Rhys Williams, Lead Youth Development Phase Coach reports back on the tournament that saw the boys reach an exciting final.
The Charlton Athletic Academy, backed by Valley Gold funding sent a squad of U15 and U16 players (2004 born or younger) to compete in this prestigious tournament formally known as the “Milk” Cup in Northern Ireland. The club had previously won the competition way back in 2000 and until last season had not attended the event for some years. Last year’s squad had a tough week so the group travelled well aware of the challenge ahead, particularly as six of the squad had participated last time out.
The group flew to Dublin, but were based in Ballymena from where they travelled to a variety of venues for their fixtures. They took part in the pre-tournament Parade on the Sunday evening attended by thousands of local fans in Coleraine – a wonderful start to the week. 22 teams from all over the world participated in the competition and qualification to the semi-finals would be determined by collating as many points and goals as possible via the three random games, rather than through the traditional 4 team group. BBC Northern Ireland covered the tournament via the Sport website and I-Player and our third fixture against Manchester United was a game selected for coverage.
Our first game saw a comfortable 5-0 win against local side County Fermanagh before overcoming a difficult test against Chilean side Colina. Falling a goal behind during the first half, we had to do it the hard way and showed great character to come back to win 2-1 against an aggressive and cynical opponent who tried everything to disrupt the flow of the game once they were ahead. With two wins on the board, it looked like a point against United could be enough to qualify for the semi-final, dependent on goal difference, but a win would definitely see us through.
Under the spotlight of the BBC TV coverage, we took a little while to settle into our rhythm but scored from a corner just before half time to lead. The second half saw us at our best and we scored a second and could have won more comfortably had we taken our chances.
The semi-final saw us play Pumas Unam from Mexico, again with BBC coverage. This was a hard-fought game where we needed energy and competitive spirit to find a way to win. Having cruised to a 2-0 lead just before the break, the Mexicans reduced the deficit and scored again to equalise. Our team showed great composure not to panic and scored a dramatic late winner to reach the final.
The final saw us meet Glasgow Rangers at Ballymena Utd’s Showground stadium again on TV. Our first-half performance was as good as anything we produced during the week and we dominated the ball, pressed excellently to regain and did not allow our opponents to settle. The only thing missing was a goal and this was to cost us dear as against the run of play, Rangers scored right at the end of the first half. In truth, we never really recovered and could have gone further behind in the second half other than a superb goal-keeping performance that included a penalty save to keep us alive. Rangers scored a second in stoppage time to seal the title and break our hearts.
The experience that the boys gained from this trip was incredible. The support of Valley Gold to enable both trips to Northern Ireland in the last twelve months has offered a real development opportunity for our young players. Some fantastic lessons were learnt in adversity last season and the opportunity to go and compete again and evolve the resilience and competitive character required under pressure can only support the development of our players.
A number of the group also attended the Valley Gold funded South American tour last February. In enabling our attendance at these tournaments, the Valley Gold membership is not only offering incredible memories for our players and staff, but also the ability to develop key cultural, life and football experiences that will enhance their career opportunities in the future. Without this support, we would otherwise be unable to offer these experiences. We are incredibly grateful for your support.