West-coast shinty success deserves to be savoured: Keith MacKenzie, on sport.

whfp-staff-keith-2Congratulations to Kinlochshiel on taking a national senior shinty trophy to the north-west last weekend – history tells us their MacAulay Cup victory is a rare achievement that should be savoured.

Essentially, in shinty there are four ‘grand slam’ trophies available every year. There’s the Camanachd Cup, the MacAulay Cup, the Premiership and – depending on which side of the Ballachulish Bridge you are located – either the MacTavish or Celtic Society cups.

The Camanachd and MacTavish cups have each been contested for over 100 years (they started in 1896 and 1898 respectively); the MacAulay Cup for almost 70 and the premier league for around 20 (before that there were league competitions dating back to the 1920s).

In all, that represents well over 300 chances to win a major trophy – yet prior to last weekend only twice had any of shinty’s major prizes made it north-west of Lochaber.

Both of those triumphs belonged to Skye, but over nine decades separated the MacTavish Cup success of 1898 and the famous Camanachd Cup victory in 1990. The islanders also made the MacTavish final in 1990 while Lochcarron – during a brief but stellar period at the start of this century – reached the MacAulay Cup final in 2001.

These are the raw statistics which illustrate the scale of Kinlochshiel’s achievement. And lifting silverware is the high point of a remarkable recent rise in the sport – a journey underpinned by years of hard work both on and off the park.

A relatively new club in shinty terms, Kinlochshiel was formed in 1958 as an amalgam of local sides Kintail, Lochalsh and Glenshiel. The club has produced some excellent players during their 60 years in existence, but team success had – up till now – stretched only to junior or intermediate competitions like the Sutherland, Strathdearn and Balliemore cups.

Yet their journey to the elevated status they occupy today – Shiel have been a Premiership side since 2012 – can perhaps be traced back to a radical decision taken prior to the start of the 2001-2002 season.

In 2001 Kinlochshiel’s senior side finished second-bottom of the old north first division, losing nine out of 14 matches in what was effectively the sport’s third tier. It was another poor season for a side which had languished in the bottom half of the table for years, and after a period of soul-searching the club resolved that drastic action was required to stop the rot and improve for the longer term.

Seeing signs of progress in their youthful second team, Kinlochshiel decided the best course would be to effectively scrap the senior side and pull out of the north first division. After agreeing a compromise with the Camanachd Association, they were permitted to do so and enter a single team to start life a league below.

The Free Press, in their preview of the 2001-02 campaign, summed up Shiel’s predicament: “Over-reliance on the more experienced campaigners in a bid to achieve better results in the first division has meant that, too often, younger players have been sacrificed and as a result have been lost to shinty.”

From then on, players like Finlay MacRae, Keith MacRae, Gordon MacDonald and Calum MacLean took their chance and flourished as more responsibility was placed on their young shoulders.

It can be no coincidence either that in 2001 Kinlochshiel also found themselves in a position of being able to enter teams in under-14 and juvenile competitions – work that club stalwart Bert Loades said at the time was down to the efforts of figures like Donalda and Johnny MacRae, Ray Coghill, Willie Fraser and Neillie ‘Ach’ MacRae.

There seems little doubt the vision outlined at the turn of the century, and crucially the commitment to follow it through, bore fruit spectacularly at Oban’s Mossfield Park earlier this month.

The burning question now surrounds Kinlochshiel’s future prospects. Can they go on and offer a consistent challenge to the Badenoch/Argyll hegemony on the sport’s most sought-after prizes? Or will Shiel’s MacAulay Cup-winning side – like Skye’s brilliant class of 1990 – represent merely a one-off golden generation of talent?

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Last weekend it was Lochcarron’s turn to celebrate, after lifting the Strathdearn Cup for junior or reserve clubs in the north thanks to a 4-1 victory over Glenurquhart at Castle Leod.

It’s been a tricky few seasons for the Battery Park club since the break-up of the settled and talented squad which progressed all the way from the old north fourth division to the premier league. In that era they punched well above their weight by picking up a couple of Balliemore Cup successes, and an appearance in a MacAulay Cup final along the way.

More recently the challenge for Lochcarron hasn’t so much focused on silverware, but on keeping a viable shinty club alive. Factors like a scarcity of employment, a declining school roll, an ageing population and house prices often beyond the reach of anyone young enough to play shinty could continue to pose problems in the years to come.

That’s why the Strathdearn success deserves to be enjoyed in Lochcarron every bit as much as the MacAulay victory was by their neighbours from over the hill.

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Far away from these shores, stories of sporting talent overcoming adversity abound at the Paralympics currently going on in Rio.

A brilliant example came from Kadeena Cox – a British sprinter who has won medals for both athletics and cycling.

“Do you fear by doing two sports you could tire yourself out?” asked a reporter after Cox had qualified from her heat last Friday.

“Maybe, but I want to make the most of it when I can. I have MS – I don’t know how much more time as an athlete I have. In four years’ time I might not even be in a position to take part in one event,” came the reply.

Maybe that’s one to remember the next time a high-level football coach complains about his team’s ‘punishing’ schedule.