The first leg of the 2017 UEFA Regions Cup qualifier in Northern Ireland is being staged in Armagh this evening.
Armagh City FC is hosting the game between teams from the Eastern Region (Mid-Ulster and Antrim) and the Western Region (Fermanagh and Western and North West) which have been formed by Northern Ireland Regions Cup manager Harry McConkey.
This evening’s encounter at Holm Park (7.45 kick-off) is the home game for the Eastern Region and next Wednesday (25th May) Moyola Park FC in Castledawson will host the second leg of the qualifier at their Mill Meadow ground as the Western Region’s home base.
Both squads have had two sessions under the coaching team of Harry McConkey, Gerald Boyle and Tony Miskelly (goalkeeping coach) and both have played the Northern Ireland U18 Schoolboys in preparation for the two games.
Harry said: “This is a great opportunity for players aged over 19 who have never signed professional forms, or played in the Irish League, to display their talents on a European stage with all the professionalism that UEFA tournaments offer.”
A total of 38 countries take part initially and after the preliminary stage followed by an intermediate stage eight teams will make up the finals in June 2017. The hosts of the finals will be confirmed once all eight teams have qualified.
Whoever wins between East and West on the aggregate score over the two legs - away goals count double - will represent Northern Ireland in Moldova in mid-November in intermediate stage Group B where they will play against Moldova, Turkey and Switzerland.
Harry added: "It is always a close and competitive battle between both regions and the players are fully aware of the big prize.”
The team that eventually qualifies will come under the close scrutiny and detailed preparation of McConkey and his coaching team over August, September and October.
Various friendlies are being organised, against Dungannon Swifts as well as Dundalk, Derry City and Sligo Rovers, in order to get the squad playing at a good tempo.
For a small nation effectively split in half the amateur players of Northern Ireland have performed remarkably well in recent years. They have reached three out of the last five UEFA Regions Cup finals over a 10-year period under the guidance of McConkey.
The squads for the two games are:
Goalkeepers – Jordan Williamson (PSNI), Shane Harrison (Rathfriland Rangers); defenders – Connor Corry (Albert Foundry), William Armstrong (captain), Scott McMillan and Daniel McMurray (all Harland and Wolff Welders), Andrew Blackledge (PSNI), John Cochrane (Lurgan Celtic), Nicky Hudson (Loughgall); midfielders – Eamon Kelly (Armagh City), James Walker (Newry City AFC), Jordan Gibson (Dollingstown), Gary Dorrian (Ards), Barry McKervey (Crumlin Star), Joe McWilliams (PSNI), Thomas Lockhart (Rathfriland Rangers); forwards – Richard Thompson (Dollingstown), Warner Mullen (Loughgall) and Jamie Gardiner (Annagh United).
Scott McMillan is only available for the first leg, while William Armstrong, Daniel McMurray and Eamon Kelly are only available for the second leg.
Goalkeepers – Paul Wells (Limavady United), Kaelan Mulcahy (Oxford United Stars); defenders – Paul Keane (Tobermore United), Steven McQuillan (Moyola Park), James McClay and Colin Robinson (both Dergview), Hugh Carlin and Bryan McClelland (both Limavady United), Jordan Taylor (Coleraine); midfielders – Blaine Burns (Dergview), Conal Crawford (Strabane Athletic), Steven Wallace (Newbuildings United), Caolan Cooley (Trojans), Conor McNamee (Moyola Park); forwards – Trevor Parkhill (Tobermore United), Kyle Curran-Friel (Limavady United) and Kyle Harte (Strabane Athletic).
Steven McQuillan is only available for the second leg.