Monday, October 31, 2005

A Pic of the Line , Thin and Red.

Mackintosh, McCormack and Girvan take a breather from close quarters combat.A gallant rearguard action by this platoon kept out the Skyemen-or then again perhaps the Skyemen kept out themselves!
And Corporal Corrigan?
That speedy N.C.O. was too quick to be caught in the frame.

Let’s Hear it for the Thin Red Line

Skye 1 Glenurquhart 3

Once upon a time , in Portree, on the King George V pitch of blessed memory, as a first year in a Plockton Sen. Sec. School team under the command of Archie Macdonald , I scored a goal from miles out with a black Macpherson ball which I couldn’t normally lift off the grass with a JCB bucket for a club head. After that , I have always felt an affection for the Island which words cannot seriously express although after one visit I was less than pleased to see my likeness wrongly attributed to that of a Kincraig player. This grave error was contained in the first edition of a text entitled “Skye the Island” by James Hunter and Cailean Maclean (page 20) and was published by Mainstream in 1986. The other Glen player in Cailean’s snap has spent a lifetime in the British military, most recently defusing bombs in Basra , a job for which playing shinty in Skye perfectly prepared him .
James Hunter has gone on to reinvent himself in several different shapes and has had almost as many jobs at the same time as The MacSporran of MacSporran on Gigha. However he has tried to make the Highlands the sort of place which young shinty players don’t have to leave, though if you have a calling to defuse bombs I suppose in the end you have to go to Basra.
I have never since forgiven the good Sir James for his mistake and put its occurrence down to the fact that he has never himself played shinty. Indeed I should propose that a condition of entry to public life in the Highlands should be a requirement that one has played shinty at some stage in life. That way we will avoid being pontificated to and patronised by the school swots of yesteryear. That way we should have Johnny Mackenzie as Council Leader, John Fraser as Director of Education , Donnie Mackenzie in charge of Social policy, Alastair Macintyre to keep the buses running on time , Iain Macintyre to look after Finance and George Fraser to run our token Premier League football team. Don’t knock it. The more you think about it, the more attractive the notion becomes.
Anyway I digress - but that is perhaps the best thing to do when dealing with a game like this one though in fairness it had its own virtues.
It was, I confess ,my first visit to the Pairc nan Laoch and what a superb facility it is! I find it scarcely credible after years of changing on buses, at the side of the road and in musty ,roughly built byres that a club should have such a luxury as this excellent ground. A small shelter or bigger porch would make a difference though …but that is merely to carp.
The surface is good too ,though to be fair, this game was only just playable because the Island had a serious soaking earlier in the week. When I walked across the surface I could feel the grass swim under my feet ; on just such surfaces do men -and boys- slip damaging the cruciate ligaments in their knees,
and then linger on NHS waiting lists until they lose interest in serious shinty.
A wet day then with a familiar group of hardy devotees at the pitch- DR, John Angus, Davie MacVicar, John the Caley and Johnny Ach as referee- he drove up in a lorry-,which was as authentically West Highland an entrance as one could wish for. Johnny passionately urged me to consider the value of summer shinty , a needless exercise because I am converted already, but Johnny is nothing if not an evangelist and so I listened to his sermon in the manner one listens to all sermons -in polite silence , all the time musing about the irony of the most un-summerlike conditions that the game was about to occur under.
The first half started on time and under water- no pitch for running shinty this and after an opening spell when the Glen forwards pushed the ball uphill into the mist the rest of the 45 minutes was spent keeping at bay Donnie Campbell , young Masters Martin and Moir and Gillespic Macdonald who swarmed forward. They had chances but did not have the time or the space to take them and Paul Mackintosh had a resolute game in the defence. Not for the first time did the master stroke of playing Andrew Corrigan in defence pay off-his pace is something other defences would dream of and one lost count of the times he was able to nip the ball away from the half-forward and clear it up field.
The second half was a tale of three goals- if truth be told four goals because the Skye men did get one back and should have had more- but they were slow to shoot and Stewart Mackintosh does deserve the international credentials he is credited with.
The Pairc has a clear slope and in the second half this did help the Glen somewhat as did the instruction from the Glen bench that given the depth of the pools which were beginning to form., it was counter-productive to carry the ball in the way that Eddie Tembo and Ruaraidh Cameron had attempted to . Almost at once the wisdom of this paid off-a long ball forward from the excellent John Barr was pulled down by Cameron and smacked on the volley a full 30 yards into the Skye net. A memorable goal and one which was added to 10 minutes later by Calum Miller when he send a long ball from midfield down on top of the Skye goals. Connor made the mistake of letting it bounce and it skipped off the wet turf through his legs and over the line.
Skye went on the offensive from that point and made more than enough opportunities to pull back the game from the brink but they were slow to shoot , while McCormack , Girvan and Mackintosh, a true thin red line, dug in at the back and kept them out. It was an inspiring set of performances - and none were more inspired than Captain John Barr though Eddie Tembo ran him close. They simply fought hard to keep on top of the game , though things did begin to look fragile in the 80th minute when the ever skilful Sorley Macdonald blasted in a shot which deflected off Corrigan’s stick into the net.
By that time 16 year old Alastair Mackintosh had come on to replace the injured Arran Macdonald on the Glen wing and in the last eight minutes Neale Reid, brother of centre man Stewart Reid , came on in the wide left position after Miller had limped off. It was the winning combination-young Mackintosh ,who had quickly realised that getting to the ball before your opponent is the secret of shinty success, nicked the ball across the front of the Skye goal and Reid nipping in front of Ian Nicholson rapped it into the net for the winning goal.
It was the perfect way to finish the game. As for the rest of the afternoon ,the prospect of a hamburger and a two hour drive back to the Glen did not seem so scary now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Shinty must get Mod to get...anything, anywhere even.

The Mod Cup again- and this year with the Mod being held in the “Utter Hebrides” as Bain the artist was wont to call them, the game to decide the fate of the trophy was between the shinty youngsters of Uist and the shinty youngsters of Harris and Lewis . A good thing too.
Apart from perhaps the fact that there are no trees to speak of on Uist and none to make camans of on Lewis ,at least none that you can legitimately cut down , I have never understood why the kids and the adults of the Western Isles have never embraced shinty.
Certainly the islands were marginalized at the time the Camanachd Association was set up but if my memory of ancient texts serves me right there did exist in former times the ritual New Years day game on the machair at least of one of the Uists. But the Islands are rightly proud of their Gaelic heritage and of course shinty should make more of its Gaelic origins-it’s the only way forward. Of course it’s a sport but it’s also a serious part of the culture of the Highlands and given modern Scotland’s obsession with kicking a ball , shinty has to press the cultural buttons to get any sense of fair treatment.. So I was glad to see the kids in the western Isles getting a shot at the Mod trophy.
What is it with these Islanders and football anyway? So Andy Gray’s mam was raised on gugas and Murdo Macleod has two names that would be acceptable on Perceval Road . Ronnie Mackinnon? I’m sure the major part of his DNA was from Skye. The thing is they are keen on sport : the pity is they didn’t get shinty when they should have. I’m sure a social historian will hazzard a guess as to why : I just know that they would have been good at it and what’s more it would have kept them away from the old Rangers/Celtic thing which they pretend doesn’t affect them. I’m sure there’s a Rangers supporters club in Stornoway and I’m pretty sure there’s not one on Barra. And my point is?
There isn’t one really -simply a rant but let shinty in the western Isles flourish - and it would be nice if some educator in the Nicholson Institute encouraged the guys to play shinty. Fat chance I should say but it would be nice all the same.
Anyway to the Mod Cup . The Uist lads won and 70 kids took part. Congrats.
Indeed no self respecting shinty player should let his career slip by without playing in the Mod Cup. Here is one from yesteryear. 1977 I believe and a snap taken in that most unlikely spot for shinty Brora. It was supposed to be the first shinty match played in Sutherland for 60 years . Fortunately the presence of Alan Macrae in Helmsdale interested a few lads in shinty and Golspie school played an Irish club recently but with the exception of some lads in Assynt there is no serious shinty in the county of the Cat. Shame!
Brora used to be a coal mining town before inflated Nigg wages tempted the honest coal cutters away and Polish imports and increasing labour costs turned that unusual piece of Highland industry into an exhibition corralled into half a room in a heritage building. All we need is to use the town as the set for a film of a kid who aspired to build a rocket.
Anyway, once upon a mod time in 1977 when John Howie was winning the Gold Medal in Golspie , up the road in Brora a shinty match was taking place. It was in front of a good crowd on an excellent surface- the machair of East Sutherland is perfect for golf and makes for a superb shinty sward.Problem was there was a strip of concrete right across the park about the halfway mark. Goodness what that was for.
Beauly who were third in the old Division 1 at that time of the year had a good opening but could not score. Then Ally Mackintosh ,moved up for the day from wing centre to the forward line hit two neat goals and Billy Macleod picked up the next and there it was 3-0 for the Glen with DP Mackintosh getting the cup from Ron Macdonald , Mr Brora of that day and many more.
The picture shows the teams together in the spirit of Modly friendship that ought to mark the sport. It rarely does. Still its nice to see Gerry Maclennan with a smile.

Monday, October 24, 2005

No buts-it's got to be Bute

Glenurquhart 4 Bute 1

It’s the end of the shinty season although it feels that business has only been half sorted. The Glen , my abiding obsession, have won a match which I did not think they would win-truth is they would appear to have won it easily and yet I have held off for a week from posting a report because I was uneasy with the manner of their victory.
Bute are the team that pipped them last year in the semi finals of the Balliemore and then the Butachs went on to beat Lochaber in the final and win the cup. This session the record book will show that the Glen them at home 4-1 and I’m not happy. Why the long face?
Let me try to tease it out.
It’s a 1 o’clock start and the Bute guys are there on the field knocking about at 12.30. They have driven for miles up the west coast and the early start will permit them to return to their island paradise because it would appear that ferry times have changed and a later start for the game would put them at risk of being marooned on the mainland till morning . Horrible thought- probably for the mainlanders who would have to put up with them every bit as much as for the Butemen themselves.
In their warm up they look good : the Glen run about in their usual style -kings of the laid back pre-game session: there is no ref. When he does arrive -no fault of his-he wasn’t told the right time for the throw-up- it is getting on to 1.30pm and the Butachs are a little anxious. Perhaps they won’t get back in time to get wasted in Rothesay before the pubs close.
The game starts and in 5 mins the Glen are ahead. Superb shy from Arran Macdonald , Eddie Tembo drags the ball though and drives it into the net. Where was Hector Whitelaw. Well he was there but not quite on his toes.
The game continues-its clear to me that though the Glen are creating chances Bute are somehow-harder and yet the Glen get a penalty in 27 minutes. Deservedly so-but Lewis Maclennan hits the goalie with it and then in 40 mins David Smart who always plays the ball neatly gets an angle and raps his shot off the post. As he hit’s the ball he takes a blow himself from Mackellar who is playing in a rugby helmet and is the sort of player who would stick his head in the way of a Calmac ferry propeller to win a tackle . I wish he was in Glen colours.
Bute haven’t been lazy either and if the Glen didn’t possess a wunderkind in the shape of Stewart Mackintosh the National under-21 keeper then the score would be different. Twice in succession he conjures the ball over the bar: the Bute boys hit the ball too cleanly to beat him- a mistimed shot would have a greater chance.
Then Stewart Strathie gets on to a bouncing ball and finishes beautifully high into the net. It was worked through from wing-centre and in my head this is the precursor of a Glen collapse because somehow or other we are not getting a grip in the centre despite a great deal of effort. John Barr is playing but not dominating.
The second half confirms the whole thing but it does not change the result. Hector Whitelaw is playing well enough- he is strong and when Eddie Tembo is going for the ball Hector back-charges him firmly but not too much : he is quieter too. Alan Mackechnie would have been caught more often because he - a superb competitor-would have been to fired up to hide it.
What is also clear is that Bute have a special talent in the figure of team captain Whitelaw. A former under-21 international he is versatile enough to play up front but his upper body strength should make him a standout as the last man in defence. Always a fixture in representative matches, he is a natural leader on the shinty field so what is happening? Eddie Tembo is hard, powerful, fast, competitive, brave but naïve at the highest shinty level: he complains to the referee when he is back charged but he is giving Hector a game of it .
I wonder why.
In 54 minutes I realise why.
Eddie gets the ball some way out, muscles it round Hector , forces some space, gets in his strike-unstoppable- and takes a hit on his calf as he does so-it is a brave goal. Eddie has been prepared to take the hit and Hector has given it to him , but then again he hasn’t. I know the scene now. I should have known it from the start. The game is meaningless- the league is won ; there is no cup glory. Hector is a decent guy- he is not riled by Eddie and is playing him hard but not seriously hard. If he had been Eddie may well have got the last goal but the hit would have been substantial : Hector has held back the club-and fair enough too. Four minutes later Eddie gets his hat-trick and Lewis Maclennan picks up the Glen’s fourth in 63 minutes.
All that is left is for Bute to say “no more than four” which Mackellar does by lashing at David Smart when he tries to push past him. Smart has to leave the field limping. The Glen know the script and ease off the pressure. MacDiarmid in the Bute defence winks at Fisher in the goals. Hector does not acknowledge them but continues to play long hits out of determined defence. There is no sign of him going up front to retrieve the situation. It's too late for that.
The Glen have won and Bute don’t really care just so long as nobody thinks they are better or harder than them. That must be what young guys are like on Rothesay. I wish that was what
young guys were like here.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Scotttish International Side which actually wins

Shinty /Hurling International.
Scotland V Ireland
Bught Park, Inverness

Scotland 20 Ireland 17
Scotland finally ended a run of poor International results against Ireland’s hurlers with a deserved victory yesterday but they had manager Duncan Kelly praying for the final whistle as slack defensive work allowed Ireland two late goals which took them to within a point of the Scots lead . In the end Gary Innes secured victory with a last minute free hit from the halfway line : it counted two points and it was enough to see Scotland home and dry in this fixture for the first time since 1999.
If you want to defend against hurlers you must defend often and you must defend even while you attack. That is the lesson the Scots have learned from bitter experience in their annual clashes with the cream of the GAA and yesterday it was clear that the coaching instilled in the squad by Kelly and his staff has helped the national team turn the corner.
It didn’t look that way at the start however. Early Irish pressure threatened to swamp the Scots and it was no surprise when the visitors quickly racked up a 5 point lead . The first came courtesy of a two point dead ball hit from man of the match Enda Loughlin in 15 minutes . This was quickly followed by another dead ball strike -this time from Pat Coady. He drove the ball fiercely through a packed Scottish defence to pick up a three point goal in 17 minutes.
At this stage of the game Scotland struggled to compete with their quicker sharper visitors and it was noticeable that when they did get the ball up front Ronald Ross, returning to the international scene after an absence of four years found himself accompanied by two Irish markers.
But with the ball on the ground the Scots can play a bit and when Victor Smith made himself space on the left he slipped it forward to James Clark. Clark, a two goal hero for Fort William in the recent Camanachd cup final blasted his shot on target where it was well stopped by keeper Thomas Duffy. The loose ball broke to Gary Innes and he hammered it home to open Scotland’s tally with a three point goal. Innes added another point from open play minutes later. Norman Campbell and then Innes himself further added to Scotland’ s tally before Ronald Ross helped himself to his customary score. A dead ball hit from Campbell was flicked on overhead by Innes. Duffy again saved but Ross always quick to follow up put the rebound home.
The Scots went further ahead just on halftime with what was the goal of the match and once again Ross was at the heart of the move. Picking up a neat pass from Smith he played the ball on to the keeper and this time it was Clark who was on hand to pick up the pieces driving the ball the ball past Duffy for Scotland third goal of the half.
If a 13-5 lead looked secure for Scotland in the half time dressing room the Irish had other ideas . Whatever manager Seamus Qualter said to his players in the interval they came out for the second period fired up and quick scores from Sean MacBride Pat Coady and the excellent Loughlin rapidly reduced Scotland’s winning margin to a mere three points. The pressure on the players began to tell and challenges grew in ferocity-always inevitable in a compromise code where the whole secret of success lies in tight man to man marking. Tempers flared after a clash between Innes and Irelands Karl McKeegan but referee John Macrae was quickly on hand to calm matters down.
Victor Smith restored Scotland differential with a neat goal when he found a drive from Ross dropping on to his caman in 55 minutes and Innes picked up a further two points almost immediately.
With an seven point lead and two minutes on the clock you should be safe. Not Scotland . Late goals by John Dooley and Enda Loughlin took the gloss of the victory restored only slightly by Innes’s late strike.
Good game - a good advert for the compromise code- and of course it wouldn’t be a true Scottish side if it didn’t make the spectators sweat a bit.
For the record Scotland’s ladies lost 13-0 while the under-21s made it a double celebration day by beating Ireland 14-8.

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Sonnet for your Tartan Bonnet.

I know that Mairi Mhor nan Oran bashed out a poem or two about shinty : Sorley had a go too when he wrote about the Portree high School team of 19**. The Kaid bashed out a rhyme or two. If I recall his subject was the international match in the 1920s which was played at the Tailteann Games in Dublin. Any number of old rhymes exist about shinty also by Anon.
So here goes, in honour of National Poetry Day:

Shinty Sonnet No 1 : The Free Hit

The forward squats over the ball
palms light on the club, feet wide
apart. Runners peel off to the side
break , return, steal space for the goal
strike which must come. No free hit
is direct: not much in shinty is.
Nor much in life either. All this
physical celtic knot work helps fit
an ancient Gaelic rhythm. The man
on the D improvises a flick:
the Centre unhindered slips his stick
under the cut back ball and with one
gesture of his wrists, guides it high
into the net ,making this stick-poem fly.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Watching shinty at Castle Leod

Caberfeidh 6 Glenurquhart 4

Many years ago I broke my thumb on this pitch over on the far side. It is the same heavy turf beneath the beech trees where the leaves fall and the grass is too lush to pat a pass. To make any sense of the game in that corner you have to swing hard. Ronald Macarthur swung hard and so did I-he got my club on his ankle ;I got his club on my thumb :we both ended up in Raigmore where Duncan Maclennan raconteur , Cabers committee member author and gentleman kept us company while doctors kept us waiting to let us know that injuries gained at shinty do not merit swift attention. It is a cheap point but drunks and thugs swept past us in the queue-but then that’s triage for you.
I mention this simply to underline the fact that nothing much has changed in the manner of spa-town shinty though no doubt they could do with a reincarnation of their fabulous team of the 30’s.
The pitch is the same- playing on the Laird’s field -like they do at Inveraray and Strachur-with the Big House just beyond the trees and the toff himself never venturing down to watch the peasants at play. Unfair? Probably but no matter. The crowd are the best thing about Cabers: they are humorous, a good laugh and anyone would enjoy an afternoon in their company. Even a supporter of a team which is getting beaten by them. As Eddie Tembo played the ball bleakly forward in a rain shower a Polish woman shrieked words of condemnation or encouragement. I could not tell which. She was casually but neatly dressed, her hair the colour of a watered down Merlot wine as is the style in Eastern Europe.
“That’s unusual” I said to the crowd.
“Must be working in the hotel, ”said a Cabers man,” but I can’t make out her Gaelic. Must be from the far west”
And so it went on. When I put up my umbrella to keep a shower off myself and Stewartie Maclennan, the crowd protested.
“Now we can’t see the goals”
So I made to lower it.
“No keep it up. It’s better that Billy doesn’t see the goals going in. The excitement would be too much for him.”
When one youngster got the ball they shouted him on with wolf-like baying noises and cries of “Go on, Mad Dog!”
When the boy was subbed-Donnie Maclean took him off just to give another youngster a run out-his departure from the pitch was greeted with a chorus of coyote howls which upset the lad so much we could hear him hurl his club about the dressing room. The crowd laughed.
“Mind the shed” said one of them “Its got to last the whole season”
I have always liked the shed: it’s retro with a verandah , two changing rooms and a table with a tea-pot and cups for the half-time break. It would have been state of the art in 1925 but then no doubt the Laird would not be willing for anything more flash to be built on his park. I can see the day coming when…. But no matter.
Cabers are a strong team. They hit the ball: they play a long game and by the time I had realised what was happening Martin Maclean had scored two goals and Neale Reid had replied for Drum. Good goals all three but defences were not on top.
Glen were moving the ball quite neatly but overplaying it in the long grass but despite that when Lewis Maclennan did connect he put the teams level. The centreline battle was dour and truth to tell the player who impressed me most in a tough little war with Alastair Mackintosh was Ewan Murray. Highly visible in a white helmet and visor he was a strong lad who threw himself into tackles which he invariably won though not easily.
Cabers took the lead with a long drive from the halfway line which made a monkey of goalkeeper Emery but Stewart Morrison evened matters up with a neat drive just on the halftime whistle.
I crossed the field at half-time : it was like walking on a green sponge. It certainly did not suit a fetch and carry game which Dave Smart and the Glen front men favour. Cabers had played some passing stuff too but when in range they tended to blast the ball at goal. The shape of things to come?
At first no. Stewart Morrison scored a fierce one ; Cabers equalised and then for perhaps the next 15 minutes the Glen were on top with Neale Reid , Lewis Maclennan and David Smart having chances but missing them. Allied to that Caber’s keeper Kenny Ritchie had a fabulous save from Reid ,a spectacular dive low to his left post and he played the ball off with the heel of his club. Eddie Tembo then hit the bar with a powerful shot from distance.
Then that was it. Cabers took hold of the game and dominated the rest of the action. Ali Maclennan put the in the lead with his second goal of the afternoon before Ewan Murray finished off proceedings the lead with a well taken shot from the right.
A comprehensive win in an end to end game and no problems on the field where ref Donald Macleod had an effective game. But then nobody was saying otherwise .
It was a good result for Cabers to finish off their season. They have an excellent second string who are competitive and tough. The sad thing is that they have never managed to make the step up to a higher level. Where do the guys go? Off south? Off to Higher Education? Dingwall Academy which should be a strong shinty school shows little interest in the game but then they are not forced to tolerate local customs and of course there is the obsession in the area with Ross County Football Club. What more can one say than that they don’t know what they are missing?
There is an ancient painting of a shinty match- a clichéd vision of Highlanders swathed in tartan and swinging sticks. In the background stands Castle Leod. Shinty is still being played where it always was. Long may it continue. Long may the Laird leave them to hack about his field.

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