Forging new friendships and lifting the lid on the secret of hot tea at the Atlantic Cup!
By Grant Cameron
The mid-winter sunshine of Gran Canaria certainly brought a warm feeling to the Northern Ireland Milk Cup Committee members who accompanied the Milk Cup squad at the Atlantic Cup invitation tournament last January.
The team reached the final where it went down to an impressive side from Gran Canaria but apart from making friends on the field of play, the Milk Cup representatives forged numerous links with Spanish FA chiefs and administrators from various parts of the Canaries - links which will be extremely useful in future years.
The committee men never missed an opportunity to 'sow the seed' for their own competition and were always well received. The Ulster contingent, of which I was privileged to be a member, shared the same hotel as the Portuguese Under-19 squad. They were competing in the older section of the Atlantic Cup. Good relations were quickly established and have been built upon since.
The other three sides in the Ulster-19 contest were Spain, Germany and Sweden. Contacts with all three nations were made and the Northern Ireland Milk Cup brochure was well circulated as the drive continued to make the soccer world aware of the marvellous tournament we have here on our own doorstep.
It was encouraging to see that the official programme for the Atlantic Cup carried a two-page article extolling the Milk Cup which commended the joint organisers, the Coleraine and District Youth League and the Northern Ireland Boys' F.A., on their organisational skills.
Former Ballymena United manager Alex McKee was manager of the Milk Cup team, assisted by the ever present Jock Gilmore. John Hart, one of the stalwarts of the Milk Cup, was a fine ambassador for the tournament and his native Coleraine. He exchanged addresses with scores of people and was a magnet for young and old alike.
He became known as the "souvenir man" on our trip, always ready to distribute a medal here and a pennant there. Before this excursion John already had a long list of penpals through his association with soccer it must have doubled now and that is no exaggeration!
Helping with the organisation of the trip was Belfast man Karl McLaughlin, now a translator with the Spanish government. Karl has been, and continues to be, a good friend who has helped fly the flag for the Milk Cup on many occasions.
Jim Weir remarks that he learned many lessons from the Atlantic Cup experience. He was interested to see the national set up for the football in the islands and youngsters of five and six years of age attending training sessions at local clubs.
So far as the organisation of the Spanish event was concerned, there was around £60,000 made available in sponsorship from tourist sources - how the Milk Cup would love to be receiving that kind of cash boost!
Finally, one of the enduring memories of the trip is not from the soccer pitches of the Canary Island but from the dining room of our hotel and committee member Raymond Kennedy’s futile effort to secure “hot tea” for the Ulster party! No matter how often he ordered tea, it was invariably served up lukewarm at best! “Hot tea. Hot tea,” Raymond would boom. The only response was a courteous smile and nod of the head from the waiters.
By day three Raymond had had enough. After another unsuccessful blast of “hot tea” he rose from his seat, stormed to the kitchen and emerged moments later in triumph with a steaming tea pot! “I had to show them how to boil up the kettle,” he laughed"
They say that travel broadens the mind. . . you certainly do learn a lot!
The NI squad was: Craig Brown (Boys Brigade), Andrew Coulter (Middlesbrough), Gareth McFarland (Maghera Colts), Martin Burrows (BB), Stuart McCallum (Institute), Rory Bradley (YTP), Eamon Bradley (Coleraine), Chris Kerr (Institute), Colin Telford (Manchester Utd), Roddy McDowell (M’Boro), Gareth McComb (YTP), Stephen Chapman (M’Boro), Stephen Livingston (M’Boro),Stephen Magee (Cullybackey Blues), Stuart Reid (Ballymoney), Ronan Havern (YTP).