The mastermind behind Shetland football’s finest hour, when the senior team claimed island games gold medal glory on home soil, has agreed to take charge of the men’s team on a permanent basis.
Niall Bristow had already returned to the fold last year, taking temporary charge of the side as it held onto the Milne Cup with a 1-0 win over Orkney in July. A more lasting appointment was confirmed following a Shetland Football Association meeting last Thursday night.
With the notion of competing in the Bermuda island games next year looking like a non-starter, Bristow’s challenge will be building a squad capable of holding its own in the 2015 games in Jersey. By then it will be a full decade since the famous 2-0 victory over Guernsey in front of thousands at Gilbertson Park.
He will set to work on fashioning a team from a new generation of players on a local scene he views as having “greater strength in depth” than during his previous stint between 2004 and 2006. That theory is perhaps borne out by five different senior teams having claimed a piece of silverware last season.
“The standard locally is very good,” he said. “There’s a real strength and depth there. Based on what I saw last season it was very difficult to come down to the final 16 for the county. Back in 2005 there maybe wasn’t quite that depth – though we had a magnificent team whose achievements speak for themselves, it was easier to pick the 20 back then.”
The Lerwick paramedic, still only in his mid-40s, told this newspaper: “Our target is the 2015 games. Everything we do from now on will be geared towards that. It’s absolutely vital to go away and play very strong opposition. We’ll look to play against Highland League opposition, and perhaps even further afield.”
SFA president Brian Duncan said the new-look committee was chuffed to bits at having Bristow in charge once more.
“We’re delighted to have Niall back at the helm, because his track record is second to none – from the island games to the inter county,” Duncan told The Shetland Times. “We’re delighted to have him in place with a plan to build towards 2015.”
Consensus among the committee is that a men’s squad making the lengthy transatlantic journey to Bermuda is “highly unlikely”, the president said. That means Shetland will only have competed in one of the four island games competitions since its 2005 success. The footballers skipped Rhodes in 2007 due to concerns about the stifling heat, while the team was managerless prior to the Isle of Wight last year. Before that the team had missed only one of the biennial games events dating back to 1989.
Duncan said things had “taken a step backwards” in terms of playing matches outwith the islands in the past couple of years, and there was a desire for that to change under Bristow.
Attention will initially focus on arranging games against high quality opposition on the Scottish Mainland.
“The idea is to give the squad the opportunity to gel as a team and play a higher calibre of opposition rather than just one game against Orkney, which is great but it’s not going to improve the quality of the play,” he said.
Bristow intends to let the new season bed in before naming a training squad ahead of July’s inter-county clash in Kirkwall. He hopes the players will get a chance to test themselves against a Scottish amateur select team, due to come north for Ness United’s 60th anniversary celebrations this summer, and may look at organising further games at the season’s end.
His feeling is that realistically only four of the talented 2005 team – Leighton Flaws, Merv Jamieson, James Johnston and Karl Williamson, each just over the age of 30 – remain in contention.
With eight new caps last year and a squad average age of around 22, Bristow says he wants to ensure the new-look side plays football “in the right way”. Last year’s inter-county match winner James Aitken is just one of a talented crop of Celtic youngsters, while Whalsay’s conveyor belt of skillful players shows few signs of slowing up.
“Certainly of the boys that were involved last year, there are a number of teenagers who while they’re away and studying are going to be exposed to harder and harder football – that can only benefit Shetland football,” Bristow said.
He added he could not have committed to the job without the support of his right-hand man, Ian Irvine, coaches Peter Peterson, Billy Forsyth and Russell Gair and physio Ian Manning, each of whom does “a power of work” in the background.