The Northern Ireland Junior team, managed by Harry McConkey, enjoyed great success last weekend as they claimed the Umbro Cup, a Quadrangular Junior International tournament.
Held in Scotland, McConkey led his squad to victory in the tournament that included home nation Scotland, the Isle of Man as well as the Republic of Ireland.
A draw with Scotland in the first game was followed by wins over the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland to seal the crown and McConkey, who again had Fermanagh man Ernie Conlon with him as kit man, could not have been happier with the success.
“I was very pleased for the players. We were blessed to have a group with experience, with real characters and some really good young players and the key for me was the togetherness of the squad both on and off the pitch,” said McConkey.
Northern Ireland trailed 2-0 in their opening game in the group but rallied to grab a draw against the Scots with former Ballinamallard player Ryan Campbell scoring both goals as the game finished 2-2. “The lads showed real resilience in that game against Scotland. We were two down at half time but they battled away and Rocket came up with two goals including a fantastic second. We finished that game on a high and it really set us up for the game against the Isle of Man,” he added.
On the second day, Northern Ireland faced the Isle of Man and they withstood early pressure from their opponents before going on to record a 4-0 win.
“We changed the team and freshened things up for the Isle of Man and we were maybe fortunate to survive early on when they hit the post. We got control of the game after that and in the end we won the game comfortably,” said McConkey.
It was then on to a meeting with the Republic of Ireland with the knowledge that a win would more or less guarantee them the cup for Northern Ireland although McConkey, who is in his 12th season as Junior international boss, had never beaten them in a competitive contest.
“We went in to game three as a team that was growing in self-belief and positive momentum in all three units of defence, midfield and attack. We pressed high early on and forced the Republic of Ireland’s defence into errors and took control of the middle third of the park. Our goalkeeper and back four provided a great platform to play from in possession and were exceptional in their controlled aggression out of possession,” he said.
An excellent team goal saw Northern Ireland take the lead in the second half with another former Mallard, Warner Mullen on target and Campbell then netted his third of the tournament with a cracking 25 yard strike to double the advantage. The Republic of Ireland though hit straight back and it led to a nervy final period.
“It was an anxious last ten minutes or so but we held on for the win and we were just delighted to get over the line. It was also good to get the monkey off the back of having not beaten the Republic of Ireland in previous years,” said McConkey. So what did the win mean to McConkey? “We have qualified for Europe previously and we have also been pipped for bronze but this is the first real tangible reward and it is nice to show people that your efforts have been rewarded,” he said.