Road to SuperCupNI – a special series of short reads for our 40th anniversary tournament.
We’re inviting teams to tell us a little about themselves, how preparations are going and what participating in SuperCupNI means to them.
Next up in the series – Ballymena United.
Ballymena United coach Mark Crawford believes the magic of SuperCupNI is as strong as ever as the tournament prepares to chalk up four decades in existence.
Crawford is relishing the prospect of navigating the young Sky Blues’ path in the Minor Section of the world-renowned youth football tournament later this month.
“I was never fortunate enough to play in the Milk Cup, as it was known back then, but growing up, it was always a massive event in the football calendar,” recalls Mark.
“I’m probably showing my age a bit here by saying that I remember the likes of Nicky Barmby, Joe Cole and, of course, the famous Manchester United ‘Class of 92’ side, many of whom, like David Beckham, went on to play at the very top level of the game.
“More recently, our players can identify with the likes of Marcus Rashford starring in the tournament so they are in no doubt as to how fantastic a stage the SuperCupNI is to play on.
“We had a relatively poor season in terms of our performance in the NIBFA National League so the players probably feel they have a bit of a point to prove and everyone, from players to coaches to parents, is really looking forward to it.
“We’ve drafted in some very good young players from the age group below us, the 2011s, to add to our existing squad and we have been shaping up fairly well in our warm-up games.
“There has been an awful lot of hard work has gone into this, not just on the pitch but off it as well and we are very grateful to everyone who helped us out at fund-raising events throughout the season.”
Crawford’s boys have been pitted against American side Surf Select along with Dungannon United Youth and Larne in their week-long long adventure on the north coast.
“Surf Select actually won the Minor Section last year so they are a very strong outfit and it might be the only time some of our boys ever play against opposition from the USA.
“As well as that, Dungannon have a terrific record of developing players from their youth section, while there are so many positive things happening at Larne right now so the group is a big challenge for us but one we’re really looking forward to.”
The fixture against Larne has also produced a slightly unusual situation with Crawford’s son Jude lining up AGAINST his father’s team in central midfield for the east Antrim outfit.
“As you can imagine, it’s been good fun in our house since the draw was made!” laughs Mark.
“To be honest, it was probably a fixture that both of us would have been happy to avoid but, sod’s law being what it is, that’s exactly what happened so it will certainly be interesting.
“No matter what happens, we hope it will be an experience, not just in football terms but of being away together as a group, that the boys will remember for many years to come,” the Ballymena coach added.
Monday, July 24 – v Surf Select (Riada Centre, Ballymoney, 11am)
Tuesday, July 25 – v Dungannon United Youth (The Warren, Portstewart, 11am)
Wednesday, July 26 – v Larne (The Heights, Coleraine, 11am).