Coleraine man Victor Leonard, local youth football administrator Jim Weir and the late great former NI and Celtic midfielder Bertie Peacock met for the very first time and the wheels were set in motion to establish a youth football tournament on the tourist hotspot that is the North Coast.
Following that initial meeting, the trio met more frequently, and the seeds were sown to officially announce July 1983 as inaugural ‘Northern Ireland Cup’.
The arrival of the Dairy Council as the main sponsor saw its name revert to the Milk Cup and needless to say neither of the three men would ever have predicted just how the tournament would grow and prosper in the years and decades to come.
The summer of 1983 saw the first every tournament take place and it started with eight teams from Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, visitors from Algeria and a team from Coleraine’s twin town la-Roche-sur-Yon in the West of France all in action.
However, it was the boys from the other side of the Irish Sea that was the name on everyone’s lips as Motherwell FC won the inaugural tournament, which was opened by Irish FA President Harry Cavan.
Stephen Connors inspired the Steelmen to the title, as he netted 12 goals, including a marvellous hat-trick against the host team Coleraine FC.
The Northern Ireland Cup as it started out, was up and running and so too was its greatest quality – a force for forging friendships through football across the world.
One year later, 1958 World Cup legend Peter Doherty officially opened the second tournament, a fitting tribute to one of the finest ever players to play for Northern Ireland.
Motherwell were the leading light once again, but the Lanarkshire side couldn’t make it ‘two in a row’ as they were defeated by Rangers in all Scottish final at the Coleraine Showgrounds.
The name on the lips of everyone on the North Coast was that of Steve Staunton. Staunton received the man of the match award in Dundalk’s plate final win over Waterford United. The Dundalk native went on to have a marvellous career with Liverpool, Aston Ville and in the green of the Republic of Ireland, who he went on to become manager of in 2005. Coleraine youngster David Edgar was a regular on the scoresheet and ended up with the Golden Boot award in a tournament to remember for the local striker.
In 1985, Espana 82 World Cup hero Martin O’Neill officially opened the tournament, which now included a new U14 section to accompany the U16 tournament.
There was further agony for Coleraine FC in the U16 final, as Newcastle United ran out 4-1 winners in the decider, while Rangers FC picked up their the U14 crown after a nail-biting penalty shootout win over Craigavon United.
In 1986, there was an immediate repeat of the 1985 U16 final on the opening day as Coleraine FC and Newcastle United played out a 2-2 draw on day one.
The Tynesiders made it all the way to the final, but met their match against a Patrick Connolly inspired Dundee United, while there was a first ever Northern Irish winner, as Craigavon United defeated Crewe Alexandra.
1987 saw the tournament expand to 33 teams and Coleraine native Iam McFaul, then manager of Newcastle United officially opened the competition, which saw Liverpool make their debut.
The Merseyside outfit impressed on their way to U16 final, but they met their match against Crewe Alexandra. Crewe’s U14s had also made their way to the U14 final, but a Gary Bollan inspired Dundee United edged out the Cheshire side in extra-time at the Showgrounds.
The sixth Milk Cup saw Bob Paisley, Liverpool FC directory Sydney Moss and Northern Irish footballing legend Danny Blanchflower officially welcome teams from as far away as New York, Malta and Canada to the 1988 competition.
Having fallen at the final hurdle in 1987, Liverpool went one step better in 88, with the fleet-footed Steve McManaman helping the Reds to a 4-0 win over Motherwell in the U16 showpiece.
The U14 decider saw first ever winners from the Republic of Ireland as Home Farm got the better of Dundee United.
In 1989, Scottish FA secretary Ernie Walker was the guest of honour, as Steve Heighway brought another promising crop of youngsters from Liverpool. However, the U16 decider saw Manchester United claim their first ever title after Brian Kidd’s side defeated Newcastle United.
Future Northern Ireland international Stephen Robinson claimed a brace as Dungannon Swifts defeated a Dublin Schoolboys’ select side in the U14 final.
The first tournament of the 1990s saw John Lynn (former chairman of the Milk Marketing Board for NI, now the Dairy Council), unveil the flag for the 1990 competition.
Teams from Gran Canaria and Iceland descended on the North Coast and after two days, Tottenham Hotspur had ran riot and netted 15 goals, while a certain sprightly left winger called Ryan Giggs inspired Manchester United to a 7-1 over Maghera Colts.
However, it was the boys from White Hart Lane that claimed the U16 crown as Nick Barmby netted twice as Spurs ran out 2-1 winners over Crewe. It was double disappointment for the Cheshire side as they were defeated 4-1 by Hibernian in the U14 decider.
In 1991, Martin Buchan brought his old team good fortune as he opened the tournament. The Red Devils were 2-0 winners against Hearts in front of a 10,000 crowd at the Showgrounds, which now had a state of the art new grandstand in place.
The names of Messers Beckham, Butt, Neville, Scholes and Gillespie were the names on the lips of everyone on the North Coast as Nobby Stiles’ U16s side triumphed. It was Bangor native Gillespie that played a starring role for United as he claimed the Player of the Tournament award.
In the U14 decider, Norwich City defeated tournament regulars Dundee United.
In 1992, Denis Law guested at the 10th anniversary dinner in Portrush and Glasgow giants Rangers claimed their second U16 title with victory over Nottingham Forest. Norwich City became the first team to successfully reclaim their crown, as they defeated Hearts 3-0 in the U14 final.
Billy Bingham opened the 1993 competition, which saw a first ever winner from the continent as the Slovakian national side defeated Hearts, while Dubliners Cherry Orchard turned the tables on Rangers thanks to a nervy penalty shoot out.
In 1994, Russia’s U16 side wowed the crowds with their mixture of skill and grit, but they had to settle for second spot as Hearts took the title for the first time. Sir Alex Ferguson unfurled the flag at the 1994 tournament, but it wasn’t to be for his U14 charges as Middlesbrough took the title in front of a capacity crowd.
Everton boss Joe Royle was the guest of honour as the tournament welcomed a new Elite U20s section introduced. Wales took top spot in the inaugural Elite section, while Everton won their first U14 crown and Russia took top spot in the U16 competition, defeating Dutch giants Feyenoord on penalties.
There was double delight for London in 1996, with Spurs edging out Blackburn Rovers and West Hami United defeated Motherwell in the U16 and U14 section respectively. Joe Cole was the star attraction in the U14 section and he was a very popular winner of the U14 Player of the Tournament.
The tournament was opened by Denis Law and there was Turkish delight in the Elite section, which continued to grow in popularity.
Legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings was a huge hit at the 1997 opening ceremony, as West Ham reclaimed their U14 crown. Middlesbrough made up for their U14 disappointment, with a 2-1 win against a fancied Manchester United.
There was delight in the Elite section as Northern Ireland took the honours.
In 1998, Craig Brown declared the competition open and Crewe Alexandra shocked everyone by stopping West Ham from claiming an historic third in a row U14 title. The Hammers’ U16 side were also left to settle for runners-up spot as Chile secured their first title in extra time. Turkey secured their second Elite title.
In 1999, there was a first ever winner from Brazil as EC Vitoria took top spot, while Manchester City saw off Everton in the Junior decider, while Crewe took the Premier decider edging out Manchester United.
The dawn of a new Millennium saw Graeme Souness in Coleraine to launch the 2000 tournament. Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd hit top form in the Premier section, but it was Turkey, with future Turkish star Semih Semturk in their ranks, who triumphed in the decider as they edged out Manchester City. Londoners Charlton Athletic took the Junior crown as they edged out Everton, while Chile took the Elite title.
In 2001, Geordie Peter Beardsley declared the tournament officially open and the national team from Paraguay ran riot and shocked a capacity crowd as a Manchester United side captained by Kieran Richardson lost 6-1. Norwich City became one of the most successful club sides in the competition with their Junior success over Hearts (their third title).
A James Milner inspired Leeds United hammered Greek side Panathinaikos in the 2002 Premier decider, while Everton took the Junior crown over Brazilian side Botafogo. Paraguay were the next South American side to etch their name on the Elite trophy, with a 1-0 win over Denmark in the final.
2003 saw former Brazilian international Branco open the tournament, but he couldn’t inspire the Brazil U19s to victory in the Elite final as they lost 3-2 to Paraguay. Manchester United finally secured the Premier title again, for the first time since 1991, as they edged past Preston, while Racing Club from Argentina took the Junior crown with a narrow win over Hearts.
The 2003 tournament also saw the organisers celebrate its 20th birthday and to thank the county teams for their commitment to the tournament, each of the local counties played their opening matches at home.
In 2004, finals night at the Coleraine Showground was burdened with sadness and heartache with the untimely passing of one of the founding fathers, the late great Bertie Peacock. The former Northern Ireland and Celtic legend was a true legend in the local game and the tournament had grown in stature thanks to his unwavering support and dedication.
There was a tournament first in the Junior section as Maccabi Haifa from Israel took the title, after they thumped a much fancied Everton side, which featured future England midfielder Jack Rodwell.
Heart of Midlothian claimed their first ever Milk Cup title with a win over Belvedere from Dublin, while the boys from Brazil were left to settle for second best once again in the Elite section as Turkey took the honours.
Manchester United legend Brian McClair opened the 2005 tournament, which featured a plethora of world class teams such as Chelsea, Manchester United, FC Porto, Barcelona, Feyenoord, Benfica and Cruz Azul.
The final four of the Premier section saw European heavyweights Manchester United, FC Porto, Barcelona and Chelsea feature and it was Carnlough’s Brendan Rodgers’ Chelsea that went forward to face the Catalan side in the decider.
The Nou Camp outfit inspired by Jeffren, Mexican star Giovanni dos Santos and a certain Sergio Busquets edged past the Stamford Bridge side in the final, while Lyngby took the Junior crown back to Denmark after defeating CSKA Moscow.
There was despair for Northern Ireland who ended up with second spot after Dax McCarthy and hat-trick hero Charlie Davis inspired USA to an Elite final success.
County Down striker Aaron Boyd was the first Ulster winner of the Player of the Tournament since 1989 in the Junior section in 2006, and alongside Fermanagh’s Richard Flaherty, he received the Bertie Peacock Foundation award. The award was introduced in the memory of the late great Bertie and both players were handed a once in a lifetime opportunity to train in Holland with Feyenoord.
The trophy winners were Paraguay, Spartak Moscow and Swindon Town in the Elite, Premier and Junior section respectively.
Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington declared the 2007 tournament officially open and he was an interested observer as a talented NI side made it all the way to the final of the Elite section but they came undone in the decider as Maor Bar Buzaglo inspired Israel to victory.
In the Junior section, St Kevin’s Boys from Dublin were edged out by Chivas Guadalajara, who claimed Mexico’s first ever victory at the competition. Danny Welbeck was Manchester United’s star performer in the Premier category, but the Old Trafford youngsters were swept aside by a classy Fluminense side from Brazil.
2008 saw Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lead the way at the parade and it was another ruthless centre forward in red that caught the eye in the Premier section. Federico Macheda helped Manchester United go one step better as they defeated South Coast Bayern from America in the final.
Everton took the Junior honours after a thrilling win over Wolves with Ross Barkley taking centre stage for the Toffees.
In the Elite section, Northern Ireland ended their 11 year wait for an Elite title as future Rangers and Northern Ireland striker Andrew Little helped the Green and White Army to success over Chile in the decider.
2009 saw Northern Ireland retain their crown against Denmark in the Elite section and history repeated itself in the Premier and Junior finals as Robbie Brady, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane inspired Manchester United to victory over Harry Maguire’s Sheffield United, while Everton took top spot in the Junior section.
There was another landmark moment at the competition in 2010 as Africa had its first ever winners. The boys from Etoile Lusitana wowed the crowds all week on the North Coast and they eased past a plucky Bolton Wanderers side in the Premier decider.
Star in the making Ruben Loftus-Cheek inspired Chelsea to their first ever title as they defeated Cruz Azul in the 2010 Junior final.
Northern Ireland couldn’t make it an historic Elite treble as a rampant USA side ran out 3-0 winners in the Elite decider against a talented NI side including Will Grigg and Shane Ferguson.
2011 saw NI and Manchester United legend Norman Whiteside unfurl the flag at the Showgrounds, but Northern Ireland and United failed to pick up any honours. NI were narrowly edged out in the Elite final by Denmark, while the Aspire Academy from Qatar thumped Manchester United in the Premier decider. Aspire accumulated 24 goals in just five games and will go down in history as one of the greatest teams to ever grace the competition.
Cruz Azul were left to settle for the runners-up spot for the second year running as Everton won on spot-kicks.
2012 saw the tournament celebrate its 30th anniversary and each of the home counties welcomed top class opposition to their local areas. The shock result of day one saw Manchester United fall to County Tyrone in Castlederg.
The boys from Brazil were back on top spot again as Desportivo defeated Newcastle in the Premier showpiece, while a classy Brentford side won their first title edging out Everton in an all English-affair in the Junior final.
There was goals galore in the 2012 Elite section as Mexico won their first Elite title since 2001.
2013 saw the tournament revert to its Monday to Friday schedule and Mexico secured back to back Elite titles with flying winger Hirving Lozano (now starring for Napoli in the Champions League) netting in an edgy final against the hosts. There was joy and despair for the County teams in the Premier and Junior sections as Tyrone and Antrim made it all the way to the finals.
Everton led by skipper Tom Davies made up for the disappointment of 2012, as they defeated Antrim on penalties while a last gasp Oliver McBurnie goal saw Andreas Pereira lift the Premier crown against a plucky Tyrone side.
The 2014 Milk Cup saw former Leeds youngster and Westlife singer Nicky Byrne open the tournament and Northern Ireland secured their first Elite title since 2009 with a comprehensive win over Canada.
Manchester United made it two wins on the bounce in the Premier section, who had a certain lively striker called Marcus Rashford leading the line.
Corinthians from Brazil made their debut at the competition in the Premier section in 2013, but the São Paulo youngsters made it double despair for Antrim in the Junior section as the local lads lost their second successive Junior final.
Malaga and Real Sociedad added some Spanish flair to the 2015 tournament, which also saw the introduction of a women’s youth section with NI taking on the Republic of Ireland in two challenge games.
The boys from County Antrim had learnt their lessons from 2013 and 2014 as they created a major piece of history by becoming the first ever county to win the competition. Their Premier side won thanks to a nail-biting penalty shoot out against Club America.
In the Junior section, Right to Dream ran riot at the Ballymena Showgrounds against English regulars Southampton as they won the tournament at the very first attempt.
2016 saw Ghana’s Right to Dream continue to wow the crowds with their magnificent mix of skill, grit and determination. They eventually found a way past a resolute County Londonderry side in the Junior decider, while there was a new name on everyone’s lips in the Premier section. The exciting O’Higgins FC from Chile defeated Hibernians to secure Chile’s first Premier success since 1998. In a revamped Elite section, the boys from Everton triumphed against Celtic in a four-team tournament with Real Sociedad and Espanyol.
Right to Dream continued their love affair with the competition in 2017, as they secured their first ever victory in the Premier section against Club America and in the Junior section County Antrim continued to lead the way as they secured a first ever county success in the U15 age group against GPS Bayern from America.
While former tournament graduate and Fermanagh native Kieran McKenna and Manchester United brought some of their stars of tomorrow over to take on a Northern Ireland U18 side in a competitive challenge game at the Coleraine Showgrounds to kick off the 2017 tournament.
2018 saw the tournament continue to grow and in a nerve wracking penalty shoot-out Antrim retained the Junior title against Manchester United. In the Premier decider County Down fought valiantly against a Serie B Italian select squad. The 2018 tournament also saw the introduction of an U13 age category, named the Minor section. It was an emotional Friday afternoon for all involved at Greenisland FC as they claimed the inaugural title. Twenty three years previously the club was founded after three like minded men from the area met at the competition to discuss setting up a team in the East Antrim town.
2019 saw some of the world’s best descend upon Northern Ireland with Premier League giants Arsenal, Manchester United and Leeds United lining up in the Junior section. However, it was Scottish regulars Rangers that claimed the Junior crown, led by talented Belfast teenager Charlie Lindsay. In the Premier decider there was a clash of European heavyweights with Valencia seeing off Newcastle United to claim top honours on their first visit. In the Minor decider NIFL side Glentoran saw off Dungannon Swifts to secure their first ever win at the tournament.
Plans were afoot to continue to expand and attract top quality entrants from across the globe in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put a swift end to any plans and the 2021 competition was also significantly impacted, but the organising committee worked diligently to attract a Manchester United U16 team to play three challenge matches against Coleraine FC, Ballymena United and Linfield FC.
2022 saw the tournament become fully operational once again and it also heralded the introduction of a highly competitive Girls’ U16 and U13, which was one by Surf Select from the United States and Linfield.
In the male section, the organisers facilitated four competitive sections at U13 (Minor), U14 (Youth), Junior (U16) and Premier (U18).
In the Minor decider Glentoran pushed talented American side Surf Select all the way but it was the American outfit that secured victory by 3-1.
In the Youth showpiece, Charlton Athletic proved too strong for a talented Glenavon FC at the Coleraine Showgrounds.
In Ballymena, Manchester United claimed their first ever Junior crown as they saw off Rangers in front of a large crowd and in the Premier decider, Ipswich Town who were a late replacement in the Premier section won a six goal thriller by 4-2 to claim their first ever victory at the tournament, a success that will have no doubt pleased first team manager and tournament graduate Kieran McKenna from Fermanagh.