BBC Sport NI broadcaster Grant Cameron recalls how the backing of the Manchester United manager kept the fledgling NI Milk Cup tournament going strong through some turbulent times back in the Eighties.
If it hadn’t been for the staunch support of Sir Alex Ferguson, one of Northern Ireland’s most successful sporting attractions might well have floundered in its infancy.
The chairman of the Milk Cup international youth football tournament said that at the height of the summer tensions over the Drumcree parade in Portadown there was concern about the safety of young players attending the tournament.
Victor Leonard revealed that after assurances from his lifelong friend, the former Northern Ireland and Celtic great Bertie Peacock that the United players would be safe at the north coast event, the Old Trafford club travelled and and have been competing ever since.
“Those were difficult times when the images coming out of Northern Ireland were far from positive and it impacted on us with many overseas competitors expressing concerns.
“However, it was amazing how their fears were dispelled when we told them that Sir Alex was sanctioning his teams to come here,” said Victor.
Ferguson’s affection for Northern Ireland and the Milk Cup youth tournament in particular are well documented. He has continued to be a great supporter of the annual tournament, visiting it on several occasions.
“He has been with us many times and we have been with him at Old Trafford and the club’s Carrington training centre.
“Sir Alex’s relationship with Bertie Peacock – a player he admired watching play at Celtic as he grew up in Glasgow – was a key element in the success and development of the competition.
“They had tremendous respect for each other and that was what endeared him to the Milk Cup and what we were trying to achieve with it.”
Victor added: “In 1991 the team that won the Premier event was full of players who went on to become international names from David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt through to Gary Neville, Robbie Savage and Keith Gilespie.
“They famously became known as the Class of 92 and won the Merit Award at the PFA Awards evening two weeks ago with footage from their Milk Cup triumph back in 1991 shown during the presentation in London.
“One of Sir Alex’s great success stories at United was – and continues to be – his passion for the development of young players. The club’s youth academy is second to none in my opinion.
“The boss has always taken a keen involvement and knows young players by name and charts their progress.
“He is so interested in how they perform at the Milk Cup that his coach Paul McGuinness has to ring him after every game to report on it!”
Victor said that it was not just the Milk Cup that the United legend was generous: “He has given a lot of time to the many Manchester United supporters’ clubs over here and to special events such as the fundraising match for the Omagh victims after the bombing of the town so many years ago. He brought a team across and packed the ground.
“I’m delighted he’s still involved with the club and will become an ambassador and I hope he will be back in Northern Ireland in the near future.