THE SHETLAND county football team takes a foray into unknown territory tomorrow with the Highland League Chal-lenge Cup first round match at Fort William.
The match will not be an easy one. There is no doubt about that. The opponents may be one of the weakest teams in the Highland set-up, and have been virtually cannon fodder for some of the league’s big guns in recent years, but this is a new season and nothing can be taken for granted.
Fort William began their High-land League campaign with a disappointing 4-1 defeat to Lossie-mouth last weekend, but they are at home against Shetland and will obviously see the match as one they can win.
If the Shetland players perform as they did in the friendly against Deveronvale at Gilbertson Park earlier in the season they will prevail. But a repeat of the last outing, when they just saw off Orkney in the inter-county and almost ran out of steam at the end, may not be good enough.
Over the past few years, under different managers, Shetland have stuck fairly rigidly to a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Whalsay’s Karl Williamson sitting just in front of the back four, and the tactic has paid off handsomely.
But a vital cog in the machine has been the possession of several excellent, hard-working wide midfield players, not least Stuart Smith and Stuart Hay, who fulfilled the roles in the island games-winning side.
Presumably current boss John Johnson feels, with Smith in semi-retirement and Hay sadly injured, that there are no direct replace-ments and a new strategy is necessary. So against Orkney last month a new 5-3-2 structure was adopted, with a limited amount of success.
By all accounts Johnson will persevere with the same method in tomorrow’s match, the expectation being that wing backs Leighton Flaws and Ross Moncrieff will provide more width further forward, and hopefully the Kirkwall experience will stand the players in good stead.
There is no doubt Shetland currently possess a group of talented players. Flaws, William-son, Merv Jamieson and James Johnston are probably good enough to play regularly at Highland League level, while youngster Moncrieff continues to show a great deal of promise. Add to that the experience of keeper Craig Dinwoodie and Ross Jamieson and you have the nucleus of a formidable team.
Jamieson will be missing against Fort William but the replacement, his Delting team mate Alan Duncan, will certainly not weaken the side.
The area where Shetland are not so strong is in attack, where no-one has yet taken on the mantle of the prolific Michael Williamson, who incidentally proved this week that at the age of 41 he still has something to offer at a local level.
Scalloway’s Alan Davidson has been touted in some quarters as someone who could be the answer, but an earlier reluctance to become involved in the county set-up appears to have put paid to his chances.
If Shetland can triumph at the other end of the Caledonian Canal a slightly lesser journey would await the players in the next round, but a much more daunting proposition. The second round match would be against either Highland champions Cove Rangers or Nairn County. Hope-fully a victory tomorrow will give the players the chance to test themselves against that kind of opposition.
NOT surprisingly Glasgow Rangers’ humiliating defeat in the Champions League qualifying match against Lithuanians FBK Kaunas has seen the usual knee-jerk reaction of many supporters calling for the heads of manager Walter Smith and chairman David Murray.
How things change. Just a couple of months ago Smith was being hailed as a saviour after leading the team, albeit with more than a shade of luck, into the UEFA Cup final.
Rangers failed to perform in that match against Zenit St Petersburg, but at least they had got there, and could say they went down to a side of genuine class.
Against Kaunas on Tuesday the team was a total shambles. Even goalkeeper Alan MacGregor, so important in last season’s European run, looked a pale shadow of the fine player he was earlier this year.
No doubt some Celtic fans will be rubbing their hands in glee this week, their Old Firm rivals having been ousted before the serious action even begins, and the prospect of much Euro dosh winging its way to Parkhead.
They should stop and think, however. If Rangers’ failure was to prompt an altering of the coefficient and a reduction in the number of Champions League slots, and the Ibrox club was to win the Premier League next season, the pound signs would be further off than ever.
THIS week’s appointment of Kevin Pietersen as the new England cricket captain has been broadly described as a “brave” decision, most commentators highlighting the player’s tendency to put his own performance before that of the team.
Basically the choice of Pietersen was the only one open to the selectors. Of the other candidates, Andrew Flintoff has been tried and failed, with the “Fredalo” incident likely ruling out a second chance, Andrew Strauss’ position in the team is hardly secure, Robert Key is not even in the team and Alistair Cook has less experience of leading a team than Pietersen.
Michael Vaughan will be a hard act to follow as captain, especially with the immense respect the players had for him.
Given the brash nature of Pietersen, he will either be a roaring success or a thunderous failure. With the Ashes looming again next summer it had better be the former.