Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Poet, the Piper and the Clubs

Here’s a picture taken in Edinburgh in the 1930s. It shows a troop of players heading on to a pitch following a piper- a game of some importance perhaps - a challenge match even a final. I don’t know. What I do know is that it features Sorley Maclean , bard, poet shinty player a fellow whose memory commands a massive respect amongst those with whom he lived his life. When he retired he went on to superstardom as a mega serious literary figure- but it was his humanity wit and the sheer eccentricity he displayed in his ordinary life that endeared him to me- that and his devotion to shinty. He was extraordinarily keen on it and I was part of a troop of kids who went in his Hillman minx to various venues to take part in games and tournaments. Not so good in my day, his teams were better nationally after I left just as they were before I went- there is perhaps some significance in that though I would like to pretend there is none.

The Shape of Things to Come

Friday’s annual general meeting saw Scotland’s shinty clubs casting their votes in favour of the biggest change in the governance of their sport since the establishment of the Camanachd Association in 1893. Shinty has been revolutionised over the past three years with a summer playing season being established , the successful introduction of the “Game Plan” for the development of the sport and more recently Andrew Johnston being installed as full-time technical director.
With these changes in place, it had become apparent that the manner in which shinty has been historically governed was no longer responsive enough to meet the modern demands being made on the sport and so the first business of the evening effectively involved the 17 members of the existing Executive Council voting themselves out of office to be replaced by a nine man board of directors. Tied up with this was the dissolution of shinty’s 112 year old constitution and its replacement with a company structure limited by guarantee.
The new directorships , responsible for club and volunteer development, coaching, match officials, finance marketing and competitions , were also decided on the evening with John Mackenzie retaining his presidential position as head of the new board. Retired Nairn banker David Maclean picked up the post of finance director while Gaelic broadcaster Hugh Dan Maclennan brings vast experience to the marketing post and Donnie Mackenzie, with an extensive management background in social work, takes up the reins as club and volunteer director. Stewart Ferrier , Newtonmore, was appointed coaching director while senior referee John Macrae won the delegates vote to head the important Official’s committee. The most hotly contested battle was for the position of Competitions director which Fort William’s Richard Gall won in a four way contest with veteran shinty administrator Alastair Macintyre, Graham Bell of the Schools Camanachd and David MacMaster of the North Area Committee.
The first task for the new board will be to appoint a salaried chief executive officer as well as a full time administrator. The final post on the board-that of non-executive director with business knowledge has also to be filled, but the buzz is that the favoured man is George Fraser, Managing Director of shinty’s major sponsors Tulloch Ltd . That he has a fine shinty pedigree as a key member of the all conquering Newtonmore side of the 70s cannot harm his case.
The down side of the evening was that it marked the last AGM of the two men who have done so much to drive shinty’s modernising agenda forward. On top of Duncan Freshwater’s decision to leave his development post and not seek an appointment as the technical development manager, the sport is still coming to terms with General Manager Graham D’Arcy’s decision to quit at the end of October. While both men have personal reasons for moving on - D’Arcy is to move to London to be with his partner and family-their departure and that of south youth development officer Ally Rothe simply serves to underline how limited shinty is in its ability to provide avenues of career development that are common in bigger, more prosperous sports The hope is that with the new structure driving the required prosperity will come.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Ballachulish and Bust

Its 3-1 to Kyles : it might as well have been 23-1. Glenurquhart are out of the Balliemore Cup to a team which outplayed us and out psyched us over 70 minutes. We can claim the semblance of a comeback in the last 20 minutes when changes up front gave us an illusion of a chance -but by then it could be argued that Kyles were sitting back, plenty in the tank-any other cliché your can imagine.
It has come to this-indeed it comes to this every season in our neck of shinty’s little parish . The Glen show promise but delivery is never a strong suit; I wonder how that can be. Possibly it is down to the fact that the guys play a kind of pub shinty- they train but not hard enough; they practise but not often enough; they have a surface dedication but again that does not go deep enough down to the dark depths of the problem. Which is where I am just now.
Partly its down to the fact that perhaps too many in the village don’t play the game -not that they play anything- but we just cannot get the full range of lads to commit: off they go to wind surf or skateboard. Too often they head to the pub. Who can say they are wrong ? Not me. Doubtless the downer I feel will make me vulnerable for the next day or two to all kinds of ailments and infections- but no matter. There is always next year- which is on the surface bouncy and optimistic but is a great deal of effort, social entrepreneurship and community building- and to be fair most of the community-if such a word has any meaning-don’t care less. It was probably potentially ever thus. I’m sure some guys stayed to cut sticks or burach about in the fields in the days when the Glen were winning trophies. I just have this memory of a packed stand and huge enthusiasm back in ‘88 : I always feel that I deserve more days like that-it just upsets me that I have to depend on 12 easy-oasy guys to get them. I’m backing a loser but I’m addicted. It is a worry that I seem addicted to failure.
Still amateur psycho stuff over. Ballachulish was glorious; the hills clear ;the sky blue; the pitch beautiful and the whole young male population in the pub drinking and watching Rangers and Celtic on Setanta acting out sectarian nonsense 100 miles away. This herd like ignorance ! I spit on it.
The Glen opened well enough- neat movement- weak finish. Then although Glenurquhart kept the action together well enough and challenged with intensity ,Kyles gradually occupied the midfield. A slip from Stewart Reid-he struggled to meet the ball most of the first half- and a goal was lashed in. Again an attempt to move forward through EJ Tembo - but Lewis Maclennan was behind the wingback- and the opportunity to retain the ball up was lost. Kyles attacks had a longer duration and Stewart Mackintosh had a number of necessary saves. Kenny Macdonald wasn’t tested.
Two minutes before halftime-Gregor MacCormack always lighter than the Kyles forward Roddy MacColl found himself pushed over after he missed a chance to clear and it is 2-0.
The second half is one of constant battle but always outnumbered always outplayed Glenurquhart rarely come forward and on the rare occasions they advance the wingbacks smash through the wing forwards. By now Tembo is a centre and Paul Mackintosh is half forward- it makes no difference. John Barr has had a difficult afternoon-he man marks Dan Macrae and keeps him reasonable tight and does play well enough but inevitably loses him for Macrae to get number three.
Time for changes-on with Rhuaraidh Cameron , Stewart Morrison and Calum Miller up front- Bingo we are in business. Miller lets the stick go so does Stewart- Rhuaraidh has more touch than Tembo at buckshee. We switch the game round. We force corners, Kenny Macdonald has to defend and the backs are taking hits. Cameron gets a goal , Miller hits the post, Cameron gets straight through but is thwarted by Macdonald : Macdonald pulls off another smart save and their attack is nowhere. They are pulling guys back to defend.
However its too little and its too late. Ted Macdonald blows the whistle-he did well, though there was little to do.We are out and we are on our way home.
What do I learn? Nothing I did not know before - to win you need skill but you also need aggression. We woke up to that too late. Perhaps you also have to really want to win- but that's another story.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Shinty / Hurling - What is the point?

“It may be a hybrid sport with compromise rules : perhaps purists don’t like it ,but shinty needs this international dimension. From the reactions of the GAA officials, so does hurling.” That was the verdict of former President of the Camanachd Association, Donnie Grant after last weekend’s Celtic Club Champions Challenge matches. For the record, Premier League champions Kingussie suffered a rare defeat losing out 14-19 to Tipperary side Kildangan, hurling’s top intermediate side while Lochaber, National League Division 1 Champions, clinched a Scottish win by defeating Kilkenny side, Galmoy 17-14. With this Club Championship series due to be pencilled in to the shinty fixtures calendar for the next two years it is worth asking what does the shinty world get out of this compromise sport ?
The fact is that with compromise rules neither shinty nor hurling can display their individual strengths. Hurling is played in the air: shinty is at its best, played on the ground. Shinty players attempt to work the ball forward and score goals: not surprisingly they tend to look askance at a sport where guys can catch the ball, kick it and even score points from long range by popping it over the bar. Like American football, hurling is played in intense bursts with play going dead regularly. Shinty ,whatever the stereotype, is less physical while, with its narrower stick and smaller goals, it requires greater precision .Yet despite the difficulties created by the compromise rules, links between the two celtic codes go back at least as far as April 1897 when the Celtic Hurling Club came over to play Glasgow Cowal. On that occasion the Irish side were comprehensively beaten, though in recent years ,at international level at least , Scotland have found it hard to win against Irish opposition. Indeed the last occasion on which the Scots have posted a victory was back in 1999 when Grant was managing the national side.
There is no doubt that shinty/hurling contests are competitive affairs- any game which features scoring in double figures for both sides is not to be ignored. It was unfortunate for Kingussie that they found themselves facing Irish opponents a week before they were due to meet Newtonmore in a Camanachd Cup replay which they need to win if they are not going to miss out on shinty’s top prize for the second year in a row. They rested several key players and perhaps did not engage in the physical contest with the intensity such a fixture demanded - and against Irish sides which are generally faster that was enough to tip the balance. Lochaber however ,with nothing to lose and having struggled in shinty’s top division this season ,approached their match in a different frame of mind and reaped the reward on the field.
The real benefits of the international dimension are to be found beyond the spectacle on the field- and both Associations are aware of it. For the Irish sides the matches are a reward from the GAA to teams which have won national trophies : for shinty it is a window on a different world. Hurling is a massive sport and has a professional aura about it that can inspire young shinty players with its skills and values. The Camanachd Association has put a structure in place which permits the best youngsters from any club to progress through development squads and on to the international scene. The Celtic Club Championship now offers the same route to clubs. Without this international dimension, shinty would find its battle for the hearts and minds of youngsters much more difficult.

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