Givin' it a Blast in California
Sammy Clingan was a member of the Northern Ireland Milk Cup Select side that struck gold at the Blast Tournament in California back in 1999.
Clingan, a goalscorer in the early rounds, went on to join Nottingham Forest and represent Northern Ireland at full senior level.
The victorious squad is pictured with coaches and officials
The tournament is one of the biggest youth events in the US soccer calendar and attracts teams from across the country. It was celebrating its third year in existence with 245 teams competing at various age levels for both boys and girls.
The Ulster lads, all under-14, contested the Under-15 age group along with 11 other sides and were coached by County Antrim man Joe McCall, assisted by Brendan Grimes (Co. Armagh).
Delighted to see them Stateside were to ex-pats, former Arsenal player Tony Murtagh from Lurgan who was the Blast club’s director of coaching and Coleraine man Colm McFeely, USA Olympic director of football, who like Tony, enjoyed helping out with team affairs:
Colm said: "It's wonderful to have a team represnting the country at the event. It is a big plus for the Blast organisers and a major first for the tournament."
The boys had to contend with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees and thick smog which clung to the nearby San Bernardino Mountains.
Northern Ireland reached the final unbeaten after beating the OJSC Slammers, drawing with La Jolla Nomads and winning the semi-final against host club Blast.
In the decider they were held to a 1-1 draw by Alta Loma Arsenal, coming back to level with a second half penalty by County Londonderry lad Kevin Duffy In a dramatic finale the Northern Ireland lads won a US style penalty shoot-out 4-3 to collect the silverware.
Fermanagh goalkeeper Michael McGovern was the hero. He saved three shots to ensure triumph but the players found it odd having to dribble with the ball from 25 yards out before shooting!
McCaul said: “The players did Northern Ireland proud in very difficult hot conditions. They were thoroughly professional and kept their nerve in the final.”
Brendan Grimes added: “This is probably the highlight of my time in youth football. These boys deserve the highest praise for their commitment.
Interviewed by Ulster TV’s Stephen Watson, one of several Northern Ireland journalists covering the event, captain Martin Flanagan said: “It was a fantastic experience for all of us and to win the trophy was the perfect result to a great trip.”
Kevin Duffy added: “The weather was a bit of a torture in the first couple of days but we adjusted to it and have had a brilliant time.”
Hugh Davey said: “Getting selected from the County set up was tough but I’m glad to have made it.”
The NI Milk Cup squad was: Sammy Clingan, Jonathan Gilliland, Cormac Lewsley (Co. Antrim); Hugh Davey, Collie Keenan (Co. Armagh); Stephen McQuoid, Cahal Savage, Andrew Telford (Co. Down); Michael McGovern, Darren McNulty (Co. Fermanagh); Lee Connor, Kevin Duffy, Peter Mitchell (Co. Londonderry); Sean Donnelly, Martin Flanagan and Michael Ward (Co. Fermanagh).
The physiotherapist with the party was Colin Redmond who worked wonders helping the players deal with the effects of the high temperatures..
Milk Cup public relations officer Jim Sandford accompanied the squad along with Mike Johnston, chief executive of Milk Cup tournament sponsors, the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland.
Seven Ulster journalists also covered the event – Malcolm Brodie, Jim Gracey, Stephen Watson, John Haughey, Brian Millar, John Laverty and Grant Cameron.
The party flew out on Monday, June 14, 1999 and was based at San Bernardino in south western California, returning home on Thursday, June 24.
In addition to their football commitments, the boys enjoyed visits to Disneyland, Santa Monica, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Hollywood and Universal Studios.