Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

The Scottish rugby team begins its autumn series of matches tomorrow with a visit to Cardiff to take on Wales.

Both squads will be minus players from outwith their own leagues, due to the game not falling inside the official three-week international window, while the Scots are further hampered by injuries to captain John Barclay and star full back Stuart Hogg.

The match will be contested for the Doddie Weir Cup, in honour of the former Scotland lock who is battling Motor Neurone Disease.

And following something of a U-turn, both the Scottish and Welsh rugby unions now say they will donate a six-figure sum from the proceeds to Weir’s charity the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation.

Despite their original misgivings, the two authorities should be praised for their decision, even if it took a bit of pressure from senior figures in the game to make them see sense.

Weir is a hugely popular figure and few will forget the thunderous reception when, accompanied by his two sons, he brought the ball on to the pitch at Murrayfield prior to the match against New Zealand last November. He deserves all the support possible.

Tomorrow’s match, despite being outside the Six Nations, should still be hotly contested. In the absence of Hogg and Barclay, English-based Sean Maitland and David Denton, and half-backs Finn Russell and Greg Laidlaw who now ply their trade in France, it gives an opportunity for some youngsters to make their mark.

Those include Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings who have been named in the starting line-up, while Darcy Graham, George Horne and Matt Fagerson may get their chance later in the game.

He won’t be making an appearance on this occasion as he plays for Welsh side Scarlets, but I am particularly interested in seeing Kiwi import Blade Thomson in the next three tests. Hopefully he can make an eye-catching debut to match his name.

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Family, friends, work colleagues and a good number of former footballers gathered on Friday to say farewell to Alastair Johnston from Cunningsburgh.

When I first met him in the early 1970s he was still an excellent player. He had represented Cunningsburgh, Ness United and various Shetland select sides, once making a trip to Faroe with a county squad.

Alastair was probably a wing-half in his early days, but after the change from 2-3-5 to modern formations he usually formed part of the central defence.

He played alongside the late Ian Manson for Ness, while for Cunningsburgh his long-term partner was Douglas Halcrow. They were part of a team which enjoyed many successes in Southern League football, and also which won the Parish Cup in 1971 and 1976.

Cunningsburgh had a number of outstanding players in that era, not least twins Billy and Malcolm Adamson and the late George Adamson, but Alastair was definitely one of the most consistent.

Very similar to his 50-year career at The Shetland Times, he was as dedicated as it was possible to be, someone you could always count on whatever the issue.

As former goalkeeper Peter Farmer said after the funeral last Friday, “I played behind Alistair for 20 years and he was so reliable, the way he read the game.”

Football runs in the family. His younger brother Gordon also played for Cunningsburgh and Ness while another brother Jim represented Shetland in 1961 and 1962. Nephews Raymond and James Aitken and Tony and James Johnston did likewise, with the latter becoming the county’s equal most-capped player.

When the Times started a works league team in the 1980s Alistair was persuaded to come out of retirement and take part in the very first match, a friendly against Bressay. That was where his wife hailed from and I recall him saying that “I better no score a goal or Margaret will nivver spaek ta me again”.

He also came with the works team on a trip to Orkney. He was a bit unsure about that and actually got injured in one of the matches, but as far as I recall he had as good a time as anybody where the after-match entertainment was concerned.

Alastair and Margaret had three daughters, Wendy and twins Susan and Alison. They were all musically gifted while Susan and Alison excelled at hockey.

One of his grand-daughters, Sophie Moar, is a top athlete. At the island games in Jersey three years ago she won a bronze medal in the long jump and was a member of the gold medal-winning 4×100 metres relay squad. Alastair and Margaret were there to see it and I would imagine that was one of his proudest ever moments.

It was a pleasure to work with Alastair for well over 30 years. He was a strong and fit man, and like his older brother Donnie one of the most conscientious employees I have ever seen.
After his retiral in 2006 our paths crossed a few times but unfortunately not all that often. He was always friendly and good company.

The last time I saw Alastair was earlier this year when I visited him and Margaret at Bremmer in Cunningsburgh. It was a very difficult experience as by then the dementia had taken its toll, and he was a shadow of the vibrant figure he had been. He still knew me though, which made it worthwhile.

Alistair was a tremendous guy. I know Margaret, their daughters and grandchildren, and the other family will miss him greatly, and I would like to give my condolence to them all.

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News came this week that Crystal Palace footballer James McArthur had retired from Scotland duty as he believed it was the only way he could “continue to play at the top level”.

There was a time when representing your country was considered the “top level” but sadly that is not a view shared by an increasing number of people in the game.

McArthur, who won the last of his 32 caps a year ago, says he has found it increasingly difficult to manage a number of physical issues. He is only 31.

The Crystal Palace midfielder will continue to turn out for his club in what could be 40-odd games a season. However, he has deemed the half a dozen or so he could be required for his international side to be just too much.

McArthur follows in the wake of a number of Scottish players who have taken this decision, the highest profile being Celtic captain Scott Brown. Others, such as Alan Hutton, are still performing regularly for their clubs.

There were also the recent instances where both Leigh Griffiths, Robert Snodgrass and Kieran Tierney asked to be released from the international squad because of perceived “fatigue”.

No doubt McArthur, like the others mentioned, has his reasons for arriving at this decision. But I cannot help thinking that players from a different era would never have done so.

Some, notably Denis Law and current Scottish boss Alex McLeish, have said they have never retired from their country. They would still be available if required. Attitudes have definitely changed, and not for the better.

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The Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) this week called for the bans to be lifted on the three players who were involved in ball-tampering in South Africa earlier this year.

The association has laid part of the blame for the incident at the door of Cricket Australia, who it has labelled “arrogant and controlling”.

Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were all “contrite men who have suffered enough”, a review carried out by the ACA stated.

Smith, who was captain at the time, and vice-captain Warner are seven months into their one-year bans, while Bancroft, who carried out the cheating, will be eligible to return next month.

While the three may have endured both a degree of humiliation – Smith’s tearful confession was felt by some to be meaningful – and financial penalties, lifting the ban now would send all the wrong signals.

Cheating in sport, however apologetic the protagonists may appear in the aftermath, is an anathema which needs punishing. The bans, which were pretty lenient in any case, should stay.


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