Former Milk Cup winner David Healy says the international youth tournament is resilient enough to move on from Manchester United’s decision not to compete this summer for the first time in 26 years.
Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer made the draw for next month’s event yesterday in Belfast where tournament chairman Victor Leonard revealed discussions are on going with United about a possible return.
Healy, who started his cross channel career at Old Trafford, playing for them in the Junior Milk Cup, said: “The public are disappointed about United’s decision and so are the organisers but the tournament is big enough now to continue. It has gone global and is full of exciting sides from all parts of the world.
“It still gives youngsters a world class stage to play on. I was only a 13-year-old boy from Killyleagh who had only been over to Old Trafford once or twice when I was asked to play for United and it was a dream come true for me to compete in front of my family and local people.
“We got all the way to the Junior final but lost to Middlesbrough. It was an amazing week for me and what I learned back then in terms of experience stood me in good stead.”
Healy, who went on to play in the event three times, winning the Elite title with Northern ireland in 1997, also took time to praise another Milk Cup graduate, striker Kyle Lafferty, who has been in great form for Northern Ireland as they push to qualify for a first ever appearance at a European Championship finals.
“He has done brilliantly and I am delighted for him. In the previous campaign he took a bit of flak from people for his lack of form but he has become our main man. Opposition managers all now identify him as that.
“I have to take my hat off to manager Michael O’Neill who has worked with him and it is paying dividends.”
Healy, now coaching for the Irish FA, has aspirations to become a manager: “It’s a complete change learning how to be a coach and a manager. I am learning all the requirements with the IFA courses.”
Meanwhile, yesterday’s draw threw together 2014 beaten finalists County Antrim and County Londonderry in the opening series of Junior games.
Antrim, beaten 2-0 by Brazilian club Corinthians in last year’s final after losing the previous year’s decider to Everton after a penalty shootout, will also take on Mexicans Zacatepac and the North Dublin League in their group.
In the Premier competition, County Down will be up against last year’s beaten finalists, French side Vendee who lost out to Manchester United.
The 33rd Dale Farm Milk Cup tournament begins with the traditional parade of competing teams through Coleraine on Sunday, July 26, concluding with finals night at Ballymena Showgrounds on Friday, July 31.
In addition to the title sponsors, the Dale Farm Milk Cup is supported by the Causeway Coast and Glens Council, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Tourism Northern Ireland, DCAL, Mitre and The Beautiful Game, with BBC Sport NI as broadcast partners.
AS Roma USA: v Rangers, Sydney United, Co Fermanagh
Brentford: Plymouth Argyle, Strikers, Co Down
Co Antrim: Co Londonderry, North Dublin, SL Zacatepac
Co Armagh: Co Tyrone, Right to Dream, Swindon Town
Co Down: Donegal SL, Strikers, Brentford
Co Fermanagh: Dundalk SL, AS Roma USA, Rangers
Co Londonderry: Co Antrim, OC Blues, Southampton
Co. Tyrone: Co Armagh, GPS FC Bayern, Liverpool
Donegal Schools: Co Down, Santa Marta de Liray, Plymouth Argyle
Dundalk SL: Co Fermanagh, Sydney United, Sheffield United
GPS FC Bayern: Liverpool, Right to Dream, Co Tyrone
Liverpool: Swindon Town, GPS FC Bayern, Co Tyrone
North Dublin SL: OC Blues, Zacatepac, Co Antrim
OC Blues: Southampton, North Dublin SL, Co Londonderry
Plymouth Argyle: Brentford, Santa Marta de Liray, Donegal SL
Rangers: Sheffield United, AS Romas USA, Co Fermanagh
Right to Dream: GPS FC Bayern, Swindon Town, Co Armagh
Santa Marta de Liray: Strikers, Plymouth Argyle, Donegal SL
Sheffield United: Rangers, Sydney United, Dundalk SL
Southampton: Zacatepac, OC Blues, Co Londonderry
Strikers: Brentford, Santa Marta de Liray, Co Down
Swindon Town: Liverpool, Right to Dream, Co Armagh
Sydney United: AS Roma USA, Sheffield United,Dundalk SL
Zacatepac: Southampton, North Dublin SL, Co Antrim
Alset Colombia: Real Sociedad, Otago Academy, Co Armagh
Cherry Orchard: Co Down, OC Blues, O’Higgins FC
Club América: Vendee, OC Blues, Cherry Orchard
Co Antrim: Co Tyrone, Strikers, Higashi Fukuoka
Co Armagh: Real Sociedad, Alset Colombia, Otago Academy
Co Down: Cherry Orchard, Club America, Vendee
Co Fermanagh: Co Londonderry, Partick Thistle, Malaga CF
Co Londonderry: Co Fermanagh, Lusaka Academy, CSKA Moscow
Co Tyrone: Co Antrim, Right to Dream, Newcastle United
CSKA Moscow: Malaga CF, Lusaka Academy, Co Londonderry
Higashi Fukuoka: Newcastle United, Strikers, Co Antrim
Lusaka Academy: CSKA Moscow, Partick Thistle, Co Londonderry
Malaga CF: CSKA Moscow, Partick Thistle, Co Fermanagh
Newcastle United: Higashi Fukuoka, Right to Dream, Co Tyrone
O’Higgins FC: Vendee, OC Blues, Cherry Orchard
OC Blues: Club America, O’Higgins FC, Cherry Orchard
Otago Academy: Real Sociedad, Alset Colombia, Co. Armagh
Partick Thistle: Lusaka Academy, Malaga CF, Co Fermanagh
Real Sociedad: Alset Colombia, Otago Academy, Co Armagh
Right to Dream: Newcastle United, Strikers, Co Tyrone
Strikers: Right to Dream, Higashi Fukuoka, Co Antrim
Vendee: O’Higgins FC, Club America, Co Down