AS THE DUST settles on the 2019 O'Neills Foyle Cup, let's reflect on what was an outstanding week of youth football and fabulous occasion for the Derry.
The crowds which flocked in their droves to pitches and venues across the north west region last week reinforced the growing popularity of the fantastic tournament and organisers and volunteers deserve huge credit for what was a unforgettable six days of youth football.
Every year Chairman, Michael Hutton, and his team push the boat out in terms of attracting some of the top teams in the UK, Ireland and further afield to the city and surrounding regions and this year they surpassed all expectations as a record-breaking total of 424 teams took part in the tournament which generated in the region of £2 million for the local economy.
That’s an outstanding effort and it remains the area’s biggest sporting attractions and one of the (IF NOT THE) major event held annually in Derry.
And while the vast amount of teams and the varying levels in terms of standards, brings some constructive criticism as teams are losing by significant margins which can do little for development, overall there was some fantastic contests and impressive football played over the course of the week.
You can’t underestimate the organising, the money, sponsorship and good will which goes into making a tournament like the Foyle Cup such a success story and everyone involved from coaches, Derry City and Strabane District Council, referees, the bus companies ferrying players to various grounds, the parents, O’Neill’s Sportswear company - not forgetting the players who behaved immaculately throughout - can hold their heads up high.
There’s so many people and different communities who help make what is the biggest youth football competition in Ireland so special.
I went along to watch the finals day at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium on Saturday as the 2019 tournament finished with a flourish and was astounded at the large attendance which filled the Mark Farren Stand to capacity. It added a real festival atmosphere to the occasion and it was fantastic to see three local teams in Oxford United U12s, Maiden City U16s and Donegal Schoolboys U12s involved in the showpiece.
There was heartbreak for the Oxford boys, beaten 2-0 by a Donegal Schoolboys side who went through the competition without conceding a goal, while Maiden City came up short in a 2-1 defeat to an impressive Partick Thistle U16 side who have vowed to return to make it a hat-trick of Foyle Cup titles.
It was also encouraging to see the work being done with the Derry City Football Club’s Academy sides in such a short period of time with the club’s Under-15s defeating Finn Harps in the final at Brandywell to be crowned champions after a brilliant tournament.
And the Candy Stripes’ Under-13 representatives defeated Sheffield United 2-1 in Killea to finish third in the highly competitive age group. The young City players had topped their group with three wins from three having scored 25 goals and conceding none! They were stopped in their tracks by Motherwell who edged them out 3-2 in the knockout stages before that big win over the Blades.
Elsewhere, the City U19s lost out 1-0 to near neighbours, Institute, in the U19 decider at Brandywell on Friday night while the U17s finished the tournament with a penalty shoot-out loss to Dundee United.
Derry City Ladies will also have gained plenty of experience against a dominant Linfield Ladies, Donegal Ladies and Sion Swifts sides.
It all got officially underway last Tuesday morning as thousands of excited young footballers and their coaches paraded through the city centre and congregated at the Guildhall Square in a spectacular sea of colour.
Among them was the Oxford Bulls, a local team for children with Down’s Syndrome with youngster, Adam Morrison having the honour of leading the 2019 parade.
That bumper crowd and atmosphere on Finals Day will no doubt enhance the profile of the ever growing tournament and hopefully word gets back to some of the bigger clubs in England and Scotland and we can see more quality youngsters grace our local pitches.
Teams now flock from France, USA and Canada to take part in the event and it’s amazing to think the first ever Foyle Cup which kicked off back in 1982 involved just eight teams!
The 2019 tournament no doubt surpasses previous years in relation to attendance, occupancy rates and visitor expenditure and it has once again created new friendships and lots of memories for all the young aspiring footballers who took part.
There was also many talent scouts in attendance throughout the week so perhaps some of our local players have caught the eye of one of the major cross-channel clubs.
The U14 Final was one I was looking forward to seeing on Saturday and it didn’t disappoint with some stunning goals and stand-out talent on show.
Coached by ex-England international and former Aston Villa striker, Darius Vassell it was no surprise Wolves had scored 30 goals on their way to the decider.
And it was nice to see a team in the red and white Candy Stripes contest a final at the Lone Moor Road venue ,reminding us of that special link Derry City has with Sheffield United and the legendary Billy Gillespie.
The attendance were treated to two special goals with Stafford Clarke netting a wonderful 25 strike to get proceedings underway before Wolves striker, Usman Khan completed his brace with a terrific team goal in the second half.
Sheffield United eventually won the contest on penalties but it was a fantastic showpiece by the two English clubs. There was certainly a few names in both teams who I’ll keep a close eye on in the future with 6ft Wolves centre half, Filosoph Mabate in particular, possessing undoubted potential.
O’Neills Foyle Cup chairman, Michael Hutton, paid tribute to all those who helped make this year’s event better than ever.
“Once again the feedback we have received from visiting clubs is a testament to the warm and friendly welcome they have received everywhere they have gone, with a high standard of service and a high quality of accommodation and hospitality in general.
“The teams have reported back to me that the level of football, the standard of the pitches, the professionalism of all the volunteers involved in O’Neill’s Foyle Cup make this exactly the kind of competitive but friendly footballing tournament they want to bring their teams to and many have already expressed an interest in next year’s event.”
The NI Super Cup is now underway with the likes of Manchester United and Rangers lighting up venues along the north coast but for me, the Foyle Cup and the lasting friendships and football connections which are made annually, remains the highlight of the local sporting calendar.