Milk Cup 2014: NI Elite triumph bodes well for future
The 2014 Milk Cup was the biggest in the competition's history as 56 teams from 19 countries afforded a truly international flavour to proceedings.
However, while the overseas visitors made their presence felt - some in less than savoury fashion - there was home grown success in the Elite Section as Northern Ireland took the honours after beating China, Mexico and Canada.
Another encouraging local performance came in the Junior tournament where County Antrim reached the final before losing out 2-0 to Brazilian club SC Corinthians.
Mexico's violent antics in their defeat by Northern Ireland brought unwelcome negative headlines to the prestigious youth tournament, but it would be unfair if those events completely overshadowed Northern Ireland's eventual Elite triumph.
With the possible exception of Manchester United's Premier-winning side, no team served up a finer display than Northern Ireland's Elite squad.
Their matches against China, Mexico and Canada were a great expression of their commitment, unity and talent.
Stephen Craigan only took the managerial post for Northern Ireland's U-19 squad in April 2013 but has shown how much is possible in just over a year with this impressive group of burgeoning professionals.
In their opener against China at Ballymena Showgrounds, Craigan's men exerted their dominance with a comfortable 2-0 victory thanks to some fluid attacking football.
First-half goals from Josh Doherty and Charlton's Mikhail Kennedy proved enough for the Northern Irish who showed a maturity and discipline in holding on to their advantage in the second half.
Northern Ireland had to show their mettle to an even greater extent against Mexico as they came from behind to earn a 2-1 win as they were tested on both their competence as footballers and responsibility as representatives of the local game.
The moment which really sparked anger was the kick by a Mexican player aimed at the head of Northern Ireland striker Dale Gorman's head while he lay on the ground.
By full-time, Mexicans Raul Monala Gudino, Carlos Arreola and Kevin Gutierrez had been sent off along with Northern Ireland's Robbie McDaid as the majority of the blame for the unseemly scenes was directed at the Central American visitors.
Craigan said the ugly scenes were not in keeping with the tradition of the tournament and expressed his wish not to see Mexico invited back.
Amid all the negative headlines, Craigan faced the real challenge of refocusing his squad for their final match against Canada, when a draw was going to prove sufficient to land the tournament.
However, the 1-0 win against the Canadians reminded the fans at Ballymena Showgrounds what this group of future stars are all about - hard work, dedication, an intense commitment to improvement.
They all displayed a willingness to forget the Mexico debacle in their final match against Canada but no player epitomised this admirable attitude more than Levi Ives.
The Torquay United winger never stopped running all night, shining as a model of graft and diligence down Northern Ireland's left flank. Team-mates Simon Hanna and George Gray may have provided the eye-catching trickery but Ives is the sort of player Northern Ireland fans could really get used to.
Craigan was duly full of praise for his squad after they lifted the trophy.
"They are a great bunch of boys. They give you everything, and they work hard and take information on board. They deserve everything they get," he said.
Moving away from the international side of the tournament, the Premier Section offered further evidence that Northern Ireland have a few stars in the making.
Co Antrim and Co. Down played their opener at Ballymena Showgrounds and the stand-out performers should reappear on the radar in the coming years.
Marc Sykes, Antrim's skilful number 10, wowed the crowd with sharp turns and darting runs before putting his side ahead with a glorious 30-yard free-kick worthy of Cristiano Ronaldo.
The strike helped his team to a 3-2 win over local rivals Down and reflected the generally high level of quality from the Northern Irish clubs.
A review of the tournament would not be complete without a mention of Manchester United.
The Red Devils were utterly dominant en route to success in the Premier Section and were helped significantly along the way by Glengormley lad Jordan Thompson.
A testament to the first-class conditioning and training available at United, Thompson proved to be a creative lynchpin in midfield, producing effortless passes reminiscent of Paul Scholes and exuding supreme confidence even when under pressure in possession.
Thompson, 17, showed he has a big future ahead of him with a superb demonstration of technique in slamming a thunderous volley into the bottom corner against Co Armagh in Ballymoney.
Northern Ireland may sit a lowly 89th in FIFA's Rankings and have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup but the Milk Cup hinted that better days may lie ahead.