In the 125 years since shinty’s Camanachd Cup was first contested only the two wars had ever stopped the competition in its tracks – before Covid-19 came among us.
So perhaps it is fitting that the sport’s showpiece event will return with the air of a new era about it.
It will the first time Kinlochshiel have ever played in the final, the first in nine years not to involve a team from Badenoch and only the sixth since the second world war not to feature one the sport’s traditional ‘big three’ of Newtonmore, Kingussie or Kyles Athletic.
But enough history, for these are two teams for whom only the present counts.
“In the past it would have been hard to imagine Kinlochshiel being in the Camanachd Cup final – but you can’t say that about this group of players,” says Johnston Gill, veteran manager of the Balmacara side. “I’ve watched them all come through and progress. I know how good they are and what they are capable of.”
Gill is right – Shiel have been established as one of the top teams in the game for most of the past decade.
They lifted their first major trophy with the MacAulay Cup triumph of 2016, followed that up by winning the premier league a year later, and a further MacAulay victory came in 2018.
Although there are injury worries around defenders Finlay MacRae and Mark MacDonald which have served to heighten the pre-match tension, Gill believes his players can again rise to the challenge against Lovat.
“The players are desperate to play in the Camanachd Cup final, and we’ll give them every chance to prove their fitness,” he added. “We need to trust them on that.
“Whatever team we have out, it will be one that is capable of coming home with the cup.
“You try to keep as low a profile as you can in the run up to the game – we had a good training session for close to three hours last Saturday and we’ll train again twice through the week.
“But of course a big cup final like this, it is only natural that it occupies your thoughts. There are nerves, and we will have that right up until they cross the line.
“We know we are up against a very good side in Lovat – they looked impressive in beating Kingussie in the semi-final, defending very strongly when they had to.
“But we have faced big games in the recent past – winning the league and two MacAulay Cups. They can handle the occasion.
“Both sides are well matched, and very fine margins could decide it – a late goal, a mistake or a moment of magic. But we are ready and we all look forward to it.”
While it might be Kinlochshiel’s first Camanachd Cup final, Lovat manager Jamie Matheson says their appearance on the big stage came as no surprise to him.
He said: “At the very start of the season I was asked about our chances of winning anything this year and I felt then that the two teams to beat would be Kingussie and Kinlochshiel.
“We have managed to get past Kingussie, but Shiel is another challenge. They are a very strong side.
“We beat them in the MacAulay Cup, but I don’t read too much into that. They were without both Conor Cormack and Mark MacDonald that day – two of the best defenders in the game. I’m expecting both of them to be playing on Saturday.”
Lovat will be lining-up in their fourth final in six seasons – losses to Newtonmore in 2017 and 2018 came after victory over Kyles in 2015.
The win at Mossfield, which ended a 62-year wait for the trophy, proved especially memorable for the now Lovat manager. He had scored in the semi-final to help his team through, but could play no part in the final, instead spending the day in the maternity ward for the birth of his first son.
Since then injuries have curtailed his playing career, so Matheson is now desperate to lead the team – for which his brother Greg carries one of the main attacking threats – to glory.
“Because of the form Kingussie had been in, our semi-final victory may have seemed a shock to some, but I knew we had the ability to beat them,” added Matheson, in his first year as senior coach.
“We’ve been a team who has got stronger as the season has gone on – and this is our fourth final in six.”
The Lovat boss expected a finely poised match in which goalkeeper Stuart MacDonald – who he described as “the game’s best” to be a key figure. At the other end they look to Greg Matheson and Fraser Heath to provide both fire-power and craft.
Experienced midfielder Lorne MacKay is suspended, while defender Scott Mackenzie is out with a hand injury, so Matheson said he expected it would be Thursday of this week before he had settled on his final team selection.
Meanwhile, local councillor Biz Campbell, who is also president of Kinlochshiel, has added her good wishes to the team for the big day.
Councillor Campbell said: “It would be fantastic to see them bring it home after 63 years and I am sure the whole of the west coast is behind them.
“It’s not easy to keep good players on the west – they often have to leave for employment but this Kinlochshiel team has worked so hard and trained hard over the years.
“It will be a difficult game – Lovat were superb in the semi-final, and I hope the boys that have had injuries are fit enough for the big day.
“I really wish them all the best – and hope they can come back with the cup.”
Saturday’s Tulloch Homes Camanachd final at Mossfield in Oban starts at 2.10pm, with the match televised live on BBC Alba.
Article by KEITH MACKENZIE