David Healy, Aaron Hughes, Wes Boyle and Tim McCann in the squad.
“The chance to compete against quality teams from around the world is the big strength of the tournament and then it is the whole week-long experience of being together. I still remember the terrific reception we received at the opening parade through Coleraine.”
Andy, now aiming to undertake his Pro Licence in coaching, reveals that the players who represented Rangers on their return to the event last summer after 21 years, were also “blown away” by the massive welcome, not only at the parade but also throughout the week and that is echoed by Rangers’ youth academy chief Craig Mulholland who is also accompanying the squad.
“I was amazed at the backing we received from the public in Northern Ireland,” says Craig, the man who developed Rangers’ Football in the Community Programme several years ago. “It was obvious that the people who came out to all our games were as passionate about the club as we are.
“It was heart-warming for me and a thrill for the young boys who represented the club. That’s why we were so keen to come again and test ourselves in the Junior event where the standard of competition is excellent.
“Last year proved a great experience for all of the players and many have gone on to have excellent seasons. The outstanding match for the lads was the fixture against Liverpool at Ballymena. The crowd was way beyond the expectations of the boys. To perform in front of so many Rangers supporters was great for their education and what they can expect as they progress through the Academy, hopefully towards the first team.
“To play as well as they did and win the match 2-0 creates memories that these young players will cherish for many years to come.
“We had no hesitation in coming back as a key component of our new Academy culture is to provide our players with as many ‘best v best’ situations as possible and provide them with challenges which require them to find solutions to varied and different problems. The Dale Farm Milk Cup and the quality of the opposition absolutely provides this.
“We also look forward to being able to engage with the large Rangers fan base in Northern Ireland and showcase some of the exciting talent we have coming through at the Rangers Academy.”
Milk Cup chairman Victor Leonard reveals that organisers were inundated with enquiries about Rangers’ fixtures schedule once they revealed the club would be represented last year: “The reaction was incredible. We had requests for information from all over Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and as far away as Europe.
“When Rangers played at the tournament more than two decades ago they attracted massive support and nothing has changed. Attendances at their games last year were terrific.”
Rangers were inaugural Junior Milk Cup winners back in 1985 when John Spencer’s squad defeated Ulster side Craigavon in the final at Coleraine Showgrounds. The club’s two other successes came in the Premier section with victory over holders Motherwell in 1984 and in 1992 when Charlie Miller scored twice in the decider against Nottingham Forest.
The Ibrox representatives will join defending champions County Antrim, plus Liverpool. Southampton, 2012 champions Brentford and Swindon Town, winners in 2006, in the chase for glory. Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield United complete a strong English challenge while there are four teams from the USA: Global Sports Bayern, Pateadores, Strikers and OC Blues, as well as three from the Republic of Ireland: North Dublin, Donegal and Dundalk.
Meanwhile, Mitre will supply around 260 footballs for the tournament. Jon Godden, Mitre’s managing director, says: “Mitre are delighted to be the official ball provider of the 2015 Dale Farm Milk Cup. The competition has a great following and is always supported by several of the world’s top clubs.
“We are delighted to provide the highest quality product to the future stars of football during the tournament.
“Everyone at Mitre would like to wish the competing teams from around the globe the very best of luck.”
Manchester United’s Northern Ireland international Paddy McNair will make the draw for the Dale Farm Milk Cup in W5 at the Odyssey, Belfast, next Tuesday, May 26. The tournament begins with a parade of teams through Coleraine on Sunday, July 26, concluding with finals night at Ballymena Showgrounds on Friday, July 31.
In addition to title sponsors Dale Farm, the competition is supported by the Causeway Coast and Glens Council, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Tourism Northern Ireland, DCAL, Mitre and The Beautiful Game, with BBC Sport NI as broadcast partners.