Established hockey needs more than one park

In last week’s Readers’ Views section some very important points were raised by Jill Hibbert about the future of hockey in the isles.

Her letter was sparked off by Shetland Football Association president Irvine Burgess’ call for more synthetic pitches for his own sport.

While not wishing to cause any conflict between hockey and football, by far the two most popular outdoor team pursuits in Shetland since they were introduced, Hibbert cites the unfairness which exists on provision.

There is a lot of ignorance over hockey, with many people continually asking why the game cannot be played on grass, so some perspective is perhaps required here.

To bring a little history to bear, artificial turf began to be used for hockey back in the early 1970s. The sport gained a considerable amount of speed and also new tactics and techniques, ruling traditional grass pitches unplayable for the most part.

At world level the change ended Indian and Pakistani domination because synthetic surfaces were too expensive, compared to wealthier countries, and for the last 40 years teams such as Australia, Holland and Germany have dominated at the Olympics.

Artificial pitches are now mandatory for all international tournaments and most national competitions. Here the annual inter-county between Shetland and Orkney has been staged at Brae since 1997, when The Shetland Times reported that the association had “decided to move with the times” and play on synthetic turf.

The sand-based fibres of the Brae surface are ideal for hockey but now deemed unsuitable for football, while the more grass-like artificial pitch at Harbison Park in Whalsay is the opposite.

Having just the one playable surface for hockey in Shetland has undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the sport. While the senior league still comprises half a dozen teams it has proved more and more difficult to keep a junior set-up going, with lack of transport a continual obstacle.

That Shetland managed to defeat Orkney in the junior inter-county match two years ago was nothing short of amazing, considering the struggle to attract young players into the sport.

According to Hibbert there are now around 90 seniors playing the game in the isles, along with only 30 juniors, while about 3,000 are currently involved in football.

Last week’s news that Shetland Charitable Trust is making drastic cuts to the amount of money it gives to Shetland Recreational Trust, a shortsighted move if ever there was one, will not exactly fill the hockey fraternity with hope.

But considering the amount of cash which has gone into other sports here, some more minority than hockey, and with a new Anderson High School earmarked for Clickimin, surely some kind of forward thinking is needed.

We have been told of some kind of “indoor facility” being planned south of the Clickimin Centre. While that would be welcome, a much more sensible move would be the establishment of an artificial hockey pitch in Lerwick.

If the game is to continue it is high time the limitations currently placed on the stalwarts who keep it going were properly recognised.

The situation at Clickimin, which has an overall space for six pitches, needs to be looked at. The area south of the centre could easily be transformed with synthetic surfaces for both football and hockey.

And the idea of sticking a landing pad in the middle of the juvenile pitches, which according to the council is not too small but needs to be bigger? Don’t get me started!

Good luck to Claire

To hear that runner Claire Wilson will once again be competing for Shetland at the forthcoming island games in Jersey is excellent news.

No disrespect to swimmer Tracey Conroy, who stood at the top of the rostrum in Guernsey in 1987, but to most people Shetland’s original golden girl was Wilson.

While her athletics colleague Emma Leask and swimmer Andrea Strachan have made huge strides in the respective disciplines in recent years, Wilson was the one who first grabbed the headlines.

It was at the Isle of Man in 2001 that she claimed her first medal, a silver in the 800 metres.

Two years later, aged 19, she came into her own at Guernsey, winning a gold in the 1,500 metres and bronze in the 800 metres. It was a privilege to witness both performances.

However, my own abiding memory of that 2003 games was not in the individual events, but the 4×400 metres women’s relay.

Having struggled with a neck injury while claiming her bronze in the 800 metres earlier in the day, Wilson took the anchor role in a quartet also including Gayle Henry, Marie Stemp and Emily Garrick.

Shetland were in the bronze medal position when she took over on the final leg, about 15 metres behind the second-placed runner from Jersey.

With about 200 metres to go Wilson was up to her shoulder, but pulling back the deficit had proved too much and she had to be content with another bronze.

The delight on the faces of the four is something I will always remember, and the way they decimated the county record, lowering it by almost eight seconds, was amazing.

When Shetland staged the games in 2005, after overcoming some sponsorship worries, Wilson achieved a golden double in both the 800 and 1,500 metres. Two years later in Rhodes it was gold again in the 1,500 and silver in the 800.

By that time she was living in Jersey, and she was competing for the Channel Islands team four years ago, taking another two silvers at the longer distances along with a gold in the 4×400 metres relay.

It’s great to have you back Claire. Good luck in the steeplechase.

Crucial games to come

The Scottish international football team is still on course for European Championship qualification, or a least a play-off spot, following a battling draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Saturday’s result had an element of luck attached, with the equaliser coming when Shaun Maloney’s shot took a deflection off Irish defender John O’Shea, but on the basis of what happened before a share of the points was probably about right.

Firstly the linesman failed to pick up an offside Jon Walters when he put the home side in front. Then the Italian referee flashed a yellow card at Irish midfielder James McCarthy for sticking an elbow in the face of Russell Martin when most have agreed a sending off would have been the just decision.

Scottish manager Gordon Strachan was his usual tongue-in-cheek self after the match, stating that the referee had been “brilliant”.

Whatever you think of Strachan no-one could label him predictable, and his choice of side for such an important match was baffling.

Hardly anyone would have expected Craig Forsyth to be pitched in at left back before the experienced Steven Whittaker or the vastly more talented Andy Robertson. Fielding Charlie Mulgrew in central defence, although maybe not so bizarre, was another eyebrow-raising move.

Strachan’s decision to include Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie at the expense of Tartan Army favourite Ikechi Anya was the third surprise, but the manager at least realised his error at half-time and admitted as much to reporters later. That he held his hand up to a mistake is to Strachan’s great credit.

To gain four points from two encounters with the Irish would probably be taken by most fans before this campaign began. The Republic side, although very much one-dimensional when it comes to attacking permutations, is full of aggression and capable of more than equalling the Scots at their own game.

The next two matches are now vital, a tricky visit to Georgia followed by a home encounter with Poland which could well decide the second automatic qualifier.

The Scots could easily win both, but they could just as well emerge pointless. After all, it was a trip to Tblisi in 2007 which ended Euro qualification hopes that time around. A Georgian side including three teenagers, one a third-choice goalkeeper at his club, won 2-0.

Surely history will not be allowed to repeat itself. The Scottish side may be no better technically than they were eight years ago, but they have a belief which they did not possess then. That again is down to Strachan and his coaching team.


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