Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On the buses

Looking back on it, I suppose, if the truth be told, I have spent more of my life playing shinty, watching shinty, thinking about shinty , analysing shinty and generally talking rubbish about shinty than was really sensible. Still I wasn’t the only one and what’s done is done - but when I cast my mind back on past seasons wearing the black and red, I cannot recall a parade of silver cups and presentation camans. With Glenurquhart? You must be joking.
What I can remember are minibuses- minibuses to Skye, minibuses to Oban, minibuses to Fort William and inevitably minibuses to nowhere- minibuses broken down.
Away back in the mid 70s when the Glen were a force to be reckoned with everywhere-except perhaps in those places which had a force of their own-Glenurquhart Shinty Club used to own a minibus. It had been an old Forestry Bedford which had been driven up rougher hills and down deeper dales than any other vehicle ever built at Luton. Not surprisingly, it had become an ex-Forestry Bedford and it was snapped up by an astute committee who realised that however big a wreck it might be , Ken Fraser would be able to fix it.
It had slatted wooden seats through which coins destined for card games constantly slipped, seatbelts were definitely not included and there was a heater which refused to heat. It did however accommodate the team- and the Spartan nature of the vehicle engendered a kind of war-time spirit that helped the boys feel that sense of togetherness which is born of suffering. This also had an effect on our style of play. The thought ran thus : We have suffered together in the bus to get to this remote field- now you , the opposition, are going to suffer for forcing us to endure such a journey.
And in those days, the opposition usually did suffer.
But no matter how big a star Billy Macleod was on the field, the minibus would go one better.
One wet Saturday afternoon in Skye- wee Billy had taken more goals off the Islanders than their keeper had the Gaelic to count-the gear lever came away in Ken’s hand.
“Oh look,” said Ken “ It’s the gear lever. It doesn’t want to leave the island till later”
Nobody dared to laugh: it was too much like tempting fate.
In the event, Ken put the gear lever back into the hole it had come out of and its impermanent resting place became a sort of fail safe device. If Ken looked like he was in a speeding mood- and he invariably did- you could be sure that the front seat passenger, afraid perhaps that Ken would speed past the Cluanie Inn , the Invermoriston Hotel or indeed the Lovat Arms, would remove the gear stick and confine the bus to a slow and stoppable third gear.
I remember one October evening at Fort Augustus when a wheel sped past the minibus, over took a number of vehicles , bounded like a deer out of our headlights and crashed off into the trees.
“Oh look “, remarked Ken calmly, “There’s a wheel. I wonder where that came from?”
We had observed the passing object with amused detachment but it took us 20 minutes of stumbling about in the dark among the pine needles before we found it again.
I think it was when we finally had to release the Bedfordfrom its contractual obligations that the Glen began to slip from its once proud position: the necessary boost to the team’s morale was just no longer there.
Of course there were and still are other hired minibuses and some of them were every bit as recalcitrant as the old Bedford. The one we took on a trip to Oban in the mid 80s was especially foul.
It was our custom in the 1980s- before the advent of National League shinty made these trips a dull necessity- to travel to Oban to let Dougie Macintyre and the Oban Camanachd Committee see the John Collie Cup before we bore it back north again for another 12 months. They used to invite us down to play for this Argyllshire Cup and we rather ungraciously proceeded to beat them annually. At some point they stopped asking us down, requested the cup back and then unaccountably the very players whom we used to defeat with ease went on to win the Camanachd Cup and every other major shinty trophy you can think of. Such is life.
However, to our tale. Having duly won the Collie Cup and visited several hostelries in that pleasant seaside town, we began the perilous journey home from the Lorne Hotel. We managed as far as Onich in a merry ceilidh spirit- in both senses of the word. Then….Kaphutt! A fuel problem. Run out of petrol?
We flagged down cars, sent out raiding parties to Fort William and finally got a tow from a Glen man who just happened to be passing- and by the end of the night had filled the thing with so much petrol that Esso’s August sales figures for Lochaber must have topped the seasonal normal.
Still it would not go. The passing Glen man with the tow rope- the late Malcolm Munro, Balnain - was detained to tug us along a little to see if that would induce the engine to start. It didn’t. He opened up the engine and poured petrol down the carb but there was no joy. The R.A.C. were called out but even they failed to induce the brute to start.
In the end it took a replacement bus from Drumnadochit to get the lad home by 2.30am.
However, the hours in the darkness near Fort William were not wasted : an exercise in building team spirit was undertaken with great success. The tin whistle and Gaelic songs were in evidence- and by the end of the ordeal we even had a new team song. Air-Traditional; arranged Mackintosh, it had as its basis the tune of the Gaelic port-a beul ‘ Brochan Lom’
“Broken down , broken down
Broken down at Onich…..”
It was sung with gusto. The second verse, sadly, never came true. Optimistically entitled,”Now we’re fixed and on our way- off to Corriegour” it remained unsung. Looking back I can see how marvellously traditional it all was. All we needed was shortbread and some irn-bru to complete the stereotype; footballers on the other hand would have wimped it but at least they would have worn the latest designer gear.
Incidentally, the ability of shinty culture to adapt to the modern world has grown apace. On the last occasion I travelled long-haul with a Glen Team- to Bute- the boys were taken from the pitch in Rothesay to the ferry enclosed in the back of a cattle truck ( Hector Whitelaw, the Bute Captain, did hose it out before inviting us aboard) the youngsters were singing “We’re going to Ibiza”. Older readers -indeed all readers since no youngster is ever likely to read a Glen Bulletin-might like to note that this is a “Pop” song sung by the Venga Boys, a group of young musical persons hailing from somewhere-another planet perhaps- presumably called Venga. And as for being boys-one is , in fact , a girl- but I digress.
Horrible experiences can sometimes be amusing in retrospect, but when they repeat themselves they become last straws. Within two weeks of our Onich experience we had just such a last straw. We had been “playing” Skye once again. Things did not go well. Yeats, though he was the sort of Irishman who couldn’t tell a caman from a capercaillie, provides the perfect description of what went wrong with the team in his poem ‘The Second Coming’:
“Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold” They did-and neither it could- so we lost.
We got back aboard the bus and the drive home went well enough to the ferry, except that the vehicle seemed to be burning oil rather too fiercely.
It was stopping the engine on the ferry that did it. Picture it: the ramp goes down; the key is turned and turned and turn…..there is an absence of activity from the engine. Looks are exchanged: the ferryman’s grin slowly erodes. We get out, we push : the Gods take pity-they know that only pagans play shinty- and we’re off to Drum.
“I think,” said Donald Paul as the bus snailed past Urquhart Castle before dipping down into green Glenurquhart, ”we’ll just have to hire one with handles, so we can carry it home”.
Since then I’ve rarely been on a minibus although the club still use them. For longer journeys we hire a larger bus although they are not impervious to mechanical trouble. Why- only two seasons ago young John Barr had to use tights-presumably not his own- to try to coax a bus to reach Glasgow where we were due to play Mid Argyll.
In the end of course it was Ken Fraser who got the vehicle going. Now wisely we never travel without him : he is more useful than a Swiss Army knife. His presence on all buses, large or small, is now a requirement of the Club Constitution. Now if only he could fix the team so effectively…..

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Skye’s Limit or Why Did They Leave The Island ?

Strathglass 7 Skye 1
Strathglass were 3-0 up through Gary Reid before I even reached the field at Cannich. What more can I say ? Well I did say plenty. “It looks like the Portree High School under 16 squad they have out there” was one remark. Nobody disagreed .
The crowd were interested in the result but being that the game was dead and interred in the first ten minutes there was nothing left of interest except to wonder at the length of time it took for the tea queue to go down. I’m sure I looked across four times in 15 minutes and the same group of patient attendees was waiting at the window. In the end I didn’t bother.
The next interest was in blethering. I met Jimmac. He was good crack as always. Strathglass were five up at the time.
“It’s an awful shame for Strathglass,” I said with a wink to Jimmac.
The Glasaich all turned to listen. Jimmac was keen for a wind-up too.
“How’s that?”
“Well they’re winning so easily -but in the end it’s all pointless-a waste of effort”
The Glasaich were more interested now.
“They’re going to come over to Drum for the last game of the season and most likely deserve to win but one of our wingcentres will score a fluke- and that’ll be it. No promotion.”
Jimmac laughed.
“Not a bloody chance “ said the Glasaich. Not a great riposte but probably an accurate one. It is however, nice to wind up , undermine and destabilise Despite the pleasant feeling which comes along with the attempt you cannot really wind up supporters who have an expectation of winning. That’s what the Strathglass supporters are like these days.
By this stage Gary Reid had converted a penalty. His goal No1 and No 2 were good goals: his goal No1 was even better. Not that anyone had seen it . He scored it in 17 seconds.
The penalty was well taken as was his fifth. Who did he think he was? Ronald Ross?
Strathglass were strong and determined. They gave Skye nothing in the way of chances even to dwell on the ball although it was clear that some of the Skye players when they had the time could do nice things with the ball- that is do nice things indeed but not , definitely not score. I especially like Donald Fraser at full back. A long hitter, an excellent tackler : when he runs for the ball-though I don’t go much for his athletic style-he certainly gets it. And his reading of the game as it feeds on to his position in front of the D is at the level he is playing at least superb. Would he handle Gary McPherson, or Thain or Ronald Ross. I don’t think so- but then I don’t know anyone who can except perhaps Naouaidh from Skye who wasn’t playing. He was at a wedding or a sheep’s funeral or something but truth to tell he was concerned for the result for he phoned DR several times in the course of the match only to be told the sad truth. The lads were losing
Gary Reid scored a fifth and the teams came off at half-time. I paced the line, spoke to a few neutrals, observed Robert Geddes make an unfortunate change. I felt so anyway. He took off young James Ross and moved Lee Bain forward from midfield. Lee’s move was OK but why take off young Ross? He’s the sort of young player that would benefit from a full game. Perhaps Robert was chasing goals to sort out the goal difference problem that they may or may not have to face in their bid to overcome Kyles Athletic in the race for the poisoned chalice of Premier League promotion. If so then perhaps he should have taken off himself. Churlish thought? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
I set off round the field and passed some time in the company of first Russell Ross and then Ally Rothe. The Blue Charm was in the top corner by the fence holding court : I don’t thing he was watching the match which showed how dead it was as a contest.
The Skye goalie was an older chap-Gibb- an Argyll man and he played well enough as did young Nicholson at half back and Stevie Morrison but Strathglass were too physical for them. Robert Geddes finally got a goal all to himself.
At this point I moved on to speak to DR. That was when I learned that Naouaidh was calling him on the mobile for the latest info. DR was not happy. Despite that he was witty as usual.
“How many players are missing” I asked , allowing him to plead the traditional excuse of all losing teams.
“Twelve” he said.
The truth is he was fed up of the way the boys were playing. The team were drifting : indeed the club was drifting. They appeared to have a nice bunch of players but they needed coaching and the adult game in the Island had fallen away. He could point to having at one time the possibility of four adult teams in different parts of the Island and while they had a grip on the game at Primary level, the next lot were struggling. Maybe football was in the way- certainly some guys could not play away from home. But given that Skye was an Island with 10,000 people living on it, how on earth could a team like Strathglass marshal the resources to outfox them . It was daft. I agreed.
It shouldn’t be happening but it was.
Kenny Macleod got a goal back for Skye- I don’t know what it was like since I was talking to DR at the time. Then Gary Read scored again for Strathglass: I was still talking to DR so I missed that too. The whistle blew ; I walked across the field , said hello to Roy who was happy and went home. Then I was sick.

Urban shinty of the most compelling kind

2005 Glenmorangie Cup Final
An Aird ,Fort William
Fort William 3 Kilmallie 2
J Clark 37, 87 G Innes 62 D Lamont 20,79

It was third time lucky for Fort William in yesterday’s derby day final . Certainly they were playing on their home pitch but that did not prevent local rivals Kilmallie pushing them all the way in a tough match which was not settled until James Clark’s 87th minute strike took the Camanachd Cup to the town side of the canal for only the second time in the 98 year history of the competition.
0n a wet pitch under dark Lochaber skies the match could have degenerated into a dour battle for supremacy : that it didn’t-given it was played between teams from the same town who know each others style inside out- was a tribute to both sets of players who made light of heavy conditions.
Fort William opened strongly with John McLeod setting Clark clear in the opening seconds but his shot went tamely past. Kilmallie struggled to contain the early pressure and were exposed moments later when wing centre Drew McNeil burst through on the left and rattled his shot off the bar. A series of free hits conceded in midfield merely added to Kilmallie’s problems but the Fort front men squandered the resultant string of chances which their midfield dominance set up. The cause was further undermined when full centre and team captain John MacPhie limped off to be replaced by Robertson.
It was Kilmallie however who scored first with a goal which for all that it was nicely taken has to be put down to carelessness on the part of goalkeeper Scott McNeil. McNeil playing in his 7th Camanachd final contrived to direct a by-hit straight to Kilmallie’s Stewart . He slipped the ball to Donald Lamont who drove it past McNeil for the opener.
The goal lifted Kilmallie. Before it they looked as though they were going to be slightly off the pace all afternoon : now they began to pour through the Fort midfield. Scott Rodgers who had looked sluggish earlier, began to track back for the ball and hurl it forward while the classy Ross Lavin , stepping in to the centre berth vacated by the injured Macphie ,began to lift the team. The game was on and both keepers were drawn into action : first McNeil blocked a drive from Stewart while at the other end Neil MacNiven saved point blank from McLeod.
This was direct shinty , a version of the game suited to the heavy pitches of the West Highlands where the ball is controlled and hit. Neither side was inclined to weave celtic knots of intricate possession in the face of such commitment on a wet park It is the sort of shinty that the switch to a summer playing season should have eliminated . Don’t you believe it; the fans love it.
Fort William levelled the game in the 37th minute through James Clark. A long ball from the Fort captain Gary Innes found Clark . He bullied his way past his marker and squeezed the ball in at MacNiven’s right hand post.
Fort William continued to press in the second period with the pacey Gordy Mackinnon and veteran Victor Smith leading the way. Tactically Mackinnon pushed wide to leave a hole in front of the posts which was ably filled by the imposing figure of Clark. Clark for all that he possesses serious size is relatively mobile but having missed most of the season with an ankle injury there were doubts as to his fitness. There are none now. Time and time again he subjected his marker James MacNichol to the most intense physical pressure and it was only superb goalkeeping by MacNiven which kept his side in the hunt. Fort William’s goal when it came was compellingly simple. A foul taken on the left by Mackinnon found its way to the excellent Innes- he picked up the Albert Smith medal for man of the match- who finished slickly.
And that should have been it. But it wasn’t. Kilmallie contrived once again to chase the game and got back in contention in 79 minutes when referee Kelly who had kept a light but firm grip on matters awarded Kilmallie a penalty after an infringement by Fort keeper MacNeil. Lamont blasted the ball home to set up a thrilling finale.
The pace was frantic: Stewart drove narrowly past; Clark hit the side netting at the other end. Then McNeil made amends for earlier misdemeanours by saving superbly from Rodgers.
Just as the game looked as if it was heading to extra-time the winner came from that man Clark. A midfield free hit reached him at the edge of the box. He controlled it turned his marker and with a powerful drive past MacNiven became a local hero at least on one side of the Caledonian Canal. Who said the sands of shinty time were running out for ageing Fort William side? On this display there would appear to be more than a grain or two left in the glass
An advert for shinty? Definitely. Urban shinty? I think so-that’s what made the crowd so partisan. In the rain below the Ben it was fiesta day- no-one should begrudge shinty’s loyalists their day out.
Fort William: S McNeil A Robertson, J McAllen, N Robertson, D Roger, N Mcphee
D McNeil P Bamber G Innes (Capt) G Mackinnon, V Smith, J Clark,
Liam MacIntyre, D Cameron C Bamber, J Denholm, B Simpson
Mgrs: D Stafford/P MacIntyre
Kilmallie : N MacNiven, J MacNichol, P Carmichael, A Macdonald, E Stoddart,
R Lavin, J Macphie (Capt), A MacNichol, F Massie, S Rodgers, J Stewart,
D Lamont Subs I Robertson M McPherson D Neilson, M Duncan
Mgrs : J Morrison /L Innes
Referee : D Kelly

Monday, September 12, 2005

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.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

No Longer Broken Down in Beauly

Its 2-1 when I arrive and Beauly who need a victory if they are to look in the mirror on Sunday morning and actually like themselves seem to be endeavouring to lose what they ought to be winning. I have arrived late because I have been watching Glenurquhart’s second team edge in front against Kinlochshiel. A text message tells me Beauly are two down and I feel I must cross Culnakirk in order to share the pain of defeat with the green and white fans. On the other hand if they look set to reject a stranger I have every intention of crossing to the other side of the pitch and passing a pleasant afternoon in the warm sunshine along with the Lovat camp-followers who will take a country boy to their hearts. I will not tell them I am a villager myself.
Glorious day , pitch in perfect condition.
“Never been better “ says old Murph and he’s right. Old Murph is the goal judge: young Murph is the Beauly team manager. He tells me Lovat have lost their young keeper to a leg injury. He has had some terrific saves.
“Hope he’s OK “, says Old Murph.
I have hardly agreed with him when Barry Macdonald holds the ball close to the end of his caman and pushes his way through the Lovat defenders. He drives it low into the net. Beauly might just be back in business.
Further down the line -I’m with the Beauly fans at the moment-I am introduced to an American couple who are on a pilgrimage to visit some of the holy shrines of the great god shinty. They are heavily involved with a shinty club in California and good luck to them. They are so fortunate to have been granted a glorious Highland day and a fast paced game a rare delight.
Beauly are impressive- quick and sharp in the tackle but also extremely creative up front where Barry Macdonald , Sean Stewart and Danny Marshall are making the Lovat backs who are fair players themselves look to their laurels. In the centreline Sandy Tulloch is holding his ground well and to be fair to Sandy, whose career has been chequered and who has changed clubs several times in a sport where most guys serve their hometown for a lifetime, even from where I stand amongst Beauly’s finest he is receiving some very personal abuse. I go to mix with the Lovat crowd in front of whom Sandy is isolated. I feel there is little need for it and then I learn that he has scored the opening goal. It doesn’t change my opinion. I secretly wish he will score another but daren’t voice my desires.
Superbarry scores another goal to let Beauly take the lead. I am now with the Lovat crowd. “Fair enough player” the Lovats say to themselves and when you compare his athleticism to that of some of the Lovat front men- I except the ever intelligent John Mac Ritchie -then they should be more gracious. Raymond Rennie is an excellent goal scorer but does not seem to have worked hard enough to add sufficient pace to his game : he fades in the second half. Barry is quick with good close control and a fine shot- it would have been interesting to see how he would have done if Beauly had come up against Kingussie at Braeview. They have completely dominated lesser teams this season: Oban Celtic and Kingussie reserves were over run and Bazza has ended up top goalscorer in the division by miles.. The thing is -other guys have been scoring too.
The neatest of moves begins on the left with Sean Stewart wriggling past two defenders ; he guides the ball back to Christiansen who manages to ride a challenge from James Gallagher then slips it out wide left and super Barry dinks it round the wingback before letting fly. As with all the best moves it strikes the side net.
No matter. Danny Marshall who is having yet another excellent game rams home a fourth goal while Simon Holmes completes the scoring. With any luck Niall Maclennan who came on for the last 10 minutes should have made it six but he mistimed the strike and the chance was lost.
The whistle goes : Bert Loades phones and groans when I tell him the score. The Glen seconds have won 4-1 making it two bad weeks in a row for Shiel.
Its not been a bad day for Beauly though. Two further heaves and they are there and if they get repeat performances of this calibre frpm the experienced core of the team especially from Innes Simpson and Jamie Maclennan they are a safe bet. Did the injury to the Lovat keeper make a difference? We’ll never know but then he wasn’t outfield marking “Superbarry”. I don’t think anyone was.

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