By JOHN INNES
AFTER disposing of the Highland League’s lowliest outfit Fort William in the first round of the Highland League Challenge Cup, Shetland tomorrow face the daunting task of tackling the team which finished at the opposite end of the table last term in a game which is being billed as the second biggest in the isles’ footballing history.
Ferry operator NorthLink has agreed to delay the Saturday night sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick so that travelling supporters can return home after the game and, with fans of Aberdeen and Rangers likely to make the trip for the two sides’ Scottish Premier League clash at lunchtime on Saturday, there could well be a large number sporting Shetland blue in the crowd at Saturday’s match.
A NorthLink spokesman said they had agreed to a one-hour extension, meaning the check-in will be at 5.30pm and the boat will sail at 6pm. He said passengers should be aware that there will be a knock-on delay on the arrival time in Kirkwall.
Manager John Johnson’s 16-man squad sees the return of Delting midfielder Ross Jamieson and forward Ross MacDougal and, while the back five and goalkeeper are likely to be unchanged from the Fort William game, the duo’s return leaves the manager with a selection dilemma.
The fit-again MacDougal seems likely to be restored to the frontline, probably playing as a lone striker.Johnson may also elect to return to a 4-1-4-1 formation, leaving out one of his three central defenders and possibly bringing in a wide midfielder such as Josie Kay of Spurs. Kay would join James Johnston, Ross Jamieson and Alan Duncan with Karl Williamson fulfilling a deeper midfield rold.
Meanwhile, the game will mean a return to an old haunt for wing-back Leighton Flaws, whose knowledge of the ground and its surroundings could prove valuable to Johnson. Flaws signed for the Aberdeenshire club in the summer of 2003 and was regularly involved in the first team for two seasons before moving back to Shetland to live. He says he has kept in touch with several former team-mates and backroom staff and is looking forward to renewing acquaintances tomorrow.
The 27-year-old says the pitch is a “tight peerie ground”, similar to Fraser Park, and that Shetland can expect a much trickier tie against the champions. “They’ll be a really tough side, good players, boys that have had a lot of experience in the league and a really good manager,” he said.
But Shetland, with several veterans of the 2005 island games victory over Guernsey forming the backbone of the team, are unlikely to be overawed by that prospect and Flaws said: “If we play well, get lucky breaks on the day, it’s a game of football – anything can happen.”
With the venue much handier than Fort William’s ground, Flaws hopes the game will attract a sizeable number of travelling supporters. He says Cove Rangers can usually expect to attract a crowd of around 200-300 for their home games and that a significant visiting contingent at Allan Park would make for a “really good atmosphere”.
There will be few people who begrudge the consistent Cove side their title success last season. They lost only one league match on their own patch, though notably two of their home draws were against sides that were not scared to have a go at them. Forres Mechanics and Nairn County scored some classy goals and both were disappointed to come away sharing six goals. That may be Shetland’s best hope, because if they sit back and admire their class then Cove will destroy them.
They have, in Jamie Watt, the best predator in Highland League football. The former Deveronvale all-time top scorer, who also played with Montrose in the Scottish League and had a spell at Inverurie Locos, is heading for Australia with his girlfriend Susan at Christmas and plans to score as many goals as possible before the year is out.
Martin Johnston, who can play in midfield or up front, is back in his third spell at the club having linked up last term from Brechin after doing well at Peterhead and Elgin. Two other players featuring from the start or as substitutes will be Jerry O’Driscoll, who won back-to-back league medals with former club Keith, and Robbie Henderson, a recruit from Tayport Juniors who has settled in quickly.
Cove are a side who play two wide men at all times, so expect to see a combination of Barrie Stephen, Kevin Webster, Phil Reid and Dean Lawrie. Stephen is a former semi-pro internationalist, Webster was with Arbroath and Reid with Montrose so there is a lot of experience, while Lawrie is a youngster with a great left foot progressing well.
In midfield Clark Bain, another semi-pro, is likely to be battling alongside the evergreen Ritchie Livingston or the underrated Phil McKibben. Skipper Kevin Tindal, a hard-tackling prison officer in his late 30s, is a native of Arbroath who came to the Aberdeen club after a successful spell at Peterhead. He can play in the middle of the park or at full back but is more likely to feature in central defence alongside set piece specialist Eric Watson.
A few new signings were made in the summer but the most notable was the versatile Murray McCulloch. The gym teacher left Locos in the summer having proved he can adapt to a number of roles in a challenging team.
In goals the irrepressible Lee Windrum, still in his early 20s, was formerly on the books of Hearts. He has not hidden the fact he would like to go back to senior in the near future but in the meantime knows he is playing in a winning team.
The Shetland squad to take on Cove at Allan Park tomorrow, kick off 3pm, is: Craig Dinwoodie, Paul Grant; Leighton Flaws, Ross Moncrieff, Richard Arthur, Kevin Teale, Merv Jamieson (captain); Karl Williamson, Alan Duncan, James Johnston, Ross Jamieson, Josie Kay, Scott Morrison; Joe Leask, Ross McDougal, Dominic Mann.