Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Cup that Left MacTavish's Kitchen

MacTavish Cup Final, Bught Park , Inverness

Kingussie 6 Newtonmore 1

Six goals last week ; only three this Saturday. Has Ronald Ross Ronald Ross gone off the boil? That was the tongue in cheek assessment from Kingussie fans as their big front man scored yet another hat-trick helping his side to their 18th MacTavish Cup triumph in 25 years.
This time the fall guys were their traditional rivals-near neighbours Newtonmore- themselves no strangers to MacTavish Cup success. Indeed such is the stranglehold that these two sides have on North Shinty that yesterday for the 60th time out of the 93 finals played since the Cup was first put up for competition in 1898 ,the trophy returned to Badenoch.
It took Ross only 7 minutes to get off the mark . A weak clearance from the Newtonmore defence found him 20 yards from goal. A deft flick wide created the space, then a pull back outwitted his marker Binnie then he crashed the ball home . It was as typical a Ross goal as you’ll get- done with that economy of back-swing that marks him as shinty’s greatest contemporary striker.
Newtonmore attempted to turn things round immediately with a classy run from Danny Macrae but the danger was knocked away by veteran full back Rory Fraser.
Kingussie further added to their lead with a neatly worked move in the 11th minute. Man of the match Michael Clark slipped the ball wide to Gibson. His push to Ally Dallas was touched on to player-manager Kevin Thain who rocketed the ball home from distance.
Thain soon added a third when he latched on to a corner from Ally Borthwick on the right and smashed the ball past Newtonmore keeper Mike Ritchie. Newtonmore were under fierce pressure at this stage of the game with not only Ross and Thain making forward runs but the entire Kingussie centreline also edging forward.
Of the Newtonmore centres only Mackenzie seemed to make any impression but the wing men Gardiner and the diminutive Hall did not have the physical presence to overcome the Kingussie backline. The frustration in the Newtonmore attack began to build and referee John Macrae had to step in and book wing forward Gardener along with his marker Kingussie’s Ian Borthwick.
What shots Newtonmore did attempt tended to be from distance and when they did get their counter in the 42nd minute it was via route one. A long hit forward by Mackenzie was gathered by Fraser Mackintosh and his drive from distance eluded Kingussie keeper Andrew Borthwick.
If the half time score had suggested hopes of a Newtonmore revival these were to be cruelly dashed within two minutes of the re-start. An Ally Borthwick free-hit was drifting towards the Newtonmore goal when full-back Glen Tonkin suddenly steered it into his own net while trying to knock it past for a corner. From that point the game was effectively over and though Newtonmore refused to give up the cause they never really looked effective in front of goal. In a nutshell that was the story of the game: looking at the outfield play ,the inclination was to say there was little between the teams. Up front Newtommore didn’t quite have what it takes at this level, given that the level is always going to be Kingussie. To underline the point a frustrated Fraser Mackintosh was next to be booked for a late challenge on keeper Borthwick after the latter had saved well from Macrae.
While the introduction of Ferrier for Gardiner did add some guile to the Newtonmore attack but it was Ross who was to have the last word on the day. With Newtonmore tiring-it is disturbing when veterans like Dave Borthwick and Ally Dallas in their 40’s can outrun a defence-Ross pulled down a cross field ball from Hutchison and finished ruthlessly. To add to Newtonmore’s woes Glen Mackintosh contrived to miss a late penalty before Ross completed his hat trick with a final flourish by running the ball wide on the left ,drawing keeper Ritchie off his line before cutting the ball back into the empty net.
It’s hard to say where this result leaves shinty. Yesterday Kingussie fielded three men in their forties : the neutral would say fresh faces are needed . Whose fault is that? Certainly not Kingussie‘s. Yesterday proved yet again that their old heads are still the best the game has to offer.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Grey Strath loses to the New Town on the Cold Moor

Camanachd Cup 2005 Round 1
Strathglass 2 Newtonmore 3

Newtonmore may have won the Camanachd Cup 26 times in their history but Strathglass ,who have been hitting shinty balls every bit as long-in time and in distance- rather generously let them progress to the next round.
On the other hand you could put the result down to Strathglass keeper Alan Macleod permitting two shots to go past him that he really should have stopped- and rather sadly for Strath, indecisive defending allowed another goal to leak in : Newtonmore equally conceded two soft goals- a defensive mix-up allowed Robert Geddes to put the ball home from close range while Glen Mackintosh at full-back acted stupidly and gifted Strath a penalty which they accepted right on the final whistle.
So what did I think of the game? It was enjoyable not least because I met a good number of nice people there and I talked to them-one of the beauties of shinty is that I knew all the crowd by name and I don’t watch the game the way I would watch a football match. I am too busy conversing with the other guests at the shinty party -for that’s how it appears to me-a rural party where the guests mingle , reminisce, jest laugh and enjoy the activities on the field.
The first guys I met were Murph and Dave Calder- at that time Orsten Gardener had just put Newtonmore ahead with a nice shot after some weak defending and we though Strathglass could have done better-doubtless the weak defenders thought so too. I went to buy a cup of tea and back at the line I met Toots Fraser and his mate Allan - both former team-mates of mine . My memory of this section of the game was that tactically the Strathglass centreline were under a fair deal of pressure- they were coping and at times Ian Macleod and Darren Reid were getting the ball up but nothing much was happening . Robert Geddes seemed too slow for Norman Campbell and Hamish Myers was not quite physically hard enough to get much out of a competitive Newtonmore back. Hamish would be about 17 : the back was a more heavily built lad of about 21. Hamish tried hard but on the two occasions when he received the break of the ball he underhit it. The danger failed to materialise-that was to be the story of his afternoon.
Suddenly Mike Ritchie in the Newtonmore goal scrapes a ball away -it had been knocked in by Gary Reid- the defenders flap and Robert Geddes forces it over the line. It is now a draw and it just might be interesting.
At halftime I move to the other side where I meet up with Stewart Mackenzie of the Oban Times. He tells me the halftime scores- Ronald Ross is scoring every few minutes in Ballachulish; Inveraray are one down at Kyles.
Here the crowd is still known to me I see Ian Ross and Bert Loades. Norrie Matheson , retired gamekeeper and former Kinlochshiel player, greets me- we are not impressed by Newtonmore : it is always gratifying to see royalty having feet of clay. But on reflection these guys in the blue jerseys come from a village no bigger than any of the other shinty communities so why should their particular set of young men be in any way different from the ones who come out of Portree or Beauly.
The second half resumes and in 51 minutes Orsten Gardener punts a ball forward which Alan Macleod permits to go past him : its always the same when a big team meets a little team-eventually the semi-pressure of the occasion and the slightly higher tempo of play causes the carapace to crumble. Strathglass push themselves forward with energy in attempt to permit Steve Harvey to add an appendix to the second edition of book “From Centenary to National Leagues” (price £6 for sale at the Pavilion window along with tea, coffee burgers biscuits etc) Steve is beside me using semaphore to communicate with player manager Robert Geddes who bizarrely comes back to communicate with him at a point when Donald Maclean has fired a long ball forward. The attack fizzles out because Strath are one man short in the area where it matters- just outside the D. Glen Mackintosh bats the ball away. Geddes takes off Gary Reid , development officer and useful forward. Perhaps he has run himself into the ground-perhaps he is suffering from a damaged hand. Newtonmore ‘s buckshee Cameron Binnie has been booked for chopping his fingers. Duncan Kelly ,who has always been more or less in charge ,might have sent him off.
On comes Les Fraser- why wasn’t he on from the start? Probably because this season he is not up to the pace and athleticism demanded by National League shinty. He adds little to the centreline except strength and bulk :it is not what is needed but is all that Strathglass have to offer.
It’s the last quarter and Danny Macrae fires a shot forward from deep- it flies at a steady pace 8 feet above the ground. It does not dip or deviate. Alan Macleod doesn’t stop it. The game must be over. It is 3-1 and there are 15mins to go.
“Pile it on boys!” shouts a Newtonmore voice. It must be in hope more than expectation. This Newtonmore side are not capable of piling anything on-let alone goals. They are fortunate they have met a team which is probably a little short of self-belief-perhaps even in awe of royalty, clay feet or not.
Needless to say they don’t pile it on- in the last minute they give away a penalty. Raymond Fraser keeps the ball low and medium hard. Mike Ritchie doesn’t stop it and the game is back to 3-2. The guys head to the centre ; Kelly blows the whistle and Strath are out of the Camanachd Cup. They have just lost their most important shinty match of the season-they won’t be playing the next three.
I cross the field with Norrie Matheson-he’s off back to work in his garden. I will have to cut the grass. The news comes through :holders Inveraray are out, so are Lochcarron , Glenurquhart have lost to Mid Argyll in Glasgow. Fort William are through so are Oban- and Ronald Ross has pulled Kingussie through in his wake.
“We’ll have to put our faith in Beauly,” I tell Norrie in all seriousness.
He laughs. I’m pretty sure he’s laughing at me-not with me.
“Glenurquhart will be pleased with this result today,” he says. I say nothing. I know that while Glenurquhart will be happy with a Strath defeat, down in Drum there will be a little disappointment-but it’s only a game. They’ll get over it.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Big pool full of small fish?

I observe that the North pool is out for the representative matches in July and this after Fraser asked me to keep it quiet till next week . He told me on the phone- I wrote the names down in a scrawly shorthand - and I confess to a little surprise. Well I certainly kept it quiet but truth to tell someone else did not. Fraser himself - who can tell? Why did he want it quiet-I don’t know. Just as well somebody released it though because I seem to have lost the original piece of paper on which I noted down Fraser’s confidences.
What do I think of it- I’m impressed as I always would be that Ronald Ross has decided to commit to the fray. Being the best shinty player in shinty’s parishes by a golden mile, any Scottish side which omits Ronald is simply not the best. Trouble is that for the last two seasons Ronald has omitted himself.
This season so far he has scored 29 goals- and the season is nowhere near halfway yet- as for previous seasons why then his record can -to remint a cliché-converse on its own behalf. Take a swatch at this batch:
1994-5 65 goals
1995-6 71 goals
1996-7 83 goals
1997-8 81 goals
1998-9 62 goals
1999-0 53 goals
2000-1 64 goals
2001-2 37 goals
2002-3 94 goals

In the interim season Ronald played in midfield and his ability to put the ball into the net was obviously affected by that. In the first full summer campaign he was not so prolific having carried injury for large parts of the season- and no wonder because he is a prime target for defenders. I used to say he inhabited a peculiarly Highland heart of darkness but then I think I am being unfair. He is fouled so often because he is to efficient at scoring. He can protect himself well but silly frustration and perhaps lack of awareness of the wider good of shinty makes some guys reckless. I don’t know-I would have done it myself but that doesn’t make it right.
What about the rest of the guys- well Gary Innes, Gordy Mackinnon excellent. Where is Ally Macleod of Kingussie? I agree Norman Campbell Newtonmore and Aonghus Macdonald, Skye- a superb full back. John Stewart Kilmallie -certainly. Kenny Ross from Lochcarron Ok but I would have had Iain Mackenzie too ,though I always feel he’s a guy whose promise has remained simply and merely that. He is still a talented player but I am not sure he pays his way to the extent his ability suggests he should. What about the custodian in charge of the safety of the net-brave members of the hail keeping fraternity. Who are they? Stewart Mackintosh? Andrew Borthwick? No but I see Scott MacNeil. Steven Cameron, Glengarry is a fair player but also fair game.
Barry Macdonald , Beauly? Certainly he scores goals and 18 goals in any league is good- you see how hot Ronald really is- and anyone who can get a positive mention in the West Highland Free Press for scoring a goal in extra time that puts Skye out of the Camanachd Cup (and on the “Park of Heroes” itself ) well that guy gets my vote for a representative start.
Victor Smith is Captain - I agree- but Strathglass should have got someone in the side and also Glenurquhart- I would back John Barr against anyone in the centreline.
I also feel there needs to be a greater Newtonmore presence- even a Lovat representative. Don’t you wish James Gallagher would take the game seriously for just one season?
Here’s the pool-see what you think.

International Trial Match
North Senior Team to play the South at Spean Bridge on July 9th, 2005

Ronald Ross Kingussie
Norman Campbell Newtonmore
Darren Coyle Lochcarron
Angus Mackay Lochcarron
Kenny Ross Lochcarron
Gregor Cushnie Lochcarron
Lachie Campbell Lochaber Camanachd
Neill MacNiven Kilmallie
John Stewart Kilmallie
Neil Robertson Fort William
Gary Innes Fort William
Victor Smith Fort William
Gordie Mackinnon Fort William
Scott McNeil Fort William
Barrie Macdonald Beauly
Steven Cameron Glengarry
Aonghas Macdonald Skye Camanachd

Fraser MacKenzie (Manager)
Ali Ferguson (Asst. Manager)
Neil Bowman (Trainer)

Still that’s why guys like Fraser pick a squad- so that guys like me can have a debate about it. Good luck to him.
What would be a step forward however would be for each division in shinty to have its representative side and perhaps the Scottish representative sides take on some Irish representative sides at International level.
Now that would really deepen the pool- and perhaps the fish might grow to fit it.

Friday, June 17, 2005

A Wet June Day in Oban

It is a wet June Wednesday in Oban : is there any other kind of Oban day? Mossfield is looking damp, the hill in the centrefield seems like it should be in Kintail from the way the burn is running down it so swiftly and there are 7 under-13 school sides gathered together for the MacBean Under 13 Scottish Championships.
“Does it always rain in Oban?” I asked a kid in the Oban team
“Every day in my life,” he said, “ but we just get on with it.”
He was right but where are the other schools that have young kids that can play-not there anyway : no Inveraray kids, no Kyles kids, no Caberfeidh kids , no Strathglass & Glenurquhart kids and surely worst of all no Kingussie/Newtonmore kids. Is this what Scottish secondary schools in the shinty playing areas think of the indigenous sport- well probably not . There will be a plethora of sensible reasons ; not enough notice perhaps, other activities pencilled in to the calendar but above all it will not be quite high enough a priority for them ,given the other competing pressures people have at this time of the year. The bottom line probably is that none of the imported teaching staff care enough about teuchter traditions to travel away with a side of kids. There’s not a lot of glamour in it. Take them to the rugby at Murray field on free tickets - yes surely but shinty ? Not really.
Anyway I have brought a team- and they are not that good but not that bad. Taking part is the main thing-I tell myself that. There is a full back who can hit the ball well and a wee goalie who will stop most things and a bunch of other guys who can hit the ball off the ground. The best player cannot make it because he was sent home yesterday with a chest infection. We have been on the road for three hours and two of us have been sick in plastic bags on the journey. I don’t feel so good myself given the state of the A82 and the fact that I have had to dump the sick in the bin and buy a pack of tissues at Onich so the guys can wipe the spew of their tops. The bus begins to smell like the hold of a slave ship.
We get there and Davie Hamilton of Oban Celtic has started to ref the games along with Ally Rothe- he once played for our wee school team but I don’t tell the wee guys and Ally Rothe probably did not bother giving him the role model stuff either.
There was a nice crowd of people and I even saw Scotty Buchanan the best shinty goalie in the world looking on from under the overhang at the Mossfield Pavilion.
The team were under pressure from the start but they had good little spells in every match. The bravery of the goalie- no helmet and only tears when he laughed- inspired them and they all hit the ball off the ground several times in each match. I was pleased. They lost lots of goals to the good teams and I suspect from the size of the kids that some sides were breaking the age rules but that is a given in shinty : the age rule is not really bothered with : as long as the kids haven’t actually started shaving they will do in the under13s.
Then they won a game- pushed forward and scored two goals. I found it hard to believe but they began to think they were good and in the last couple of matches against better opposition they lifted their commitment and gave a good account of themselves. Then they were so taken with events that they stayed to watch the final, standing in the pouring rain holding clubs and helmets.
“Hardly any people even Scottish people know about shinty,” one of them said.
“That’s because they are pathetic,” I said back.
“Yeah,” he said.
They learned how to rock a minibus- the big guys from Lochaber taught them that- and they had a lot of singing , miming and rapping on the way back.
On the way back we saw pheasants which we would like to shoot, places at the sides of lochs and rivers where we would like to fish and some deer in fields which struck us dumb.
At every settlement we went through- Benderloch, Appin ,Ballachulish, Fort William ,Spean Bridge, Fort Augustus , Invermoriston, Drumnadrochit but not Inverness I shouted “Into your seats and on with your belts. There will probably be police here.”
They immediately belted up and sat as quiet as nestlings in a tree when the pine marten is nearby. They got out of the bus in Inverness and melted off back to their flats on bikes.
Next morning one said “I fell asleep at 9.30 last night”
I cant say I was surprised but it certainly showed he had embraced the only way to enjoy a wet day in Oban.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Hit it into the long grass-if only

Glenurquhart 0 Kyles Athletic 2

National League Division 1 was ever meant to be like this - a competitive match, a good crowd and the ball moving swiftly from player to player- except it’s the wrong set of players who are moving it about with rapidity and skill. Today was meant for us- not these guys with Argyllshire accents and blue jerseys.
I don’t know what we expected. There is certainly no way Billy Reid should have borrowed John Tom’s old mower from Fraser Campbell and shaved the pitch into this state of perfection. Of course its nice to see shinty played on billiard table conditions but then if the style of the opposition team is to hold the ball , make the angle nicely, hit the pass and outrun your guys every time then all the more reason to retain long leaves of grass to slow proceedings up. That this take on the match was the correct one was confirmed to me by Jim Barr and Kenny Maclennan when I mentioned it to them at half-time. They are old heads-they’ve seen teams like Kyles before-they exchanged glances and indicated that they had independently reached the same conclusion.
Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing : no-one would have guessed before hand that our much younger team would be simply outrun and outplayed by Kyles who for all that they have a few old hands also have their own squad of youngsters.
This blistering insight came to me as I walked across the park at half-time wondering how we were only 1-0 down to a side which had dominated us to the extent that only one shot had gone anywhere near Kenny Macdonald’s goal. Kenny might be the most secure keeper in Scotland even though he will not pull on the international jersey but during that first half he might as well have been visiting relatives in Oban for all the work he had to do.
At the heart of our lack of effectiveness was the fact that Dan Macrae was able to dominate from the buckshee forward position-though to be more accurate Kyles played him as a traditional south half-forward. He was simply too strong for his marker and the only player who could have held him, John Barr was finding himself stretched at centre. Macrae seemed to have time to gather the ball into himself , find the angle for a pass and when he had cause to strike it his eye was so sure that despite being put under pressure he managed to take the ball cleanly every time. The goal when it came in 17 minutes was as efficient as one could expect- Macrae moved it out to Roddy MacColl -he took it down the right hand side to the by-line ,held off the challenge , made a deeper angle for himself and drove it past Stewart Mackintosh into the net. Not a lot Mackintosh could do- indeed he had saved some point blank attempts earlier on ,including one tricky ball that dropped directly down on his stick that he somehow managed to juggle over the bar.
The second half opened better for the Glen and in 47 minutes a penalty was awarded against Kyles because Kenny Macdonald was adjudged to have kicked the ball as he ran out to clear it. John Barr rapped it hard-it flew low and hard but went just past the wrong side of the post - and that one felt was that. The best of chances not taken. We were to get no more.
In the second half the wind, which had been annoying in the first period, helped the Glen win more territorial possession but as often as the ball went up to the Kyles defence it was directly hit back out again.
The Kyles defenders seemed to do the simple things- and simply did them well- the little push, the half swing ,the scoop and of course the grass or rather the lack of it helped them clear their lines. Added to that there was the cunning of the old head of Dan Macrae: indeed the Glen got nowhere near holding him until John Barr was switched to mark him and the intensity of the physical pressure Barr placed on him managed to wear him down somewhat.
By that stage however ,the game was dead : Kyles had sewn it up with a bizarre winner. A ball hit speculatively across goal was intercepted cleanly by Stewart Mackintosh but his clearing drive struck Kyles forward David Martin on the legs and bounced back into the empty net. It has to go down as an error but , given the string of excellent saves Mackintosh pulled off in the course of the match , it was an exceptionally cruel ending to his match.
The rest of the game was played out at the same frantic pace and though Glenurquhart continued to fire the ball forward much of what they did was uncontrolled- and the little that was more precise was handled easily by the Kyles defence. There were occasions when a more physically aggressive approach by the Glen would have served them better than the reticence on display. The forwards were frustrated but truthfully they did not quite have the mental toughness to cope with the intensity of the athletic challenge posed by Kyles. Some were found out-not so much in skill but in athleticism and aggression. There was no reason for the spectators to be surprised : the same thing happened against Inveraray in the Camanachd last season. Sport is certainly about skill but it’s also about character : some guys, indeed some communities ,are better at producing it than others. It is as simple and as complicated as that. But I still say we should not have cut the grass.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Best in Badenoch-and is the best yet to come?

Whatever else you can say about the rarefied Badenoch air, it certainly helps to nurture top class sporting talent. That sparsely populated neck of the Highland woods is of course the home of Olympic skier Alain Baxter, snow boarder Lesley Mackenna and medal winning cyclist Craig Maclean : on a par with them for sheer sporting ability , is Kingussie shinty star Ronald Ross who is well on the way to helping his club win their 10th successive Premier League title. Indeed so complete has Kingussie’s League dominance been that no other side has won this title since the inception of National League shinty back in 1996.
With four games to go Kingussie have seven point lead over nearest rivals Fort William who threw away their chance to narrow the gap at the top by losing out 2-1 in last week’s controversial match at the Dell. As usual the winning Kingussie goal was provided by Ross . It’s a habit he cannot break ; this season in ten league games he has hit 18 goals - which is one more than the entire Fort William team.
But then “Ronaldo” has always been sensational. Always on the cusp of injury because of the treatment he receives from frustrated defenders- two seasons ago his ankle was fragile, last year his back was damaged -at 31 he is playing like a man who knows he has nothing left to prove to the shinty world. The all time scoring record is already his -he hit 94 goals in season 2002-3- and as Kingussie player- manager ,fellow striker Kevin Thain points out “This season goals are not as easy to come by as they were three or four years ago when Ronald was hitting big totals. Teams are closer than ever and any one of them is capable of taking points off others . This season we have dropped points to Kilmallie and Fort William . Inverary, last years Camanachd Cup winners, gave us tough matches but they are down near the foot of the League while bottom club Lochaber knocked us out of last season’s Camanachd Cup. There‘s a long way to go before the League is secure”
Last season was a disappointing one for Kingussie , in as much as although they won two National trophies and the Premier League championship they were absent for the first time in a decade from shinty’s gala occasion, the Camanachd Cup final.
“This year our attitude is different.” says Thain. We have finally embraced summer shinty. We didn’t vote for it as a club at the time the rest of the sport adopted it and we were luke-warm about it coming in. Some of the boys were juggling golf, shinty and summer football last season. This year our goal is clear- the Camanachd Cup must come home as well as the League. The commitment of the players is back and the bonus is that so far Ronald has been injury free.”
If he stays that way shinty’s player of his generation will also make his side shinty’s team of the year. The next trick for the Camanachd Association will be to persuade him to pull on an International jersey for the October’s match against the Irish hurlers-but that‘s another story.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Tale of Two Glens

From Glen to shining Glen
Glen Urquhart 3 Glen Orchy 2
Sat June 3rd 2005
Sounds like Brigadoon v Auchtermuchty. Would Canadians believe it- how it confirms the rubbish their emigrant Caledonian grandparents told them during the long Saskatchewan winter nights. Two Glens bursting with Scotties taking each other on in the ancient celtic sport-the indigenous sport as I am prone to call it.
Hurray for summer shinty-though to be fair this match which should have taken place in Argyll last week. Instead it went ahead in Glenurquhart this week on a pitch which though cut two days ago was already matted with daisies.
A superb athletic contest , bothy loads of good shinty, little touches , neat glances, glens of commitment, super goals ,bad temper ,losing the rag ,accusations of cheating and sheer passion or perhaps immature behaviour.
An opening goal nicked in by Lewis Maclennan -a genuine find this session -and the rest of the first half Glenurquhart pressure was simply eaten up by Alan Mackechnie at full back and his brother Graeme in the goals. Alan Mackechnie is blond, broad ,solidly built ,a superb hitter on both sides ,fully committed in the tackle and prone to take it all a little too seriously.
He gets roused when things don‘t go right. I should admire it but the ferocity of his paranoia makes me scared. He urges, shouts, claims everything for his side even when in his heart of hearts he must know that the other team have a stronger case. He is also very good at the little nudge on the forward before the ball comes- one would expect nothing more of ones own players- but when he is caught out at it which is rarely, he reacts as if he had done nothing at all. But then perhaps I am seeing things from the slopes of another Glen
A second goal for Glenurquhart came when a penalty was awarded by ref Calum Duff-pulling back of forward Ruaraidh Cameron being the offence. I imagine it was committed by Mackechnie but truthfully it could have been by anyone. John Barr rapped it past the goalkeeping Mackechnie brother low and into the corner and the game is over-right?
Well no - because Stewart Mackntosh in the Glenurquhart goal misjudges a long drive from Glen Orchy’s MacGregor and the match is back in contention . Not only that but it looks as if the goalkeeping Mackechnie would never be beaten by that sort of shot. Everything that has come on him he deals with calmly- stops the ball with feet or body and bangs it away up field or into touch.
Lewis Maclennan restores the gap with a blaster into the roof of the net but immediately afterwards Glenurquhart chop down a Glen Orchy forward : Calum Duff calls it a penalty. He is right. It is converted by Stewart MacGregor and we have to twenty minutes of wrath and fury from the Mackechnie brothers as they lift their game in an attempt to clinch an equaliser. By the last five minutes Glenurquhart are hanging on to their lead barely while Alan Mackechnie has run up front to snatch the winner. He plays like a man possessed- his brother has even left the goals and is encroaching on the buckshee position.
The whistle goes- Glenurquhart have won-but you know what its like when you come top in a game and you know you were lucky to win,for all that your guys played well. You start imagining that you deserved to win.
Still it is worse for Glen Orchy. They probably feel that they deserved to win and they probably also feel that they would have won if it wasn’t for the ref giving everything to Glenurquhart. What a delusion ! If it matters to you that much you need to get a life. I suspect that in the lives of shinty obsessives this is a good as it gets.
Whatever else is true Alan Mackechnie is the best full back I have seen since I last saw Hector Whitelaw- and I mean that as a compliment.
It is just that occasionally his intensity scares me.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Keeping out of the D
Following the Drum in Shinty’s National Leagues

Shinty? An obsession? For who? Me? What can I say? Its two years ago. It’s also a cold spring evening in Beauly -start of April ;Clock having undergone its annual time shift ;daffodils pretending to develop; primroses still hiding in their collars and I hunch here at Braeview Park watching a practice match between Beauly and Drum- I always say Drum deliberately knowing that most of the folk who have any interest in this arcane Celtic pastime back over Culnakirk are natives of the upper Glen and would much prefer me to say “The Glen“- but then I’m bold as well as obsessed. This practice match looks as if it won’t do Beauly any good.
We have 12 players which is a start- although you need more than 12 to let a side have a fair chance in the cockpit of competition since at any moment a lad can get a sclock with a club and have to retire from the challenge. We don’t bother with that-our guys have come here with reluctance. It would appear that contrary to received sporting opinion they are a pub shinty team-they don’t train; they don’t bother too much with tactics ;they just go out and play. Get the club under the ball, fire it up into the other half of the field and Corky, Eddie Tembo or some other artisan will conjure it into the net-or more likely fire it at the keeper and then scramble it over the line. Simple game played by simple minds. Except that it seems to be working -at this level anyway. No chance against a real team of athletes. But Beauly for all that it’s a big village has lost its middle class involvement in the sport - whatever they do- make money, play golf ,watch rugby, sell tweeds or put Adam fireplaces into their dwellings ,they certainly don’t have much of an interest in shinty. The observers are few in number- 7 on our side ;fewer than that on the Beauly side -except that they have a knot of 15 year olds wearing green socks and tracksuit tops who seem keen enough to be subs. There are also a number of 11 year olds playing on assorted swings and roundabouts who have enough interest in proceedings to shout over to Archie Maclellan to ask him the score.

Archie shouts back the figure- at the moment the zeros are tied and from the way the match is progressing it does looks as though the nothings will remain.. Archie by the way is the Beauly hail keeper- Beauly are a side whose roots go back to shinty antiquity that they must retain the right to name their positions in formal and ancient style. Doubtless one of the first players in the earliest Priory side came over in the original coracle with Columba.
I like Archie. He plays simple safety first shinty and at hit outs plays the ball high wide and long. Not only is he a cool customer but he loves the sport beyond the petty loyalty of club. He’s a fair keeper too and he needs to be. Eddie suddenly bursts through with the ball on the edge of anarchy bouncing just beyond the control of his club.
Naturally the whistle has gone for some infringement- not caused by Eddie for he’s a simple soul. He does however affect not to hear it or else he is suffering from a genuine case of premature deafness. He approaches the “D” and swings a mighty swing. Arch has come off his line and is half bending to pick up the ball as Eddie connects and the ball rises two feet off the deck in the manner of the speeding bullet so beloved of cartoonery and smacks into Archie’s ribs. He looks pissed off but says nothing, merely flicks up the by now dead ball and guides it back to Russell Ross who’s doing everyone a favour by taking over the loathed role of whistler . Russell looks confused; Eddie looks sheepish and Arch is silent and grim. He ought to be. Eddie was either acting dumb or acting up and Archie has a set of sore ribs he did not need to possess. Still he has said nothing despite his demeanour.
At the heart of their team Beauly have Roger Cormack who’s simply better that everyone else . He’s fated to be like George Fraser was in Strathglass -condemned to play skilful shinty in a team noteworthy for their minimal competence in the sport Still Roger performs at the top of his game- he tracks people across the field; he hits the ball long he can also hit the ball high ;he can play excellent passes while his team-mates conspire to be ordinary.
In the end the scamper factor of the Glen tells a familiar tale. Used to playing in a harder quicker league the dozen Glenners can move the ball faster and with marginally more accuracy than the men in green. Some times they even move it before they actually have it under control.
The game is tied on zeros and the way Roger is playing would seem to indicate that nothings will be the highest aspiration of the scoreboard on this particular evening . But no- in the end a ball breaks wide to Billy Urquhart who plays it across the rock hard surface- at this time of the year the grass barely clings to the soil as if pretending to be part of a pitch. The ball bounces amongst an uncertain crowd of players; someone half connects and finally it is hit uncertainly on the top of its leather head, bounces up fierily, deceives Archie and the game is effectively won 1-0.
Of course there is a great deal of scampering still to come but in the end it doesn’t matter too much . The Glen hold on : Beauly because they’ve a serious match on Saturday hold back. Which is what they do on Saturday in the semi-final of the MacTavish Cup against Kilmallie. They treat their opponents to a display of gentlemanly reticence-when with some aggression they could have done something.
At halftime they are 2-1 down and Jamie Maclennan is still trying to play shinty like it was snooker. He’s pulling down the ball, trying to lay it off, attempting to work it forward and all the time Kilmallie defenders are letting their clubs whistle. Ref John Sloggie is not going to do anything because Kilmallie are playing within the rules. Eventually it happens- Jamie gets a club smashed across his fingers -he should be wearing a glove- and has to come off the field .He is replaced by a child who tries hard. But its no use. Kilmallie carry on ;they win. Everyone hopes that they will lose to Newtonmore in the final so that at least the accent of the cup winners is understandable. Naturally they do so- Like Beauly, Kilmallie are in a league of their own when it comes down to underachievement.
Yet once again Beauly have shown how not to be successful-to have the basic talent and in the end make certain that possessing it is irrelevant: they have a gift definitely -but it is one which should not be cherished.
On days like these I fear for the sanity of men like Dave Calder and Black Will Macdonald: they work hard; they love their shinty and their team teases them into a semi belief that one day perhaps -just perhaps!! But I know that unless the character of the Aird reverts to what it was pre 1914 then there isn’t a chance. The guys with bottle are lying beneath the green fields of France and their descendents were never born. Not for nothing has Dave Calder got a secret e mail address for his special anorak friends which includes a reference to 1922. That is because 1922 was the last year Beauly reached the Camanachd Cup final : naturally being of a post war generation they contrived to lose. Perhaps soon they might win their regional division and finally get a shot at National League shinty. It might be some reward for Dave, Black Will , Toad , Murph and even for Archie for their obsession.

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