By NEIL RIDDELL
Shetland’s brief involvement in the Highland League Challenge Cup has come to an end after the organisation which runs the competition informed the Shetland Football Association (SFA) of plans to restructure football in the Highlands.
The Highland Football League wrote to the SFA to thank them for their past involvement – which amounted to two games in last season’s competition – but saying the restructuring would see the number of teams in the league rise from 15 to 18, meaning Shetland’s footballers’ participation in the cup competition will no longer be considered.
Last year Shetland thumped lowly Fort William 5-0 in their first round match before going down 6-2 to Cove Rangers in the following round and they had hoped to participate again this year as they seek to maintain a regular programme of competitive action outwith the isles.
The news came as Shetland set off for a pre-season trip to Fife in preparation for their return to Island Games action in June.
The team will take on junior league side Oakley United at Blairwood Park at 2pm tomorrow, before facing Montrose Reserves at Links Park on Sunday at 12.30pm in what will be new manager John Jamieson’s first games in charge of the county side after he took up the reins from John Johnson at the end of last summer.
It will be the team’s first action since exiting the Challenge Cup last August and, although he was “very disappointed” by news that their involvement in the competition will cease, Jamieson said the team were eager to get some much-needed match practice after a gruelling training programme during the harsh winter months.
The weather on the mainland has also meant finding suitable opposition to be challenging because of a major fixtures backlog in leagues at several different levels. “It’s been a struggle trying to get games, the season is so far behind on the mainland with the bad weather, so we’ve had to go as far down as Fife,” said Jamieson.
Oakley is a small town just west of Dunfermline and their side plays in the East of Scotland league, while the Montrose first string play in the fourth tier of Scottish football.
“I’m looking forward to it, we’ve been training hard during the winter, the boys have put in a lot of effort not in the best weather, but you need games and a goal to go for – everybody’s up for the trip,” said Jamieson. “The teams are of unknown quantity to us, but many [of the Montrose players] have first team experience so it’ll be a really good test.”
Jamieson this week paid tribute to the work of fitness coach Russell Gair, who has joined to work alongside him and assistant manager Peter Peterson, in getting the team into shape. Indeed, his work has been so successful to date that even the squad’s leading food connoisseur, goalkeeper Craig Dinwoodie, is said to be looking trim. “He has done a lot of good stuff, getting them to reduce their body fat, eat the right things and given them a good focus,” said the manager.
Looking ahead, a significant fund-raising effort ahead of the trip to Åland in June has seen the squad raise just over £8,000 in the past few months and the possibility of another visit south before the start of the local season is still being considered, while the Western Isles will be visiting for a rescheduled fixture in late April.
Although there are a few players injured or unavailable, a squad of players is heading off on the boat tonight including two new faces, Lerwick Spurs’ centre-back Lewis Kay and Ness midfielder Tom Smith, to meet up with two or three of their counterparts currently studying on the mainland.
But Jamieson will have to plan for the 2009 season without Delting’s prolific winger Stuart Hay, who has been a key player for club and county for many years, as he underwent a knee operation in November and is unlikely to be fit again before the autumn.
The Shetland squad to face Oakley United and Montrose Reserves will be: Craig Dinwoodie (Delting), Eric Peterson (Ness United); Leighton Flaws, Merv Jamieson (Delting), Lewis Kay (Lerwick Spurs), Richard Arthur, Karl Williamson (Whalsay); Tom Smith (Ness United), James Johnston, Josie Kay (Lerwick Spurs), Scott Morrison (Lerwick Thistle), Duncan Anderson (Whitedale), Alan Duncan (Delting); Ross MacDougal (Delting), Joe Leask (Lerwick Celtic), Gary Burns (Scalloway).