Gary McAlister takes the helm as Junior team manager at the SuperCupNI for the first time on Monday knowing that his team will be in for the challenge of their lives.
The junior boys have matches against Charlton Athletic, Cherry Orchard and Global Premier Soccer to contend with in the opening three days and Gary has made sure his player know the level of oppositions they’ll be facing
“It’s important that the players realise that we are probably underdogs in most of our games and that the effort has to be put in by everyone. We’ve had eight weeks to prepare for the tournament, while the teams we’ll be playing have been together as a group for years, and train maybe three times a week. They’ll also be technically better.
“There’s things we can be responsible for though like our work rate and effort and determination. I know that with the squad we have that there’s a lot of versatility which gives us options to change the game where we see fit.”
With all of the preparations now behind them, players’ minds will need to be focused from day one, something that Gary is all too aware of himself. “This is where it starts to get real for everybody,” he says, “All through the training we put everything else to the back of our minds, but arriving in Coleraine and seeing everyone unpacking their stuff and seeing all the other teams come together, you realise that now is the time that we have to put into practice everything we’ve worked on.
“They’ll be a few nerves from the players of course, which is no bad thing as it shows that they care. They’ll see at the opening parade, the interest there is in them from the crowds of people who come out to watch. I hope that we can go out this week and show the spectators exactly what we’re capable of.”
This year Gary has made the move from Premier coach to Junior manager and with him has come an entirely new backroom team, but one that he says has stepped up fully to the challenge.
“I’ve a lot of experience managing at club level, so this isn’t completely new to me. But there is a different dynamic with the county. Effectively I’m managing nine different teams’ players and we’re always so grateful for the support and understanding we get from the clubs.
“It really tests the staff and the coaches ability to be able to mould a team in such a short space of time. It’s been a great challenge for us and something that I’ve really enjoyed and this week will show how far we’ve come with the results and how we play. We feel that we’ve prepared well for the tournament and we hope that we can go out and show that this week.
“Like any year, the preparations always have their ups and down. I remember at the first trial, wondering if we’d be able to pull together a squad good enough to compete in the tournament. But as the process goes on, the talent starts to shine through and when it comes to making our squad decisions it’s difficult because we’d identified 25 or so players who could justify being picked.
“When training starts, the first few weeks are always tough as the players are coming into a new environment. But everybody worked very hard, we had some worthwhile games and everyone got settled in. There were lessons learned along the way, such as the defeat to St Kevin’s in Dublin, which was good for showing the players the level that they had to aspire to.
“Because of that we’re coming into the tournament now with a belief that we could cause an upset.”
Tournament football comes and goes very quickly and with Gary’s past experience of the SuperCup, he knows that’s switching on from the start is key. “It could be said that Monday could make or break your week. Getting a result on the first day could maybe give you an indication of how the week is going to pan out. But win or lose, it’s important that the players realise that we’ll be here until Friday. When each new day starts, that’s the only game that matters – the players need to understand that it’s important to apply themselves each day.
“A lot of the players won’t be used to playing in an environment where we have a referee and two linesmen. There’s higher level of discipline required from the players, which can be challenging to adapt to at times. Luck will be big factor in every game; whether you get the rub of the green or not or when penalties are given or not. That kind of thing is important and dropped points make a lot of difference in a tournament.”
AS his players get ready to take the field Gary sends them out with this message: “We know the level of player that we’ll be playing against are going to be super confident on the ball, they’ll move it about quickly and will be very well structured and disciplined. There’ll be cultural differences too in terms of style and tactics and how those teams manage the game.
“But we want to go out and show that we’re not just in this competition because we’re the country hosting it. We have our own identity and our own style of play too and that’s something I’ve been trying to get across to the players that we want them to play the way we want and to not to be afraid to mix it up and try to bridge the physical gap.”