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Cherry Orchard look to mark 20-year anniversary with Milk Cup victory

The U17s team face the biggest game of their lives against Manchester United in the semi-finals at Coleraine’s Showgrounds tonight.

The Cherry Orchard squad. Credit: Cherry Orchard

TWENTY YEARS ON from their first and only Milk Cup triumph, Cherry Orchard are on the brink of another final appearance but must first upset the odds by sending heavyweights Manchester United packing tonight (8pm).

Back in July 1993, the Dublin club, managed by brothers Christy and Sean Hammond, overcame Glasgow Rangers to add their name to an exclusive list of past Premier winners which includes greats such as Barcelona, Liverpool and Fluminense.

Hailing from Ballyfermot, the Orchard have a rich tradition in the prestigious youth tournament, which sees teams from all over the world descend on Northern Ireland every summer. Apart from the ’93 success, they have also reached the semi-finals on several occasions.

Last year, Jonathan O’Toole’s boys went out at the last four stage to eventual winners Deportivo Brasil. This time around, John Clifford is hoping to go one better in what will effectively be his last game in charge of a team he has managed all the way up from Under-8s to Under-17s.

One of the top sides in the Dublin District Schoolboys League (DDSL), they have finished runners-up in the Premier division on a couple of occasions and beat St Kevin’s in the Leinster Youth Cup earlier this year. Taking three guest players along with his current squad, Clifford today told TheScore.ie that he was confident that his lads could compete with the best.

“Four players – Colm Harney, Sean McGrane, Jack Bailey and Ian Molloy (a goalkeeper who has since signed for Leeds United) – played in it last year and did pretty well,” he said. “The lads got great experience so, although we’re an amateur side playing the big guns, I knew we were coming up here with a decent chance.”

Watch the opening ceremony:

YouTube credit: NI Milk Cup

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They got off to a less than perfect start, however, as the opening game ended in a 1-0 defeat to Cruz Azul of Mexico. The loss was tough to take as the Orchard came up against an opposing goalkeeper in flying form and conceded through a rare defensive error.

Next up was a clash with the County Down representative team. Minutes after missing an early penalty, they conceded from a spot-kick down the other end but changes in the second half saw the Dubliners score three without reply.

They added a fourth before the final whistle but injuries to Sean McGrane (broken nose) and the excellent guest player Kaleem Simon, who had his arm broken in two places, took some of the gloss off the victory.

You just think everything is conspiring against you but that’s why you bring squads,” says Clifford. “It is unfortunate for Kaleem who has been outstanding as he is out of the tournament but we’re trying to get a protective mask for Sean so he can play tonight.”

Needing three or more goals in the final group game against Vendee FC of France to progress, they got the job done with a 4-0 win. Their top scorer with three goal is Jake Corrigan, who remarkably, is a left-back. Jamie Mullhall, Jake Corrigan, Conor Mooney and Conor Dunne, meanwhile, have all excelled.

Dozens of scouts show up annually to check out the talent on show and 2013 has been no exception. Sam Jewell, son of former Wigan manager Paul, is an agent and scout for a number of clubs and spoke to John about his players.

“I had a meeting with him last night and he was asking about a couple of players but I was more interested in what Man United were like because he went to see him twice.”

The Showgrounds in Coleraine will tonight be packed out with many travelling up from Dublin as the Orchard face one of the most famous clubs in world football. The Red Devils have scored 12 goals and conceded just one en route to the semis and will fancy their chances of going through to the final, where either CSKA Moscow or Tyrone await.

I’ve told the lads they have absolutely nothing to fear,” explains Clifford. “We’ll just concentrate on what we want to do. They’re all bouncing but the unfortunate part is that only 11 can start. They’re all hungry for the biggest game of their lives. Man United – it doesn’t get much bigger.”

Most of the squad will be playing their last game in the black and red as they have already agreed to join League of Ireland teams. Clifford is also ending his ten-year spell in charge but wants to go out on high.

“It’s 20 years since we won it and would be a great send off for me and the staff because most of the players are leaving. This is the swansong.”

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Ben Blake

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