WATCH: Blues prepare to face-off against gold medal winning Guernsey
“It’s going to be tough,” says Shetland football coach Niall Bristow as he rallies his troops for a demanding fixture list in Gotland.
Shetland face Saaremaa, Åland and Guernsey in the group stages, with the latter going on to win the gold medal two years ago in Jersey.
Bristow’s men finished fourth in 2015, and he returns as coach after a brief spell out of the hotseat.
Only eight of the players who took to the field in the Channel Islands remain, though the 20-strong squad (following a few final changes) includes at least one player from all nine of the A-league teams.
Youth and experience make up Bristow and Kevin Main’s squad, with Leighton Flaws, James Aitken and Joel Bradley among the older heads in the group.
Fitness has been a priority – with Niall’s daughter Katie ensuring the lads swap their boots for running trainers to put in the miles away from the turf.
Mal Smith is travelling as the team chef to make sure they’re eating the correct grub between games, which will come thick and fast.
All three group matches are being played back to back, the first against Saaremaa on Sunday.
“It’s a great experience and a great occasion,” said Bristow.
“The boys will love it, without doubt. Yes we know it’s going to be tough, we’ve gotten a pretty tough group to work in this time around. Guernsey will be massive favourites to win the gold, never mind just win our group.
“It’s a great experience and that’s what you want to be in as a manager. You want to be in and seeing if you can outwit your opponent, and is there somewhere you can get an advantage.
“The boys will love it and they will certainly do themselves, they will do their familes, and do Shetland proud.”
Preparations have been going well, he said, as the squad was busy practising drills at Seafield.
He admitted there had been some challenges in preparing the squad for action in Gotland.
“I can’t lie it’s been a wee bit tougher”, said the Blues boss, noting a variety of reasons, including players going to college and university, and suffering more injuries than previous years.
“One thing’s for sure, the dedication and effort of the boys has been first class.
“We’re indebted to these lads, they’ve made a massive commitment in terms of time, effort and finance, just to make sure Shetland had a team going to the football competition.
“It’s not been easy in that respect.
“A number of other lads, chose because it’s amateur football, not to be involved, but I’m just delighted with these boys.
“There’s a good mix; people like Leighton, Joel, Richard [Arthur], have been around a bit, James [Aitken] has been there last time around and there’s some exciting new talents coming around this time too.
“Sam Maver is certainly one to watch, there’s just some really good players.”
Unlike the previous island games Shetland have been unable to get a solid run of competitive matches under their belt in preparation.
Bristow, however feels the winter fitness work should stand them in good stead.
“What we learnt two years ago is that if we take each game as it comes and we get a solid start, and confidence is high, then we really can go on.
“There’s no doubt that the team spirit was massive. The team spirit is brilliant again.”
(All kick-offs are given in Gotland time, an hour ahead of the UK)
Group stage – Sunday: Saaremaa v Shetland at Hemse, 5pm; Monday: Shetland v Guernsey at Stenkyrka, 5pm; Tuesday: Åland vs Shetland Islands at Gutavallen, 8pm.
Shetland are in Group C and if they finish top they will play a semi-final against the winner of Group D on Thursday at 1pm. If they are not in that match, placings games are also played on Thursday. The medal matches will be played on Friday 30th June.