Talking Sport . . . with Jim Tait

The past fortnight has seen some memorable performances by our sports competitors, with the Shetland Ladies hockey team making the headlines this week for reaching the semi-finals of the Scottish District Cup for the fifth year in a row – a great achievement.

The previous week the Shetland netball players made it through to the knockout stages of their Scottish Cup, seeing off opposition from Edinburgh and Glasgow in the qualifying rounds.

The Shetland men’s rugby team finally gained their first victory of the season in the BT Caledonia Division 2 North (East) League and face a Regional Bowl semi-final tie away against either Ellon or Moray next weekend.

The women’s rugby team, meanwhile, on an unbeaten run so far this season in the BT North League, host Orkney on Sunday in a double-header for both league and inter-county.

Individual accomplishments have been rarer during the past few months but catching the eye this past weekend was Whalsay distance runner Michelle Sandison.

She was part of a three-woman Scottish team which won gold in the British and Irish Masters Cross Country International in Glasgow, showing a clean pair of heels to opposition from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Michelle, who first leapt into the spotlight with her memorable gold-medal winning run in the 10,000 metres at the 2005 Island Games in Shetland, also won an individual bronze at the Glasgow event.

Her latest success came too late for consideration in this year’s Shetland Sports Awards but Michelle, who has previously represented Scotland at under-23 and senior levels, has showed that she is still in peak condition.

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While there have been plenty of calls from various quarters for Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan to resign, I continue to have mixed feelings over his future.

Strachan has not done well – that is undeniable – but whether anyone else coming in right now to replace him would do much better is extremely doubtful. Could Alex McLeish, who seems to be the man most fans want, really improve the situation?

There is reasonable strength in depth in certain positions. Goalkeeper, left back, midfield and wide positions are not so problematic. But the dearth of quality both in central defence and up front means the manager’s job is almost an impossible one. He is trying to complete a finished article when he simply does not have the raw materials to work with.

Having said that, many of Strachan’s team selections remain mystifying. And he is rarely asked to explain them by Scottish media representatives who appear afraid that he takes them to task over their line of questioning.

The changes made for Friday’s match against England were a case in point. While there was no doubt that the team needed freshening up after the previous shambles in Slovakia, altering no fewer than four of the defensive formation was surely over the top.

Only one modification was necessary, finding a replacement for the injured Kieran Tierney. With Andrew Robertson also injured Strachan was forced to bring in either Rangers full back Lee Wallace or Swansea youngster Stephen Kingsley. He chose the more experienced player and Wallace did not let anyone down.

In central defence most people either expected no change, or possibly Grant Hanley, who played in the previous game as if he had lead in his boots, to make way for Christophe Berra. Instead Strachan opted to leave Hanley in place and drop Russell Martin, who was probably less culpable against the Slovaks.

The manager also decided to replace keeper David Marshall, who made several fine saves and could not be blamed for any of the goals in the last game. He brought in Craig Gordon to start his first international in almost seven years.

At right back Strachan left out the promising Hearts player Calum Paterson and elected to field Ikechi Anya out of position, most likely because of his pace.

The manager, as far as I am aware, has not been asked to qualify any of these four changes. I am pretty sure if the England boss, whether it be Gareth Southgate or anyone else, had altered the majority of his defence he would be bombarded with questions.

In midfield Scott Brown, who reversed his previous decision to retire from international duty, was snapping into tackles at Wembley from the outset and displayed his customary effort for the full 90 minutes.

But whether the team can accommodate both Brown and Darren Fletcher remains questionable. Personally I would have left Fletcher out, but having made him captain after Brown’s initial retiral decision Strachan presumably felt he had to retain him in the side.

In the wider midfield positions there are plenty of options. Robert Snodgrass, Matt Ritchie, James Forrest and Oliver Burke can all offer quality. Even Matt Phillips, who didn’t even make the squad, is an option.

The striking roles, whether you play a lone attacker or two up front, are much more difficult. Celtic’s Lee Griffiths got the nod against England, and messed up the single chance he got in front of goal by taking a panic-induced shot instead of playing in Snodgrass.

I remain unconvinced whether Griffiths is really good enough to cut it at this level. Lee Martin and Steven Fletcher have both been tried and come up short, Steven Naismith appears to be out of favour with Strachan at the moment, and Jordan Rhodes and Ross McCormack, both of whom may well be a better option, were not in the squad either.

Strachan is apparently on holiday in Portugal at the moment, reputed to be “considering his future”. People who know him best maintain that he is not a quitter but someone who will see the job through.

There is no indication either that McLeish would be willing to take over. Others mentioned such as David Moyes, Derek McInnes and Michael O’Neil are already in jobs.

Another option could be to go for a foreign manager, with Lars Lagerback, who did well with Iceland at this year’s European Championships, having been referenced.

Personally I don’t think that would be the best way forward. Remember Berti Vogts? England and the Republic of Ireland have also tried it with limited or no success.

I reckon an international manager should hail from the country he represents. And Strachan should probably be given the remainder of this campaign, providing he explains his selections better. He often bleats on about the importance of the fans, and that long-suffering bunch surely deserve better.

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The Scottish rugby team’s 23-22 defeat against Australia on Saturday was once again hard to stomach in that the team again conceded crucial late points, even when the visitors were reduced to 14 men.

But whereas last year’s world cup quarter-final heartache came about directly as a result of a shocking refereeing decision, this time round only the players themselves were culpable.

There is much to admire about the current Scottish side, with an unbelievable strength in depth in certain areas. At centre the emergence of Huw Jones adds to an already difficult choice with Duncan Taylor, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Matt Scott all in the frame.

The performance of the Scottish back row, which played virtually the entire match with three predominalty open-side flankers in John Hardie, John Barclay and Hamish Watson, was sensational. It is difficult to envisage bigger players such as Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss, David Denton, when they are injury free again, doing any better.

I know this has all been said previously and ultimately found wanting, but there are signs once more that the Northern Hemisphere sides are more than a match for their southern counterparts.

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand and England’s demolition of South Africa, on the back of their series victory in Australia, are proof again of a potential power-shift. Providing the Scots can see off Argentina tomorrow, which still remains a big if, that trend will continue.


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