23rd June 2017

Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

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The recent death of former Glasgow Celtic footballer Tommy Gemmell, and the announcement a few days earlier that Lisbon Lions captain Billy McNeill was sufferent from dementia, is sad news with regard to probably the greatest club side Britain has every produced.

Having already lost goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson, midfielder Bobby Murdoch and winger Jimmy Johnstone, there are now only seven of the famous team still living. Steve Chalmers, who scored the winning goal against Inter Milan in 1967, is also reported to be in poor health.

Willie Wallace has lived in Australia for many years, but happily Jim Craig, John Clark, Bertie Auld and Bobby Lennox were all able to be at Gemmell’s funeral. And accompanied by former Rangers star Willie Henderson, also a European trophy winner himself, they were dignity personified.

Auld, Lennox and Craig have all visited Shetland as guests of the local Celtic supporters’ club, and I had the task of interviewing the latter at Clickimin 17 years ago. I found him easy-going, friendly and intelligent; qualities which showed through when he spoke on radio and television immedately after his fellow full back’s fitting send-off last week.

I never had the pleasure of meeting McNeill, but I saw him play a few times in the early 1970s, and a decade later spotted him in a hotel bar at Gothenburg. It was the day of the European Cup Winners Cup final in the Swedish city between Aberdeen and Real Madrid, and as a former Dons manager who had signed some of the players of that era, he was presumably there in some kind of punditry role.

McNeill was sitting at a table with a few others, including commentator Archie McPherson and Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson’s brother Martin. I remember this clearly as one of my colleagues, who shall probably remain nameless, mistook the younger Ferguson for his more illustrious sibling and cheekily asked him if he shouldn’t be with the players on the day of the big match.

A few minutes later a crowd had gathered, with McNeill the centre of attraction and many badgering him for autographs, comments or general chit-chat. I recall he was good-natured throughout, as befitting someone held in such high regard as both a player and a man.

As regards the news of his current battle with dementia, there have been claims that the condition could be linked to heading, particularly in the earlier days of McNeill’s career when the old-style leather footballs could become two or three times heavier when wet.

There have also been suggestions of this kind of link in Shetland football, with several local ex-players either currently enduring the illness or having previously suffered from it.

While there is no doubt that dementia is a terrible affliction, and most if not all of us will know someone who has been affected, there is no proof that footballers are more prone to the condition than anyone else. Most who succumb have never headed a ball in their lives, evidenced by the number of women who suffer.

This is akin to assertions that boxers are more likely to experience the illness, or the claims that the great Muhammed Ali’s Parkinson’s Disease was somehow brought on by the number of blows he took to the head.

My own opinion is that dementia, similar to many other conditions, is basically down to bad luck. What needs to be done is more research to pinpoint how it takes root, and finding a way to alleviate it. I don’t think blaming sports is necessarily the best way forward.

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The biggest talking point about round four of the Six Nations rugby championship was obviously Scotland’s hammering by England at Twickenham, giving the title to the home side with a game to spare.

England will go to Dublin full of confidence for tomorrow’s match against Ireland, where the Grand Slam and Triple Crown can both be achieved.

Saturday was a day when absolutely nothing went right for the Scots, except perhaps that the second-minute sin-binning of hooker Fraser Brown could easily have been a red card.

Thirteen points were conceded during Brown’s eight minutes off the field, and shortly after he returned the head injury sustained by star player Stuart Hogg effectively put paid to anything the visitors had to offer.

England’s own talisman Owen Farrell, on the other hand, had a game in which he could do no wrong. His performance was miles better than in the previous match against Italy, and surely clinches a Lions squad place if there was ever any doubt.

One awful 80 minutes does not immediately make a good team a bad one, but the manner in which the Scots conceded tries, with English centre Jonathan Joseph running through massive gaps for his hat trick, was difficult to comprehend.

There is no doubt that injuries played a part, as no fewer than four players had a stint at full back. Mark Bennett, who was later forced off injured himself, replaced Hogg which meant Tommy Seymour moving to the last line of defence. That disrupted the team further with scrum half Ali Price having to play on the wing. When yet another injury ended Seymour’s game Duncan Weir took over the full back role, and when Seymour was not allowed back on Finn Russell and Weir swapped positions.

The injury count, though it obviously illustrates the lack of strength in depth of the squad, cannot totally be blamed for the Scottish capitulation, however. The link between the tail of the line-out and the first defender in the back line was completely non-existent, while centres Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, so impressive in the three previous matches, played as if they had never met each other before.

There were barely any positives to be gained from this shambles, save for perhaps that in the territory and possession stakes the Scots almost achieved parity. And they also managed to score more tries against England than anyone else has managed for some time.

France had a fairly routine victory against Italy, while by contrast the Wales v Ireland match at Cardiff the previous evening was a full-on, highly contested encounter. Wales prevailed, ending any hopes the Irish had of securing the title, but it required a tremendous performance to do so.

Winger George North, scrum half Rhys Webb and hooker Ken Owens all pushed their claims for a Lions place, while it was a return to form for some of those who toiled against Scotland a fortnight earlier.

It will take a superhuman show at Murrayfield to salvage any hopes some of the Scottish players have of touring New Zealand this summer. Hogg still makes my Lions selection while Jonny Gray hangs on to his place by the narrowest of threads. Most of the other hopefuls may have already blown their chances.

The team now stands: 15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland); 14 George North (Wales), 13 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), 12 Jonathan Joseph (England); 11 Elliot Daly (England); 10 Jonny Sexton (Ireland), 9 Rhys Webb (Wales); 8 Billy Vunipola (England), 7 Sam Warburton (Wales), 6 CJ Stander (Ireland); 5 Joe Launchbury (England), 4 Jonny Gray (Scotland); 3 Tadhd Furlong (Ireland), 2 Ken Owens (Wales), 1 Joe Marler (England).

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The highlight of our own sporting week was surely the Shetland Ladies hockey team’s superb achievement in reaching the final of the Scottish District Cup.

The semi-final opponents at Aberdeen Sports Village on Sunday were Madras FPs from St Andrews, who by all accounts provided stubborn opposition, and the Shetland players had to perform very well to emerge victorious.

The 3-0 win came courtesy of goals by Nicola Balfour, Rhea Nicolson and player-of-the-match Emma Inkster, but great credit should go to the entire squad who all played their part.

Rather ominously the opposition in the final will come from old rivals Orkney, but no-one should write off this dedicated bunch of players. The team has been steadily improving over the eight years since they first entered the District Cup competition, and their commitment to training at Brae in all weathers has to be applauded.

Coach Brenda Leask, who recently took over the reins, is obviously getting the best out of her charges. And predecessor Jill Hibbert, who spent many years at the helm before stepping down, should also have every reason to feel proud.

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Having dispensed with the services of Mark Warburton, whose appointment was debatable to say the least, Glasgow Rangers have now selected a relatively unknown Portugese coach for the top job at Ibrox.

The most interesting thing about Pedro Caixinha so far seems to be the numerous ways in which people attempt to pronounce his name.

The other side of the old Firm must be rubbing their hands in glee, with news that their traditional opponents have failed to learn from the Paul le Guen fiasco. Remind me: What’s the similarity between Celtic and Theresa May’s Tory government?

About Jim Tait

Jim Tait is news editor at The Shetland Times.

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