The Skye and Lochalsh Football League season begins this Saturday with Mallaig looking to defend their crown after they claimed the title in a dream debut campaign in 2018.
With four teams vying for the championship right until the last game of the regulation season, there was still nothing to separate reigning champions Kyleakin and challengers Mallaig after both sides had secured wins on the final day against fellow title hopefuls Portree Juniors and Sleat and Strath respectively.
In the end it came down to a play-off for the title, which Mallaig clinched thanks to a last-minute winner from their talisman Andy Cunningham – the 2018 Free Press player of the season – in a dramatic 2-1 victory over Kyleakin.
While last season might be hard to match for excitement and intrigue, the 2019 campaign is likely to have no shortage of twists and turns and memorable matches as the nine teams resume rivalries.
Ahead of the big kick-off, Adam Gordon spoke to the clubs to assess what shape they were in for the 2019 season.
Manager: Alan Elder
Captain: Gary Watson
Home pitch: Gairloch
2018 position: Seventh (out of nine teams)
GA United will be led this season by Alan Elder, who has taken over from Callum MacKenzie in the dugout after retiring from playing due to injury.
United will be boosted by the return of Gary Watson, appointed by Elder as captain this season, and of Roddy Maclennan who has come back into the fold and will add a bit of “bite” in the midfield according to his coach.
At the other end of the spectrum, Elder believes that Corey Maclennan could make an impact in the goalscoring stakes having registered double figures for the Wester Ross under-18s. The GA United coach also expects Joel Goldby – one of the Free Press players to watch for 2019 – and Cameron Walton to play a big part in what will be just their second full season.
Alan Elder: “We’re hoping to challenge for the league and cups this year and finish in the top four.”
Manager: Cameron MacDonald
Captain: To be confirmed
Home pitch: Glenelg
2018 position: Fifth
The 2019 campaign looks like it will be one of transition for Glenelg as they adapt to the departure of three key players from the side.
Player-manager Alistair Harvey has departed from the team, as have Robin Harvey and Calum Campbell, with the Glen looking to rebuild under the auspices of new coach Cameron MacDonald.
MacDonald, who impressed as a player last season with some excellent display in goal, looks to have the attitude and personality to build on the promising foundations put in place by Harvey which saw the side finish fifth last season.
In terms of new additions, Cameron expects Josh Hewitson to add energy and drive in midfield, while Mario Dias could provide a creative spark for the team from the peninsula.
Cameron MacDonald: “Our aim is to finish sixth!”
Manager: James Matheson
Captain: Troy Flanagan
Home pitch: Kyle
2018 position: Ninth
After suffering a trying campaign in 2018, James Matheson’s team have enjoyed a promising build-up to the new season – not only retaining their players from 2018 but also by adding to the size and quality of the squad.
Ryan Grant comes into the ranks, while Stuart Anderson returns to the team following a long-term injury.
Last season’s experience could prove invaluable for what is still a young Kyle team. And with the likes of midfielder Ciaran Kellett and goalkeeper Joe Russell having come off the back of impressive campaigns in the under-18s league for Lochalsh, the mainland team could prove a tougher nut to crack this season.
James Matheson: “We haven’t lost any players, which is a huge step forward, and we are very lucky to have so many young players.”
Manager: David Butcher
Captain: Chris MacLennan
Home pitch: Kyleakin
2018 position: Runners-up
After missing out on the title in a dramatic play-off against Mallaig, the 2017 champions will fancy their chances of mounting another championship charge with a settled squad that is full of experience. Kyleakin will also hope to add to their trophy haul in the cup competitions having claimed the GF MacRae Cup with a 4-1 win over Mallaig in June 2018.
David Butcher has handed the captaincy to defender Chris MacLennan this season, while the Kyleakin coach will also look to blood youngsters into the side with the likes of Aaaron MacBeth and Nathan Stewart earmarked for inclusion.
With a blend of seasoned performers and exciting young talent, Kyleakin are almost certain to be amongst the teams in contention for the title yet again.
David Butcher: “It always has to be the league for me – anything else is a bonus.”
Manager: Neil Cameron
Captain: Jamie Young
Home pitch: Mallaig
2018 position: Champions
Having entered the Skye and Lochalsh league as an unknown quantity last season, the reigning champions will start the 2019 campaign as the team to beat.
The side will have to adapt to the loss of outgoing player-manager Jamie MacGregor whose contribution on the pitch was understandably overshadowed by his abilities on the touchline as he guided his team to an unexpected championship title.
Neil Cameron will take up the mantle of manager and, while the transition might not be an instantly seamless one, the Blues have a large squad of talented players to choose from including a solid spine of goalkeeper Mark Johnston, captain Jamie Young and the attacking talents of Ross Douglas and Andy Cunningham.
Defending a title is invariably harder than winning one, but discount Mallaig at your folly.
Jamie MacGregor: “The lads all know what they are capable of so it’s down to them to do the talking on the pitch.”
North West Skye
Manager: Graham Campbell
Captain: Iain Beaton
Home pitch: Uig
2018 position: Sixth
Graham Campbell’s side look to be a stronger proposition this season having added two players to the squad as well as retaining the players from last season. The also have a goldmine of youngsters to pick from in the shape of the victorious under-18s side.
Midfielder Angus ‘Sconser’ MacDonald returns to the team after a period away in New Zealand last season and is expected to add energy into what is already a dynamic young team.
The addition of Robbie Cameron could be a game changer for the Clan Donald Cup winners. Having caught the eye leading the line for Portree during a difficult campaign, Cameron’s killer instinct in front of goal and ability to play as a lone target man might be the perfect tonic for a side whose performances at times lacked a cutting edge.
Graham Campbell: “We were disappointed with our sixth-place finish last season, although we did end strongly. We will be looking to move up the table this season, and will be targeting a top-four spot.”
Manager: Mark MacLeod
Captain: To be confirmed
Home pitch: Portree High Astroturf
2018 position: Eighth
After an arduous season last year, Portree will begin the 2019 campaign under the guidance of new player-manager Mark Macleod.
Although the loss of Robbie Cameron will be felt by the side, MacLeod has added a raft of players such as Kenny Palmer, Billy Kehoe and Ali MacKenzie to boost the squad. Youngsters Aaron MacKinnon and Kyle Dick will also provide competition for places as the club look to embark on a new era.
Mark MacLeod: “We are obviously building a new team, so our main goal is to bring back those high standards that are expected of Portree. I’m confident there is a cup final in this team this season.”
Manager: Phil McCaherty
Captain: Andrew McCaherty
Home pitch: Portree High Astroturf
2018 position: Third
After an exciting end to the last campaign which saw them compete for the title right until the last day of the campaign, Portree Juniors are looking to rebuild their side with an accent on youth.
First-team regulars Chris McNab and John Murphy have indicated that they are likely to be available – but pribably on a limited basis. While the loss of last year’s Skye and Lochalsh young player of the season, John Gillies, to Sleat will be keenly felt, Juniors are taking an exciting approach to reshaping the team for the future by blooding the next generation of players.
Phil McCaherty says his side could have at least six of the under-18 team to call upon, including Ryan MacAskill and Connor Gilpin.
McCaherty’s ability to bring players together and foster a good team spirit is likely to stand Juniors in good stead for the season ahead.
Phil McCaherty: “Our aim is to be competitive. However, the club is fully prepared for the potential inconsistency in performances that playing youngsters may bring.”
Sleat and Strath
Manager: DL MacKinnon
Captain: Martin MacKinnon
Home pitch: Broadford
2018 position: Fourth
Two cups and a title charge that lasted until the final day of the season constituted a very good 2018 for Sleat, but DL MacKinnon’s competitiveness means the bar will be set even higher this season for the south Skye side.
With the addition of John Gillies to a squad already containing the likes of Ben and Connaire Yoxon and Lachlan MacInnes, it is hard to imagine that Sleat will not go as close if not better than last year in their attempts to capture the league title.
The loss of captain Martin MacKinnon, who is convalescing from a serious injury, is a big blow to Sleat. However, the performances of Fraser Graham and Peter MacCusbic mean there is no shortage of defensive quality in the squad. Having impressed with a glut of assists in the under-18s league for Broadford, Alex Tully could be the pick of the youngsters emerging for Sleat.
DL MacKinnon: “My expectations are as always to win everything in our league and go as far as possible in the Highland Amateur Cup.”
Skye and Lochalsh Amateur Football League opening round fixtures
Saturday 6th April
Mallaig v Portree – kick-off 1.30 pm
GA United v Kyleakin – kick-off 3 pm
Portree Juniors v Glenelg – kick-off 6pm
Sleat and Strath v North West Skye – kick-off 6pm
Saturday 13th April
Glenelg v Kyle – kick-off 6pm