Focus On: County Fermanagh Milk Cup

The countdown to the Dale Farm Milk Cup is well and truly on with less than two months to go! One of the unique and special aspects of the tournament is that six representative sides from Northern Ireland compete in both the Junior and Premier sections – one for each County. We caught up with Sam Gamble from the County Fermanagh side, someone with plenty to keep him busy in the coming weeks juggling roles as assistant secretary, public relations officer and Junior Manager!


Following the completion of trials in May, the final 18 for both the Junior and Premier Fermanagh sides were announced, and it was straight to work according to Sam. “Both sides are working 2-3 times a week, and the Junior side have had three games in total to date – against a quality Sligo/Leitrim Select squad, County Armagh in the Orchard Cup and Glendowan U16s. Next up for us is our own tournament, the Gary Bownes Cup. The Juniors are playing Donegal Schoolboys and the Premier Side are taking on a Finn Harps U17 side. Both matches are at the Bawnacre Centre in Irvinestown on June 20th, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 3.30pm respectively.


In comparison with the majority of other sides competing at the Milk Cup, the county sides have only around two months to form a squad, one of the biggest challenges in Sam’s eyes. “That is the biggest hurdle we face, as nine times of ten the county sides are facing professional academy sides who are training every day. Fortunately we have a number of players in each squad who play together at their various clubs so they all know each other fairly well. Now it is about putting 100% effort into ensuring we try and gel as a team and as a unit – we don’t have any time to waste. So far the boys have been fantastic and bought into what we are trying to do.”


The evidence suggests that the challenges faced by the local sides can indeed be overcome, with both County Antrim and County Tyrone reaching the Milk Cup finals in recent years stand outs amongst many great results for the local sides, something that Sam thoroughly believes in. “The gap is narrowing and the county teams are becoming more and more professional on and off the pitch, which has helped all of the teams develop.”


As well as on the pitch, there is the annual challenge of raising the funds to participate in the tournament. “It costs us a considerable amount of money to send two squads to the tournament, and everybody has to do their bit. The boys raise money through a sponsor card and the committee run fundraisers such as an advertising booklet, quiz nights, raffles and auctions”, explains Sam. “However, without our sponsors we wouldn’t be able to participate and we are indebted to David Hamilton, Spar Lisbellaw for sponsoring the Junior Squad and the Westville Hotel in Enniskillen for sponsoring the Premier side. In addition we have a lot of other sponsors of various kit and training gear who help us enormously”.


So plenty of time and effort goes into ensuring Fermanagh participate each year, but for Sam the rewards are more than worth it. “We often forget that being part of a county team enables you to bring boys together from every community, who take a great deal of pride in representing their county at such a prestigious event. For many of these players the Milk Cup is the highest stage they will play at, which provides them with a platform to showcase their ability against some of the best young players across the world. There are scouts watching every game and it is an opportunity for our players to put themselves in the shop window, and show them the sort of talent that is coming out of Fermanagh”.


Talent indeed – despite having the smallest population relative to other county sides there are plenty of predecessors to inspire this year’s Fermanagh teams, as Sam is well aware. “Last year before a ball was even kicked our U17 centre-half Matthew Smyth went to Stevenage, and he is progressing well over in England. And looking at the current Northern Ireland international squad there are three players who all represented Fermanagh in the Milk Cup. “Kyle Lafferty signed for Burnley after some outstanding displays at the Milk Cup, whilst goalkeepers Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern are another two famous old boys who have gone on to have fantastic careers in the game. Andy Little signed for Rangers after performing well at the Milk Cup, so the boys know that there are opportunities out there.”


Looking ahead to the forthcoming 2015 tournament draw, Sam was keeping his cards close to his chest on any preferred opponents in the group stages. “Over the last few years we have competed with some fantastic teams, including Corinthians of Brazil in our first game last year. They waltzed through the tournament, and were probably the best Junior side I have seen in 20 plus years of attending the tournament. We’ve played Tyrone in the past two years and while it is fantastic to have a derby match, those games have become a bit tiresome and we would like to avoid them come the draw. It’s always nice to get a big name team and to pit your wits against the world’s best, but we are just looking forward to the tournament and giving the boys a platform to express themselves.”


There are a few tough weeks ahead for the Fermanagh sides no doubt, but you know that they will be more than ready for whatever the Dale Farm Milk Cup throws their way come late July.

Photographs: John McVitty
Words: Graeme McClure