Finlay MacRae will begin his 22nd season in senior shinty this Saturday for a Kinlochshiel side eager to taste more success after a glory-laden 2021.
In a career that spans almost a third of the club’s existence, the 36-year-old from Kintail has been a lynchpin of his local side on the journey from the lower leagues to the pinnacle of the sport.
And last week the classy defender added individual honours to team success, when he was named as the Mowi national player of the year – the third time he has been awarded the prize.
Shiel’s campaign gets underway at home against Newtonmore this Saturday, with the focus firmly on the future as the Lochalsh club seek to build on their historic maiden Camanachd and MacTavish Cup victories last year.
MacRae said: “We know last year will be hard to repeat, but we don’t want to stand still either. The squad has been putting the effort in pre-season and we’re determined to try as hard as we can to achieve more.”
Team success may have come late for MacRae, but in many respects that has made it all the sweeter for a player who was there when the club were in north division two back in the early 2000s.
He was just 13 or 14 (he’s not quite sure) when he first pulled on a senior jersey for Shiel, and this year he’ll be the elder statesman in the squad, because injury has forced Paul MacRae to retire at the age of 41.
He added: “I was in my 30s before we won a trophy at the top level, and I had been getting to that point where I wondered if it would ever happen.
“But then after we got the MacAulay Cup in 2016, we followed it with the league and since then another MacAulay and last year the two trophies.
“It was a special year for us, and certainly everyone wants to achieve as much as we can this year.”
Skye’s promotion bid to start in Oban
Skye Camanachd’s quest to win promotion to the premier league begins this Saturday with a tricky-looking test away at Oban Celtic.
The islanders missed out on promotion to the top flight on the final day of the season in 2019 – and owing to the pandemic it will be three years before a promising generation of players has another crack at the game’s upper tier.
No wonder that manager Kenny MacLeod, who led the team to Bailliemore Cup success last year, is eager for the league action to resume. He believes a strong start could be key to the islanders hopes.
He said: “I think having an away game to start might be better for us. With the way the weather has been I would not have been hopeful of playing in Portree. It’s vital to get early matches, and hopefully early wins.
Ally ‘Cloudy’ MacLeod captains the squad this year, which will be bolstered in midfield or attack by Will Cowie who is fit again after missing out on the 2021 campaign through injury.
Goalkeeper Ryan Morrison is taking a gap year in Australia, so Murphy Henderson will be the team’s number one, with the rest of the squad unchanged from that which lifted the Balliemore Cup last year.
The target for Skye, is to go up as champions.
“In 2019 we might have thought it was too early to go up, but after two years waiting – for this group of players the sooner the better,” MacLeod added.
Lochcarron ready to hit the road
Lochcarron are due to get their north division one campaign under way with an away trip to Lovat this weekend – but it may be a few weeks before they can play a home match.
After lifting the north second division title in 2019, the Battery Park side has had to wait two and a half years to make the step-up, and their main focus will be on getting a settled side out to compete in the months ahead.
But the poor weather has meant that work on the club’s field has been delayed, and manager Murdo John Fraser thinks the club will find themselves on the road for the early part of the season at least.
That most of the team which gained promotion in 2019 are still with the squad is a boost – but the problem the club faces is getting all their players available on the same Saturday.
“Work rotations make things difficult for us,” said long-serving boss Fraser. “So many of the boys are in jobs now like fish farming which has moved to two weeks on and two weeks off shift patterns. We have plenty players – we just can’t get them all together at the same time.”
Father and son Gregor and Kenny Cushnie continue to be mainstays, with Cushnie junior also named as team captain this year. He, Ronan Taylor and Paddy MacInnes are all working in Skye but will travel to play , while Crisdean Finlayson will continue to drive the team forward from midfield.
ELSEWHERE, this weekend, in the MOWI Premiership Fort William make their return to the top flight when they welcome Glasgow Celtic Society Cup champions Kyles Athletic to An Aird; GMA host Oban Camanachd; champions Kingussie begin the defence of the trophy at home to Caberfeidh while Lovat travel to take on Kilmallie.
Full fixtures at www.shinty.com
ARTICLES BY KEITH MACKENZIE, PICTURES BY WILLIE URQUHART.
AN EXTENDED VERSION OF THESE TEAM PREVIEWS ARE IN THIS WEEK’S WEST HIGHLAND FREE PRESS, WHICH IS OUT NOW.