Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

There has been great inter-county success over the past two weekends – first came the double victory by Shetland’s A and B badminton teams and then on Saturday the achievement was equalled by the women’s netball squads.

As touched on a fortnight ago, the badminton line-up was one of contrasting ages. And it was those in their 40s and 50s who showed their younger colleagues the way, with decisive results for Gordon Keith, Colin Grant, Kevin Smith, Anne Wood, Audrey Leask and Zoe Anderson.

How much longer some of them can go on for is obviously unknown, but full marks for continuing to set the high standards for others to aspire to.

The members of Shetland Ladies hockey team, meanwhile, surely deserve more than a medal for their efforts. Having gone all the way to Aberdeen two weeks ago only to discover the pitch was unplayable for their Scottish District Cup quarter-final tie, they travelled down again at the weekend.

This time the trip sadly ended in a bitter disappointment, surrendering a 2-0 lead in normal time including a last-minute equaliser and then losing out in a penalty flick shootout.

As coach Derek Leask has pointed out, it appeared to be one of those games where it was difficult to get over the finishing line. The Edinburgh University opposition had some very strong players and simply never gave up.

Leask also highlighted the amount of preparation put in by the squad and the blow of having the first game cancelled and having to go through all the build-up again. They had learned lessons which would help in this year’s inter-county match in Kirkwall, he said, where they are definitely overdue a win.

The Shetland men’s football team have also endured frustration lately, but at least they didn’t travel to the mainland before their fixture against St Duthus in the Jock Mackay Memorial Cup was called off twice.

On the first occasion a frozen park at Tain was the reason, then a fortnight ago a cancellation of the Friday night NorthLink sailing put paid to their hopes. The tie has now been rescheduled for a week tomorrow, and if the team is successful they will soon be making another trip away for a semi-final.

A couple of months ago Shetland appeared to be strong favourites against St Duthus, but a trio of impressive results including one against North Caledonian League leaders Golspie have lifted the Ross-shire side off the bottom of the table.

St Duthus’s most recent result, however, was a 2-1 defeat at the weekend by Orkney, who are now neck and neck with Golspie in the race for the title. That should at least give some idea of their current form, and next weekend’s clash will be far from easy.

Competing in mainland-based team competition s is always going to be fraught with difficulties, especially if they are held during the winter months. The Shetland men’s rugby and women’s hockey squads have both found this out to their cost, and now the footballers are having to cope with the problem.

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It was a mixed start for Scottish international football manager Alex McLeish as his new-look side lost at home by a single goal to Costa Rica but recovered to win in Hungary by the same score.

Few positives, save for the continuing excellence of left back Andrew Robertson and a promising debut by Aberdeen central defender Scott McKenna, could have been gleaned from the defeat last Friday.

The new midfield trio of Scott McTominay, Kevin MacDonald and Tom Cairney was largely disappointing, and that part of the team only improved with the second-half introduction of Celtic pair Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor and John McGinn of Hibs.

McTominay is obviously going to be around for some time to come but the Fulham pairing of MacDonald and Cairney will do well to survive the cut when the next round of matches comes around.

While the Costa Rica result was obviously a setback, it should be remembered that the opposition have come a long way from the side which shocked the Scots at the 1990 World Cup. They have qualified for three tournaments since and topped a group including England, Italy and Uruguay four years ago in Brazil, only losing to Holland on penalties in the quarter-final.

Tueday’s win in Budapest was no great spectacle either, but it was a win the Scots deserved and a performance which will have given McLeish more in the way of optimism for the future.

Armstrong, Callum McGregor and McGinn all did their bit in a much better midfield showing, while man-of-the-match McKenna, Robertson and debutant Jack Hendry were resolute in defence. Keeper Alan McGregor also showed why he is number one in the absence of Craig Gordon with two or three vital saves.

McGregor certainly saved Charlie Mulgrew’s blushes after he gave the ball away on the edge of his own box, while the captain’s missed penalty in the first half made it an evening for him to forget.

Personally I would ditch Mulgrew. While he can appear comfortable with the ball going forward, defensively he has never really seemed up to the task. Playing as he does in the English third tier with Blackburn Rovers, it is an enormous step up to international football.

It is obvious why Gordon Strachan persisted with Mulgrew during the last couple of campaigns, with the dearth of central defenders being what it was. But with the emergence of McKenna, Hendry, Kieran Tierney and the likes of John Souttar and Ross McCrorie waiting in the wings the future looks far more hopeful.

Wide players are also in abundance with James Forrest, Ryan Fraser, Matt Ritchie and a few others, but it is in the central striking position that someone really needs to emerge. The currently injured Leigh Griffiths has shown what he can do, but after that the options are few.

Although Matt Phillips got the vital goal on Tuesday I’m not sure he is the answer, and it is hardly likely that the ungainly style of Olly McBurnie will strike fear into many experienced international defenders.

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The Scottish rugby team finishing third in the Six Nations championship for the second year in a row must be seen as a step forward, especially as Gregor Townsend’s men have beaten all the other five teams in the past two campaigns.

The victory at Murrayfield over England was obviously the highlight this year, but the defeat in Dublin to Grand Slam champions Ireland was also an important pointer for the future. The Scots did not deserve to lose by 20 points – if they had taken gilt-edged chances and not gifted the Irish a soft try the score would have been a much truer reflection on the performance.

The downsides were obviously the poor defeat in Wales during the opening weekend and the lacklustre showing in the last match against Italy. Although they battled back to eventually triumph in Rome the home side will no doubt see it as a match they should have won.

I remain baffled by the way the Italians always seem to raise their game against Scotland, especially at home, and put in far less effort when taking on the other four nations. It is a psychological factor they need to overcome otherwise they will always be wooden spoon favourites.

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England’s dismal display in the first test against New Zealand has been completely overshadowed by the big cricket story of the week – the ball-tampering antics of the Australians during their defeat to South Africa.

Captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner have sensibly been banned for a year and Warner’s fellow opener Cameron Bancroft, the relative rookie who carried out the illegal act, will miss the next nine months.

Coach Darren Lehmann, who protested to know nothing about the tactics, has insisted he will not resign and this week put out a statement in which he suggested his team’s aggresive style of play may have to change. Talking about stating the obvious.

Smith, who is rated the world’s number one batsman, could well come back when his ban is complete but I doubt whether he will ever lead the side again. His reputation is surely too tarnished for that.

And personally I hope that the ridiculous comparisons made with the great Donald Bradman are now well and truly put to bed. The arrogant Smith should never have been mentioned in the same breath as “The Don”.


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