Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

Best wishes to the Shetland football team in this weekend’s Jock MacKay Memorial Cup final against Thurso, which will unfortunately see the latter side with home advantage.

It would have made infinite sense to have played the game in Orkney, which was originally the plan. But apparently there are no grass pitches available there yet and the artificial turf surface is not to the opponents’ liking.

Although this is the first time Shetland have made a final in North Caledonian League football, the presence of the side in knockout competitions has not exactly been welcomed with open arms.

Rumour has it that established teams, some from much smaller towns than Lerwick, are not particularly keen on the involvement of what is basically a county select.

That would seem slightly strange, given that Orkney’s county side are now competing in the North Caledonian League itself, and only until recently har­boured strong hopes of winning.

But back to tomorrow’s final, which will be staged at St George’s Park in Thurso, more commonly known as “The Dammies”.

The opponents have not had a good fortnight of it, losing heavily to Golspie Sutherland in the league at the weekend and being beaten on penalties by Orkney a fortnight ago in the semi-final of a seperate knockout competition.

They will no doubt be fired up with a point to prove tomorrow, but a victory should not beyond Shetland providing the players acquit themselves well.

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Highland League champions elect Brora Rangers are making the news just now, for the wrong reasons.

With the pyramid system now in place in Scottish football, winning their league would mean a play-off with Lowland League champions Edinburgh City, followed by another shoot-out against Montrose, likely to finish bottom of SPFL league two.

Brora are apparently reluctant to move into a higher grade, because of massive travel costs involved in regularly competing against central belt teams.

If Brora were like most Highland League sides this would be understandable, but when you consider they are being bankrolled by an oil executive, and have signed up several former senior professionals, it becomes more difficult to accept.

There seems little point in regularly buying your way to the Highland League title, to the detriment of the other northern sides in­volved, and yet have no ambition when it comes to bigger things.

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Staying with football, the current fortunes of the national side appear to be on the up.

To have Scotland, at the halfway stage of qualification for next year’s European Champion­ships, sitting on 10 points, is probably as good as it could be.

Considering the strength of the group, three home wins, an away draw against Poland and a narrow away defeat to world champions Germany, is no mean achievement.

Sunday’s 6-1 victory over Gibraltar, although obviously comfortable in the end, was not without the heart-stopping moments you come to expect from the Scots.

Manager Gordon Strachan’s decision to go into the match with a back three including one central defender, was the daftest moment so far in his otherwise excellent record.

At least Strachan realised his folly and changed things at half-time, and also accepted that he had got it wrong, not believing that Gibraltar would be capable of creating any chances. A manager who admits his errors is a bigger man than those who do not, as we have seen in the past with some of Strachan’s predecessors. Who can forget Craig Levein and his famous 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic?

There seems a settled look about the squad now, particularly in midfield, an area which has the strongest depth in at least a decade. When the likes of Scott Arfield, George Boyd, Graham Dorrans, Charlie Adam, Craig Bryson and Ryan Jack cannot even make the pool while the injured Robert Snodgrass and Charlie Mulgrew are yet to return that speaks for itself.

It was surprising, however, that Strachan chose to blood Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie, a player who had never previously stepped foot north of the border, against both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Ritchie looked somewhat out of his depth at this level, and to throw him in before Celtic’s James Forrest was rather perplexing.

June’s match against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin is of huge importance for both sides. If the Irish fail to win they will be five points behind Scotland in the race for third place. But a victory for the Scots and another against Poland at Hampden Park later in the year, and the Tartan Army will be dreaming once again.

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While the national football team is doing well, sadly the same cannot be said of their rugby counterparts.

While they enjoyed some misfortune in their first three matches, which with a bit more luck could all have been won, Scotland were brought firmly down to earth with a bang in the final two Six Nations encounters.

First they were defeated by England at Twickenham, in a match where the closeness of the score flattered the Scots. Then they were trounced by Ireland at home, where at times the old cliche “men against boys” was sadly correct.

Injuries, lack of discipline, a much too high penalty count, giving away turnover ball, bad refereeing, unlucky yellow cards, silly substitutions … the list of where it all went wrong is a long one.

Hopefully coach Vern Cotter can turn things around again in time for the World Cup this year. There were signs last autumn that Scotland were beginning to get it right at last, and surely that cannot all have gone out the window.

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Congratulations to the Anderson High School netball squad, who defeated Glasgow-based Hollyrood 44-21 in the final of the Open Silver Scottish Schools Cup last month.

The AHS netball girls have done Shetland proud over the past few years, and they are just the latest from a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of talent, which shows no signs of slowing up.


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