French lesson isn’t hard to learn says Kirk
Journalist and broadcaster Grant Cameron joined manager Paul Kirk and his Under-19 Milk Cup squad at the 47th annaual Croix International Tournament in France back in 2003. It turned out to be a memeorable experience...
The Milk Cup squad in Croix in 2003
What a wonderful game football can be! It throws up fun, frustration, exhilaration and expectation all in one go. Ah, c’est la vie!
So when Lisburn Distillery manager Paul Kirk was approached to coach a Milk Cup side at the Croix tournament he knew he was in for more of the same!
He didn’t have any more than a few weeks to prepare and he only had his players together for three training sessions before they flew out
Add to that four cry offs, including his two goalkeepers and the frustration had already kicked in before his lads gathered at Belfast’s Europa Hotel for departure.
The fourth withdrawal came on the way into the hotel! But a few quick phone calls and the Tayto factory in County Armagh came to the rescue, releasing Mark Turkington to travel. He raced home, grabbed his boots and passport and met the party at Dublin Airport.
From Dublin it was on to Charleroi south of Brussels and an 80-minute coach trip to Wasquehal on the outskirts of Croix. The party checked into its hotel after 11pm so Kirk was grateful he had all day Friday to prepare for the opening game against Wasquehal.
A spot of training in the soaring temperatures helped loosen limbs and following a rest, the 16-strong squad joined Milk Cup committee members Jim Weir, Jim Sandford, David Hay and Seamus Fisher plus a cast of hundreds in the opening parade which seemed to go on and on and on but was nonetheless spectacular and heartwarming
The pride you feel when people you don’t know wave and cheer at you in the street is something special!
From exhilaration to exhaustion then. It was an early start next day as the team left the hotel at 8.15 for the Stade Henri Seigneur.
They kicked off at 9.30 and should have defeated the French club side’s representatives. Antrim’s Anton Crawford hit the woodwork and co-striker Mark Hamilton was out of luck too.
In Ballinamallard goalkeeper Chris Breen we had unearthed a gem. Kirk was positively purring: “The lad is exceptional, a real natural if you ask me. Not only is he a good shot stopper but his positional sense and kicking are top rate and he certainly talks to his defenders.
“I couldn’t believe that nobody has worked with him recently in the international set up. He is well worth taking on board in my opinion.”
Breen, a Schoolboy international, made a series of superb saves as the team only just missed out on making the top four.
As results go, two scoreless draws and a couple of narrow defeats didn’t do justice to the local lads who impressed the coach of Swedish club Malmo.
He admitted his side didn’t deserve to steal a 1-0 victory: “You should have beaten us,” came a surprise but honest confession to Kirk some time after the game.
“We just didn’t manage to get the ball in the net and you have to take your chances when games are as tight as they were in France,” says Kirk. “Most of the teams in the competition were club sides which made it difficult.
“That said, I saw plenty to encourage me and I think we will hear of some of them in the future. In fact, I rang Ronnie McFall at Portadown to congratulate him on the three players from his club who were with us
Neil Alderdice, Kris Lindsay and Philip Craig were terrific not only in terms of their performances but also in all round character and professionalism.”
There was another 1-0 defeat in the third game against French side Lille with the Milk Cup lads deserving at least a draw but a late strike by Matthew Robineaux put paid to that notion.
The final outing, against Dutch side Den Haag, was a scoreless affair although, again, there were chances to snatch victory.
Kirk hails the Milk Cup organisers for their skills in throwing the whole thing together so quickly: “They are a thoroughly professional bunch of guys who have done wonders for our country with the Milk Cup.
This trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about the tournament and what it takes to run it. They left no stone unturned in making sure we were well treated as ambassadors for our country.
“If ever people deserve to be recognised it is these people. The Milk Cup is a phenomenal success and a wonderful thing for players from here and other countries too.”
Of course, Kirk speaks from experience.
He coached the Dundonald Youth League team which competed there ten years ago and included son Andrew, now 24, and plying his trade with Scottish club Hearts.
“It was a terrific week for Andrew and myself but you don’t really get to see what is involved in making it all happen until you spend time with the men who make it run like clockwork.
They are superb!”
As for France, well Kirk insists it was an excellent learning curve for the players and he also paid tribute to his assistant coach Ronnie Cromie and hard working physio Paul Rafferty.
As for the journalist… well, his schoolboy French came into play more than once with our translator Richard not so hot with his English! Oh, and I helped to carry the kit too. Nice to be useful!