Shinty still divided over league revamp

Last Friday Free Press journalist KEITH MACKENZIE — in his role as secretary of Skye Camanachd — joined other volunteers from clubs throughout Scotland in Fort William as shinty’s governing body held a special general meeting on controversial league reconstruction. In the end the island club’s motion to have the revamp overturned was backed by a majority of clubs — but the proposals failed to reach the 75 per cent threshold stipulated by the association. The reconstruction now looks set to go ahead, but here Keith looks back at some of the issues.

Debate over the competition structure of shinty is nothing new. In fact, it could be argued that the roots of the current wrangle – as to whether this deeply amateur game can sustain national competition at its summit – can be traced back over three decades.

In 1983 the game’s governing body took what was then a bold step of “opening up” the sport’s most coveted prize, the Camanachd Cup. For the previous 90 or so years the competition had been run on a geographical basis within a format that ensured every final would involve one team from the south and another from the north. Thirty years on, and no one has dared alter the game’s blue riband competition again.

Yet in shinty, geographical boundaries — the north-south dividing line being at Ballachulish — remain significant. It took a further 12 years for the “national” principle to be applied to a league structure when, in 1995, the first-ever premier division was launched. It contained eight teams, although the change was not universally welcomed and the south’s most successful club Kyles Athletic initially refused to take part.

By way of contrast, Skye Camanachd — despite their far-flung location — had been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the premier league plan. The island club was, and still is, a believer in the concept that regular elite competition should be based on merit rather than geography. Yet that idea is one that has always carried qualifications.

As the sport was to find out, problems began to arise when the association introduced a second national tier in 1999. National division one — in which Skye Camanachd competed and won — would last six seasons before being scrapped in 2006. A year later the premier league was expanded to 10 teams, although discontent over the competition structure below it has never really gone away.

Inevitably, as with any set-up where an area league feeds into a national one, the regional divisions have sometimes lacked equilibrium. While one team from each regional division went up every year, there was no guarantee they would automatically be replaced by another coming down. And with reserve teams understandably keen not to compete alongside senior sides, this year the sport arrived at the situation where the north first division — which also lost Lochcarron — contained only six teams.

In the south, meanwhile, the long-standing concern has been that their first division is simply not of a high enough standard to equip clubs for the rigours of premier league shinty.

With these ideas in mind the association’s board of directors gave a working group the remit of coming up with a revamped competition structure ahead of the 2014 season.

In February, the group presented their conclusions to the board, and with that the green light was given for the new set-up — two national leagues of eight, with three north and two south divisions (all of them a mix of reserve and senior teams) below that.

Almost immediately — and with many unaware the board were able to rubber-stamp the plans without balloting member clubs — hostility became apparent.

From the premier league, historic rivals Kyles, Newtonmore and Kingussie joined forces as they feared a very competitive top flight would lose its lustre if reduced in number. A division below them, Skye Camanachd became the most outspoken voice against plans for a national first division.

Skye’s opposition is based on their previous experience. The club found regular trips, often at the height of summer, to places like Bute, Tighnabruaich, Dalmally and Glasgow to be a logistical and financial drain. Despite the club boasting excellent facilities, and a youth structure arguably among the best in Scotland, in their latter years in national one Skye found it difficult to field a strong 12, or even to find a management team to take the squad.

Having learned that they were far from alone in their concerns, Skye appealed to the association’s board to have league reconstruction settled by a vote at the governing body’s annual general meeting in April. This request was knocked back, and Skye — with the support of the high-profile premier league trio and others — were forced to call for the special general meeting which eventually took place last Friday night.

Crucially, the association — having consulted their solicitors — were able to stipulate, under company law, that overturning a pre-existing board decision by virtue of a special general meeting would require a 75 per cent majority.

This ensured that Skye always faced an uphill struggle to have the revamp shelved — although to describe the opposition as “vexatious”, as Camanachd Association communications director Donald Stewart did, is surely something of an insult to the well-run member clubs who simply wanted to express their views.

As it transpired 22 votes were cast in support of Skye’s motion which asked that the board’s decision to adopt a national division for the 2014 season be withdrawn and the current league model, which includes a 10-team premiership with its existing system of promotion and relegation, be retained. Eighteen voted against, ensuring that while the club won the battle, Skye Camanachd and their supporters had lost the war.

On the night, Camanachd Association directors insisted the change was necessary, with Donald Stewart suggesting sponsorship deals, and even the jobs of the association staff, would be at risk if the clubs didn’t get behind the board’s plans.

In response to that suggestion, Russell Fraser of the Glenurquhart club accused Stewart of “holding a financial gun” to clubs’ heads.

Newtonmore’s Norman MacArthur, meanwhile, noted that financial concerns could just as easily apply to the counter-argument.

“The 10-team premier league has worked well,” he said. “I would be concerned that sponsors would worry that we are interfering with a successful premier league.”

Alice MacRae cited the example of a recent premier league match between her club, Kinlochshiel, and Inveraray. Due to the weather, the venue for that match was switched the night before the game — only for a postponement to then follow in the morning. “We are putting pressure on amateur clubs, and amateur players, to change plans at very short notice as it is,” she said. “The same thing could happen every Saturday (under the changed structure).”

Club and volunteer director Charles Young said the new structure was not perfect, but would fix more problems than the status quo.

“The system is not working and we need solutions, not just good words,” he said.

Directors also insisted the new model would free up time for more representative shinty — allowing elite players from smaller clubs the chance to shine on a bigger stage. It was an argument that also failed to convince.

“Representative shinty will give opportunities for a few players, but what is going to happen to the rest of his team on these days — that is more players we could lose,” added MacArthur.

WITH the governing body now faced with having to press on with a structure which only a minority of clubs support, Camanachd Association president Archie Robertson said the league situation would remain “under review”. While the motion had failed, and the board’s decision can’t now be challenged, he said there were lessons to be learned for those on either side of the debate.

One of the more obvious lessons might be to examine the polling method for motions like the one discussed last week. The Camanachd Association has a somewhat curious voting structure, under which all 39 competing clubs have a vote, but so too do a variety of affiliated organisations and junior clubs. It was notable on Friday that seven of the 10 premier league clubs, and four out of the six clubs from north division one, all cast their votes in favour of Skye Camanachd. But so too did Kincraig Juniors, the Ross-shire Schools Camanachd and even USA Camanachd.

On the other hand Uist, Glasgow Gaels, Strathkelvin and the Strath of Appin — none of which are senior clubs with any direct involvement — were able to add weight to the case supported by the likes of Lochcarron, Inveraray and the Oban clubs and back the association.

As it turned out, the involvement of these more obscure clubs and associations did not affect the outcome. It seems there were always enough senior clubs supporting the revamp to ensure Skye’s motion would fail once it emerged they required a 75 per cent majority. Nevertheless, if some voting members are unwilling to follow the example of the likes of the Glasgow Celtic Society and the Referees Association — who abstained on the grounds the vote had no direct impact on their organisation — then a rethink on voting criteria is surely overdue.

In the meantime, after a protracted saga, the focus for many can now return to the field of play. Skye Camanachd can look forward to a local derby against Kinlochshiel — the first time in over two years they will have met their near neighbours — in the opening round of the Scottish Hydro Camanachd Cup next Saturday. Let’s hope they endeavour to serve up a reminder of what shinty does best.

ASSUMING the next step for some clubs is not a boycott of the new structure, here is how the leagues would look on the basis of current placings.

Premiership Lovat, Newtonmore, Inveraray, Kyles, Kingussie, Glenurquhart, Kinlochshiel, Fort William. National Divison I Lochaber, Oban Camanachd, Beauly, Kilmallie, Skye, Aberdour, Glasgow Mid Argyll, Glenorchy. North Div I Caberfeidh, Strathglass, Inverness, Skye (reserves), Lovat (r), Newtonmore (r), Glenurquhart (r), Beauly (r). North Division II Glengarry, Fort William (r), Aberdeen Uni, Kinlochshiel (r), Kingussie (r), Lochaber (r), Lochcarron, Boleskine. North Div III Kilmallie (r), Lochbroom, Caberfeidh (r), Strathspey, Inverness (r), Strathglass (r), Lewis. South Divison I Lochside Rovers, Bute, Oban Celtic, Kilmory, Taynuilt, Strachur, Kyles Athletic (r), Ballachulish. South Division II Inveraray (r), Col Glen, Tayforth, Aberdour (r), Bute (r), Glasgow Mid Argyll (r).