County preview series – history makers Antrim ready to go again!

County Antrim have been the standard bearers for Northern Ireland teams in recent years, with their Premier side creating history in 2015, becoming the first County team to win the tournament outright.

Antrim’s Premier side this year have been drawn in an intriguing group with County Tyrone, American side Northeast Rush and Newcastle United.

Head Coach and former NI international Michael O’Connor is looking forward to the different types of opposition the draw has thrown their way.

County Antrim’s Jack Ferguson after his winning save in the 2015 final

He said: “As coaches, we’re looking forward to it. The three teams we’ve got in the group are three completely different tests.

“County Tyrone will be very strong and physical, Newcastle will be technically very good and the other team Northeast Rush, I’m not too sure about.

“It’ll be three completely different tests to look forward to.”

Antrim’s Premier squad were runners-up in last year’s Super Cup NI tournament to Ipswich Town, and O’Connor has been impressed with the calibre of players trialling this time round and making his final squad of 18.

Co Antrim faced Ipswich Town in the 2023 Premier Section final

“We’ve just finalised our squad of 18, after 142 turned up to trial,” he said.

“Cutting it down was probably the hardest part and we know that every year at this age group it is even harder to select a squad because they are at an age where they can go and sign for professional clubs.

“There are three or four going to England and Scotland who would have been in our squad, but from what I have seen so far the quality is very good.”

O’Connor, who made 11 appearances for Northern Ireland and played for seven English sides during his career, knows what it takes for these young players to make it in the game and how to grasp opportunities.

“The biggest thing at this age is about working hard, making sure to keep your head down.

Co Antrim lift the trophy after defeating Manchester United in the SuperCupNI 2018 Junior Section final

“The first year or two across the water is really hard, well I found it the hardest, especially being homesick, but once they get through the first year, they’ll be fine.

“But the first year’s definitely the hardest over there, you are trying to adapt to full-time training and having to deal with being away from family and friends.”

The former Northern Ireland International also played in the tournament in his younger days, and still sees the value the week of matches brings to the young players.

He said: “It’s massive, I played in it twice when I was younger for County Antrim and Crewe Alexandra.

“It’s biggest youth tournament around currently and we are really looking forward to it and I’m sure the kids who have been selected are as well.

“It puts them in the shop window at that age because there will be a lot of scouts over watching trying to find one or two and it is up to them to impress and get a chance to go across the water.”

The young players will play five games in five days at the tournament and O’Connor, who has just taken on the role of assistant manager at Newry City AFC, believes having a clear plan on how the players rest and prepare will help them get through the challenging schedule.

Co Antrim’s 2015 side after winning the penalty shootout in a tensely fought final

He said: “It’s tough, technically tough but the kids will be prepared for what’s to come.

“It’s even more difficult with 15 and 16-year-olds because that is when they are developing muscles meaning they will pick up niggly injuries.

“After every game we will do things professionally and properly, make sure they recover properly.

“During the weeks leading up to the tournament we will and get a bit of fitness into them.

“It has been a long season, so we have told them to rest and have a couple of weeks off before the hard work begins ahead of the tournament.”

Antrim’s Premiers will kickstart their tournament with an Ulster derby v Tyrone in Broughshane on Monday night, before travelling to the Coleraine Showgrounds on Tuesday to face Northeast Rush from America. Antrim’s final fixture is an intriguing one as they face Newcastle United at Seahaven in Portstewart.

In the Junior section, David Downes’ side will open their tournament against Kilmarnock at Chimney Corner and on day two they will face Donegal Schools at Scroggy Road. Their third and final group game is against Rangers at the Riada Stadium in Ballymoney.

Write up by Stuart McCracken