Face the Ball, Kilmallie!
Too close to call : that’s the buzz on next Saturdays Glenmorangie Camanachd Cup final. The fact that shinty’s premier occasion is being held in Fort William and that the competing clubs- Kilmallie and Fort William - are from opposite sides of the town adds to the spice of the occasion. Include the intriguing details that match referee Duncan Kelly is not only a local man but has in his time played for both teams and the plot thickens. The fact that that he also used to manage Kilmallie might even be considered an advantage in handling a match which pits Lochaber’s top sides against each other. If anyone ought to know the score it should be Kelly. After all ,in his other life, he is Scotland’s National team manager- and the following Monday he has to go back to his day job in the town.
On any other Saturday Fort William would start favourites : this will be after all their third final in a row. Last year’s narrow defeat at the hands of Inveraray was particularly bitter and manager David Stafford and his experienced players are keen to make it third time lucky. They had to grind their way past perennial winners Kingussie to make it to the final and for some of the side, the sands of shinty time are running out. Goalkeeper Scott MacNeil and his brother Drew are in their forties while many of the others including iconic forward Victor Smith are on the wrong side of 30. The record book says that the sides have met three times this season and on each occasion Fort William have come out on top- but the margin of victory was in every case narrow. Therein might lie the root of the problem : for all the effort put in by their dour defence to hold the line, the Fort William forwards are simply not scoring goals in sufficient quantities at the other end to justify their status as favourites. At one time you could rely on Victor Smith to notch up to 20 goals in a season : so far he has barely broken double figures. A brace in the semi against Kingussie helped his cause but more worrying for Kilmallie was the return of Internationalist James Clark to a position in the Fort William forward line. Clark who has barely played all season because of a recurring ankle problem, picked up two goals of his own and if he can make the starting line up will force the Kilmallie backline to adopt a man marking strategy which might test them to the limit.
For Kilmallie-the team from the unfashionable side of the Caledonian canal -the real test will be to keep their nerve. In ways which Fort William are not, they are a community team : while Fort William have enticed players from Oban , Ballachulish and other Lochaber villages into their set up Kilmallie stuck with lads from the Caol and Corpach districts of the town-the large housing estates which grew up as Fort William expanded westwards in the 60s. These lads are probably Scotland’s only urban shinty players - and with three teenagers in their starting line up Kilmallie may well be the youngest side ever to grace a Camanachd Cup final. The problem is that none of the team- not even the experienced MacNichol brothers who between them have given 40 years of service to the club have played in the big one before.
Indeed for Kilmallie dreams of Camanachd Cup glory have been a long time deferred : the only time they have lifted shinty’s premier trophy was back in 1964.If the cup is to cross the canal then teenage wing backs Alan Macdonald and Peter Carmichael will have hold Victor Smith and James Clark in check, a feat which was beyond Kingussies more mature defenders. At the other end however Kilmallies young forwards especially teenager Fraser Massie and former internationalist Scott Rodgers should find plenty room on the large park to trouble Fort William’s aging defenders. Whether they can keep their focus under the physical pressure these same defenders will exert upon them is more questionable. They will have to hope for a dry firm pitch - a combination far from probable in a West Highland autumn. Still the omens are not all bad : when Jimmy Burnett led his Kilmallie side to Camanachd Cup victory all those years ago, he did so in Fort William.