Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

After being tasked with compiling a feature to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the senior football inter-county, it was a pleasure to speak to several of those with first-hand knowledge of the history of the Milne Cup competition.

Geordie Hunter goes the furthest back, having made his debut in the 1953 game. On that occasion a top-notch Shetland team came away from Kirkwall with a 3-1 win courtesy of goals by Sammy Johnson, John “Pisco” Leask and Jim Black.

Hunter also played in the legendary 9-7 victory in Orkney 10 years later when, according to Orkney veteran Eric Hutchison, every shot that Bert Sinclair hit seemed to end up in the back of the net.

Sinclair himself has an amazing memory, and has kept records of some of his incredible achievements. His eight goals in one junior inter-county match and 11 in the next three successive senior counties have already been documented, but his scoring spree in the late 1950s and early 60s is something else.

From 1957 to 1964 he played in just over 200 matches, at junior and senior level including representative games, and I can only find two occasions on which he failed to find the net. If anyone anywhere in the country has a record to beat that I’d be delighted to hear from them.

Sinclair also speaks of his greatest disappointment, being dropped from the county side in 1964, apparently for missing training when he had pretty valid reasons for not turning up.

Another who experienced the highs and lows was Derrick Bradley, who as manager led Shetland to an unprecedented 12 wins in 13 matches, the only blip being a 0-0 draw in Orkney.

Then he was unceremoniously ousted, apparently because a few of the players had had enough of him. Bradley retains some bitterness, but it doesn’t stop him wishing the current side all the best for next weekend.

Len Laurenson and John Johnston recount what it was like to play for both Shetland and Orkney, while James Johnston, Shetland’s equal most-capped player, reflects on 17 caps and how he went out on a high.

But the final word should go to two Orkney men, Hutchison and Morgan Harcus, both of whom are still avid fans of the annual event. As well as the fierce rivalry and hotly contested games, they mention the friendships they formed with their opponents.

That is probably what makes this contest so special. As Harcus says, they like to hate Shetland for an hour and a half, but the rest of the time it is completely different.

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Did the best team really win the World Cup? That question has been asked the length and breadth of the country after France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia on Sunday.

Personally I thought the Croats were very unlucky. The free kick from which the French opened the scoring should never have been given, while the penalty decision to make it 2-1 was debatable. There may just have been enough hand-to-ball movement for the spot kick to have been awarded, but it took several viewings by the referee through VAR before he was convinced.

Although £80 richer as a result of The Shetland Times predictor competition, partly as a result of the scoring exploits of Antoine Griezmann, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a Belgium versus Croatia final. A new name on the Jules Rimet Trophy would only have been good for the game overall.

France were ultimately the strongest team in the competition – they improved and became more resilient as the event wore on – but they were definitely not the most attractive. There was something almost German-like about the winners with their dogged organisation and ability to counter-attack with deadly efficiency.

As for England, I would say far too much has been made of a “new dawn” under manager Gareth Southgate. The English did get further than most people expected, but they came up well short on two occasions against the Belgians and only stuttered past Tunisia and Colombia. Two of the victories, it should be remembered, were against a shambolic Panama and a Sweden team which appeared to have no interest in winning other than by penalties.

After England’s exit Graeme Le Saux – now there’s a twit if ever there was one – was going on about Southgate’s “emotional intelligence” whatever that is.

A group of players came together and played as a team, it has been suggested by both Southgate and the media. But is that the first time in the history of football that this has happened to an English team? I don’t think so.

It happened at the World Cups of 1966, 1970, 1990 and 1998, and also at the European Championship in 1996. I’m sure the players who took part, for instance Bobby Charlton, Terry Butcher or Paul Gascoigne, would stress the team ethic involved.

Speaking of Charlton, the referee for Sunday’s final, Argentinian Nestor Pitana, had the kind of comb-over which the great man himself would have been proud of.

There were many who doubted the wisdom of granting the staging of this year’s event to Russia. But all in all it was a very satisfactory tournament. The organisation was good, the stadiums were tremendous, there was plenty of excitement and some great individual performances, and the introduction of VAR provided several talking points.

My team of the tournament, with a token Englishman in the mix, is: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium); Benjamin Pavard (France), Raphaël Varane (France), Diego Godín (Uruguay), Ivan Strinic (Croatia); Ivan Perisic (Croatia), Luka Modric (Croatia), Jordan Henderson (England), Eden Hazard (Belgium); Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay).

If anyone questions the omission of Kylian Mbappe, I would say the young French player has been somewhat over-hyped. He certainly has pace in abundance, and a touch of skill, but is also petulant in a way that would suggest he is more of a successor to the diving Neymar than the much more honest Lionel Messi.

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Several metro stations in Paris have apparently been temporarily renamed in honour of France becoming world champions.

Among them are Notre-Dame des Champs, which became “Notre Didier Deschamps” and Victor Hugo which was adapted to “Victor Hugo Lloris”.

England quickly cottoned on to the idea as well, with the Southgate tube stop in London being enlarged to “Gareth Southgate”.

Maybe if Shetland wins the Milne Cup 100th centenary match next weekend the top thoroughfare in Scalloway could be changed to “Kevin Main Street”?

Or did the county manager not name enough village players in his squad for that to happen?


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