SUNDAY night’s Milk Cup Welcome Parade was something of a homecoming for Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.
For not only did the former Newcastle United star grace the tournament in his tender years, but he also kickstarted his career with Coleraine in the Irish League.
The heavy rain may not have been the weather the organiser were wanting as the parade set off from the Diamond, but it failed to dampen the spirit of O’Neill as he stepped out on to the Showgrounds’ turf once again.
“I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity to come and open the tournament,” O’Neill told Times Sport.
“Playing in the competition was a real platform for me to launch myself. Bertie Peacock and Jim Platt brought me to Coleraine. I had three great years there as a player, I loved it there. I have so many fonf memories from my time there and the Milk Cup is part of that. So it’s really special for me to come back tonight.
“I remember coming to watch the tournament in that first year and watching that fantastic Motherwell team who left everyone in their wake.
“The following year I played with Ballymena, we weren’t that strong a team but I had a good tournament personally.
“The next year I played for Coleraine and we were beaten by Newcastle in the final. It was hugely disappointing not to win but when you look back the experience of playing in the final as the home team in front of a big crowd was really special.
“For a young player the experience of all of that and the support you get for the fans is brilliant and it’s such a great opportunity for you to showcase what you can do against great opposition.
“When I was a teenager you didn’t play outrside the boundaries of Northern Ireland so it was great to come against these teams from abroad.
“It’s amazing how many people I’ve met through my professional career who have been to the Milk Cup and have so many positive stories to tell about it.”
And O’Neill is hoping the next crop of Northern Ireland internationals will have plenty of positive stories to tel after this week, although he knows Stephen Craigan’s young charges have a tough task ahead of them.
“It’s very important for our lads to play tournament football,” he said.
“We’ve quite a young team here this year, a lot of them are Stephen Craigan’s Under-19 team, and they’ll get great experience as they go into a qualification programme in October. They have a tough group and they’ll have three tough games here as well.
“Both Stephen Craigan and Stephen Robinson have worked away well at under age level.
“They have both played here in the past, I think Stephen Robinson actually won it, he’s told me that on numerous occasions anyway! It’s always nice to bring people back who have a connection with the tournament.
“I’m going to have a busy week, I try to get to three games a day and watch the home based players as much as I can just to keep an eye on how they’re doing.”