Lest We Forget

11th November 2019

In “Kings, Queens and Poets” (5th May 2019), I mentioned that, when a young boy studying my mother’s football pools coupons at our home in Leeds, I had thought that Heart of Midlothian and Queen of the South were the most romantic names of the clubs in Scotland.  That particular blog reported on a visit to watch the latter in Dumfries in an end-of-term relegation battle in last season’s Scottish Championship.  On Saturday, I caught up with Hearts.

The Wikipedia entry for Hearts states that 16 players from the club enlisted en masse in a new volunteer battalion – later to become the 16th Royal Scots – raised by Sir George McCrae in November 1914.  They were joined by hundreds of supporters as well as players from other clubs in the initial “Footballers Battalion” of the First World War.  The seven first-team players who lost their lives in the conflict are commemorated at the McCrae’s Battalion Great War Memorial in Contalmaison and the Heart of Midlothian War Memorial in Haymarket, Edinburgh.

I alighted at Haymarket Station on my way to Tynecastle Park to watch Hearts play St Mirren in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership.  This was an appropriate weekend for me to see the home side play for the first time: it is 101 years ago today that the guns fell silent.

Hearts have played their home fixtures at this venue since 1886.  It is a neat rectangular ground with a capacity of just over 20,000 following the completion of the newly built Main Stand two years ago.  The size of the average home crowd – around 16,500 in this league season to date – means that it feels suitably full; on Saturday, the main gaps were in the Roseburn Stand to the right, where the 700 or so St Mirren supporters had not taken up their full allocation of seats.

Even this early in the season – for both teams, this was only the 12th of the 38 matches in the league programme – there was an air of relegation battle about the encounter.  The two sides began the day locked together at the foot of the table – with the hosts in the higher place only on goal difference – both no doubt fearing the prospect of a long winter’s struggle ahead.  (The next two sides above them – St Johnstone and Hibernian – were meeting at the same time).

Hearts had already taken some action to address their poor start to the season by relieving the respected Craig Levein of his managerial responsibilities.  This occurred 12 days ago, though the timing was somewhat curious as the side’s next fixture had been the Betfred League Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden Park (which was subsequently lost).  Austin MacPhee is holding the managerial reins for the time being.  (Hibernian sacked Paul Heckingbottom as their manager last week).

The St Mirren manager, Jim Goodwin, is – for the time being anyway – probably on slightly safer ground, as he was only appointed last June.  (He had been in charge of the Alloa Athletic side that I had seen play in a Scottish Cup fixture last autumn: “Recreation Park”, 26th November 2018).  Hitherto, his team had revealed a sound defence – only Celtic and Rangers had conceded fewer goals in the Premiership – but serious deficiencies in relation to their attacking prowess: only 5 goals had been registered in the league prior to Saturday’s game.  I was expecting a low scoring encounter.

But what do I know?  There were five goals before half-time and the final score was 5-2 to Hearts.  And it could have been more: both the respective goalkeepers – Joel Pereira and Vaclav Hladky – made outstanding diving saves in the closing minutes.

As the scoreline suggests, Hearts had the advantage of a more potent forward line.  The man-of-the-match award went to Uche Ikpeazu – a powerful and skilful player – who had a fine game on the right-hand side of the attack.  However, I thought that the afternoon’s most influential participant was his partner, the experienced Steven Naismith, who swept in the first goal at a corner after six minutes and whose headed flick-on led to the Hearts second after St Mirren had equalised.  It was also his weighted pass that provided the space in which Jake Mulraney, the Hearts substitute, could advance and curl his right-footed shot to Hladky’s left for the final (and best) goal of the match.  More generally, Naismith – who is one short of 50 caps for Scotland – was active throughout the match in cajoling/encouraging/berating/advising (delete as appropriate) his colleagues: it was a timely audition, should Hearts decide to take the player-manager route.

I was flanked in my seat in the Main Stand by two friendly Hearts season-ticket holders.  The longstanding supporter to my left had made his regular journey from the Borders town of Lauder.  He was concerned about the number of soft goals that Hearts had conceded this season, of which St Mirren’s second – when a long punt upfield found the Hearts central defence totally absent, leaving Danny Mullen to calmly stroke the ball past Pereira – seemed to be a good example.  Even at 4-2 up with 15 minutes to play, my neighbour was casting nervous glances at his watch, but he was able to relax a little after Mulraney’s fine strike.

The conversation with the supporter on the other side revealed an impressive pedigree of sports-spectating, including rugby league in Leeds and soccer in Toronto.  He was very knowledgeable about the Hearts players present and past: Jamie Walker is just back from a long injury break and Jake Mulraney is “incredibly fast”, whilst Pasquale Bruno – an Italian who played for Hearts for two seasons in the 1990s (and who received loud cheers when he was introduced to the crowd at half-time) – had been a very physical and aggressive player.  (Wikipedia somewhat coyly refers to Bruno’s “occasional outrageous outbursts on the pitch, as well as his tendency to pick up cards”).

The game ended.  I shook hands with my neighbours as they departed.  On the outside the stadium, the Hearts badge shone brightly on the Main Stand in the darkness of the late autumn afternoon.  The home supporters made their way contentedly down Gorgie Road.  Elsewhere, Hibernian’s 4-1 win at St Johnstone meant that it had been a double success for the Edinburgh clubs.  They are now 8th and 9th in the league with Hamilton Academicals and the two Saints clubs below them.  It is still tight, however, and the season’s course is only one-third run.

I read the impressive match programme on the train going home.  The front cover displayed a field of poppies against a background of the stadium and under the heading “Lest We Forget”.  Inside, there was a notice complementing an announcement that had been made a couple of times during the afternoon.  The annual Haymarket Remembrance Service – conducted by the Club Chaplain and attended by the first team, reserve team and members of the board – was to take place yesterday, beginning at 10.45am.

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In the Stars?

14th October 2019

Cassius

… Men at some time are masters of their fates.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves…

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 2.

It is probably reasonable to assume that I am now unlikely to be selected to play test cricket for England. Quite apart from not having picked up a bat in anger for over 30 years, my age is now well beyond that of the oldest player to play test cricket – Wilfred Rhodes of Yorkshire and England – who was 52 years and 165 days on the final day of the England-West Indies test match in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1930.

I have consulted the “Births and Deaths: Test Cricketers” section of the 2019 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and other sources to examine whether it has been the Fates that somehow decreed that I would not be a test cricketer. Was there something in my name or place of birth or date of birth that somehow conspired against such an outcome? Was there something in the stars?

I think we can rule out place of birth. Given the contribution of God’s OwnCounty to test cricket over nearly 150 years, one can justifiably state that being born and brought up in its principal city of Leeds will not have presented an insurmountable handicap to receiving a good cricketing education. Whilst, if truth be told, Leeds has probably under-performed in terms of generating Yorkshire’s international cricketers – compared with, say, the mining communities of South Yorkshire or the major West Riding nurseries such as Bradford and Huddersfield – the city’s roll-call over the years does include the likes of the Honourable FS Jackson, Hedley Verity and Geoff Cope.

What about the surname? Do the gods conspire to prevent a Rigg from playing test cricket? Clearly not. Keith Rigg (1906-1995) played in 8 tests for Australia in the 1930s, scoring 401 runs at an average of 33 and with a top score of 127 against South Africa in 1931. My tentative researches suggest that his great grandparents were William and Louisa Rigg (nee Clark), who married in Newington, Surrey, in 1837 and subsequently emigrated to Australia, where they settled in Victoria. (I have not found any direct family link to my North Yorkshire ancestors).

If not the surname, perhaps the given names: John Alexander? Again, there are examples to indicate that these have also not been a barrier: Jameson and Maclean (4 tests for England and Australia, respectively, in the 1970s) and Rennie (4 for Zimbabwe in the 1990s). I think we can also reasonably add John Alexander Kennedy Cochran (1 for South Africa in 1930), though probably not Alexander John Bell (48 wickets in 16 tests for South Africa between 1929 and 1935).

John Jameson was an aggressive, hard-hitting batsman, who scored over 18,000 runs for Warwickshire between 1960 and 1976. I saw him play against CambridgeUniversity at Fenner’s in 1975, when I was on twelfth man duty for the students’ side. For some reason, the first day’s play started a couple of minutes before the scheduled time, when Jameson went out to bat with Dennis Amiss. The first ball was a gentle swinging full-toss from Dave Russell – a good bloke, as I recall – which Jameson sliced straight into the hands of cover point. I remember that, as he walked back to the pavilion, the expression of his face seemed (justifiably in the circumstances) to comprise a combination of fury and sheepishness, his mood probably not helped by the fact that the clock had not yet registered 11.30. (Later in the afternoon, I took the field for a few minutes when Peter Roebuck went off to answer a call of nature: my first – and only – appearance on a First Class cricket arena. Amiss hit one shot past me for a couple of runs on his way to scoring 123).

That leaves the timing of birth. Has my presence in Scorpio’s part of the astrological charts – specifically, November 16th – been a factor in explaining my lack of test match prowess?

Wisden lists the dates of birth of the nearly 3000 cricketers who have reached test match level (from 1876 to January 2019). Other things equal, one would expect just over 8 to have been born on any given day of the year. The score for November 16th is below this average: 6. Of these, the best known (to me) are Waqar Younis (born 1971), who took 373 wickets for Pakistan in 87 test matches between 1989 and 2002 and the Huddersfield-born Chris Balderstone (1940-2000).

In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted the wonderful description in Alec Stewart’s autobiography of the formidable reverse-swing fast bowling of Waqar and his Pakistani colleague, Wasim Akram: “They were whizzbang bowlers… making the old ball go round corners at speed… the ultimate test for any batsman”. This was certainly the case when I saw Waqar at Headingley in 1992: England collapsed from 270 for 1 to 320 all out and the last six batsmen registered exactly two runs off the bat (though England still managed to win on the fourth day).

Chris Balderstone is mentioned in Still An Ordinary Spectator in my account of a visit to Carlisle to watch a football match in October 2016. He had been “one of those talented all-round sportsmen who, before the overlap of the seasons, played two sports at a professional level: cricket in the summer and football in the winter”. As a cricketer, Balderstonehad considerable success with Leicestershire and played twice for England against the West Indian tourists of 1976. The Chris Balderstone Bar at Carlisle United’s BruntonPark ground commemorates the footballer who, having played 117 times for HuddersfieldTown, then appeared on 376 occasions for Carlisle United in the ten seasons to 1975.

It is Waqar Younis’s long test career that contributes predominantly to the total of 120 test match appearances by the 6 cricketers born on November 16th. The average expected figure for any given day of the year (given that there were 2341 tests played to January 2019) is 141, so again our total is on the low side, though not excessively so.

The overall conclusion of this astrological musing must be that the answer to my non-test match appearance is not in the stars. Cassius was correct: the fault is in ourselves. In my case, this might be summarised as a vulnerability to being trapped leg-before-wicket to a fast straight delivery and/or the tendency to bowl too many long hops with my gentle off-spin.

A final observation, which might be of relevance to mothers-to-be hoping to give birth to a future test-playing cricketer. It seems that the likelihood of such an outcome is substantially above average if the delivery takes place on the 14th day of October.

Which – as it happens – is today’s date.

Elimination and Second Chances

17th September 2019

The regular season of rugby league’s Championship League 1 (the third tier) has been completed. The divisional champions – Whitehaven – having been promoted automatically into the Championship, the second promotion place will be determined through a series of play-offs involving the five teams finishing between second and sixth in the table.

Given that there were only 11 teams in the league, it does seem a rather generous provision to allow the middle-ranking side the chance to progress out of the division. Moreover, the play-off structure is not straightforward. In the jargon, it involves an “elimination final”, a “qualifying final”, two “semi-finals” and a “preliminary final” before the (final) “play-off final” is reached.

In fact, there is a meritocratic logic in the format. The higher league places in the league table are rewarded by a later entry into the play-offs (for Oldham, the second-placed side) and/or second chances in the event of a first defeat (for Oldham and for Newcastle Thunder and Doncaster, who came third and fourth, respectively).

The elimination final was played at the South Leeds Stadium on Sunday between Hunslet (fifth) and Workington Town (sixth). For the loser of this match, there would be no second chance. The winner would remain in the competition but, at some stage, would need to win (away from home) at each of Oldham, Newcastle and Doncaster in order to secure promotion: a tall order.

I took my place in the stand after about a minute’s play, just as the Workington team was walking back to its half of the field having already registered the game’s first try. Hunslet’s poor start apparently echoed a theme of their season, as they had won only 4 out of 12 matches at home (excluding the amateur opposition faced in the Challenge Cup), but 8 out of 10 games on their travels. On this occasion, they recovered well and, following two tries by the centre Tom Ashton, the home side had a 24-18 lead at the interval.

But it was the visitors who controlled much of the second half, their experienced forward pack containing three players in their mid to late 30s. One of these was the Tongan, Fuifui Moimoi, whom I had seen play for the Toronto Wolfpack against the Newcastle Thunder at the Allan A Lamport Stadium two years ago (The Wolfpack and the Cheesy Dog, 27th August 2017), when he was already well into the veteran stage of a career that has included 10 years at the highest level in Australia’s NRL. On Sunday, he was employed – very effectively – in short stretches, his strong running with the ball helping to keep Workington on the front foot. It was a useful contribution from someone who will celebrate his 40th birthday next week.

Hunslet came close to adding to their score in the second half, but a combination of over-eagerness and careless errors near the Workington try-line – including, on one occasion, dropping the ball when actually over the line – prevented them from doing so. Workington completed a 32-24 victory in an entertaining match. (One point that struck me was the excellence of the two goalkickers – Joe Sanderson and Carl Forber – who, between them, were successful with 10 attempts out of 11, many from wide out near the touchline).

Their win has earned Workington a place in the next round of the play-offs at the weekend, when Fuifui Moimoi will be able to resume the battle with Newcastle Thunder that he enjoyed in downtown Toronto.

For Hunslet, defeat in last Sunday’s “elimination final” does indeed mean elimination from this year’s competitive action. Their 2019 season is over.

Number One in the Rankings

10th September 2019

Prior to yesterday’s Scotland vs Belgium match at Hampden Park, the qualification tournament for the Euro 2020 Football Championships had reached the half-way stage. All six of the sides in Scotland’s group had played 5 of their 10 matches.

In the qualifying table, Scotland were languishing in fourth place, some distance behind Belgium and Russia, who looked to be clear favourites to take the two automatically available places for the tournament’s final stages. It appeared that Scotland’s more realistic route to the finals might be via the play-offs of a separate four-team Nations League group (currently also comprising Norway, Serbia and Finland) for which they have already qualified. (In the event of one or more of these countries qualifying by the conventional route, they would be replaced in the Nations League group).

The mood music from the Scottish management seemed to recognise these realities. The talk was of taking something from the matches against Belgium and Russia (away next month) and putting in good performances, so that some momentum could be built up for the final three games (against San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan) in advance of Scotland’s participation in the Nations League group next March.

My trips to watch Scotland to play football are something of a rarity: the last occasion was a friendly match against Germany at Ibrox Stadium in March 1993. I was enticed to yesterday’s encounter largely by the prospect of seeing Belgium: third-placed at the last World Cup in Russia, currently ranked as the world’s number 1 team by FIFA and, for good measure, with a 100% record from their opening five games of Euro 2020.

I was also interested in how the Scottish supporters at the stadium would approach the game. Would it be with the traditionally raucous bravado of the tartaned hordes? Or would it reflect the pessimistic snatch of conversation that I overheard at the weekend (following Scotland’s 1-2 defeat by Russia at Hampden on Friday evening): “…Belgium will probably go 6-0 up after 20 minutes and then bring on their substitutes…”. The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, of course.

And, indeed, it was both perspectives that were revealed.

The game was preceded by the crowd’s passionate rendition of Flower of Scotland, movingly accompanied by the strains of a sole bagpiper. Scotland’s players exploited this fervent atmosphere in the opening stages of the match, dominating possession and putting the Belgian defenders under continual pressure. Then, after eight minutes, in the visitors’ first serious attack, Kevin De Bruyne broke free down the left-hand side and measured his pass perfectly for Romelu Lukaku to calmly shoot the ball past the Scottish goalkeeper, David Marshall. At that moment, I sensed that the home supporters recognised that their basic fears had been confirmed: it would be a long evening ahead.

The crowd attempted to rally their team and Scotland, as before, enjoyed a good share of possession until De Bruyne – on the right, this time – won the ball and delivered a penetrating pass across the goal which Thomas Vermaelen swept into the net. A short time later, a De Bruyne corner was headed home by Toby Alderweireld. It was not quite 6-0 after 20 minutes, but 3-0 just after the half-hour mark was decisive enough.

It will not have got unnoticed that the common theme in this description is Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City. He is part of this so-called “Golden Generation” of Belgian footballers – which includes Lukaku (transferred this summer for £73 million from Manchester United to Juventus) and Eden Hazard (£88 million from Chelsea to Real Madrid, though absent yesterday through injury) – which is delivering to the hype. (The contrast with the unfulfilled English variant of a few years ago – Beckham, Lampard, Owen, Ferdinand et al – is palpable). In the first half, Scotland simply couldn’t cope with De Bruyne’s combination of speed, skill and awareness and, although he was less prominent after the interval, it was the same player’s emphatic finish, following a neat pass by Lukaku, that resulted in the final scoreline of 4-0.

It is difficult to see the weaknesses in the Belgian set-up, because their overall excellence extends well beyond the headline players: the goalkeeper is Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid, the defence dealt efficiently with Scotland’s dangerous crosses into the penalty area and, in midfield, I was impressed with each of the telling contributions made by Youri Tielemans, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli. The fact that the Belgium starting XI was comprised of players drawn from 6 different leagues (with only Chadli playing in Belgium itself) did not affect their coherence and teamwork.

The Scottish manager, Steve Clarke, has more limited resources on which to draw. Four of his starting line-up play in the Championship (the second tier) in England and one of the substitutes, Johnny Russell, for Sporting Kansas City in the US Major Soccer League. It should be said that none of these players let him down yesterday and the goalkeeper, Marshall of Wigan Athletic, made a couple of the first-class saves in the second half to limit the overall damage on the scoreboard. Scotland looked most threatening from the direct runs at the Belgian defence of the left-back and captain, Andy Robertson.

The worrying signs surrounding the Scotland football team do not simply relate to the most recent results on the pitch. Yesterday’s attendance – to see the number one-ranked team in the world, remember – was only just over 25,500: barely half the capacity of Hampden Park or, indeed, half the size of the attendance that Celtic might expect to draw for a routine home league match against Hamilton Academicals or Ross County.

There are probably several factors that account for this relatively low turnout. Perhaps it was due to the cumulative expense faced by spectators in attending two matches in four days (the game against Russia drew over 32,000) or their familiarity with Belgium’s star players through seeing them on television (or their familiarity with the Belgium team, which also won 4-0 in a Hampden Park friendly in September last year).

However, I also wonder if it reflects a growing detachment between the country’s casual football supporters and the national side as a result of Scotland’s longstanding absence from dining at international soccer’s top table: qualification for a major football tournament has not been achieved since the 1998 World Cup. This would be of some concern: these things can take a long time to repair.

On the other hand… Come March and two matches for Scotland to win in the Nations League group in order to qualify for Euro 2020… Hampden Park’s Tartan Army might still have a role to play.

For Valour

19th August 2019

Last year – in “Below Average” (28th May 2018) – I noted that Yorkshire CCC’s record over the 55 years of one-day competitions could indeed charitably be described in those terms. Of the 142 tournaments – ranging from 60 overs to 20 overs per side – played to 2017, they had won just five with, of the other counties, only Derbyshire, Durham and Glamorgan having a lower haul. The completion of the 2018 season took the score to 5 out of 144.

Earlier this season, Yorkshire maintained their record by failing to progress out of the Group phase of the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup (which was subsequently won by Somerset), thereby leaving the T20 tournament (the Vitality Blast) as the remaining vehicle for possible one-day success. However, prior to last Friday’s fixture with the Durham Jets at Headingley, Yorkshire were placed bottom of the nine teams in the North Group in this competition, having won only 1 of the 9 matches to date (4 of which were completely rained off).

As only the top four sides qualify for the quarter-finals, they probably needed to win all 5 of the remaining Group matches (including the Durham game) in order to hold out any hope of reaching the knock-out stage.

It rained all day. The match didn’t get near the starting blocks. The probability of Yorkshire reaching the next stage of this year’s T20 tournament moved a little closer to zero.

This being Leeds, there is always a Plan B, of course. The inclement weather meant that I had a little more time than otherwise to visit a couple of the city’s cultural attractions – the Leeds Art Gallery and the Leeds City Museum – in each case to seek out one of the city’s greatest sons.

The collection in the small Ziff Gallery in the Leeds Art Gallery includes three works by the Leeds-born artist, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893). One of them is a classical piece – Iris (1886) – but it is the other two to which I am repeatedly drawn. Reflections on the Thames: Westminster and Nightfall Down the Thames were both painted in 1880 and are part of the Atkinson Grimshaw oeuvre that focused on urban scenes at night-time. The former is a particularly haunting piece, I think, in which the “reflections” incorporate not only the lights of the moon and Westminster Bridge in the river’s waters, but also – perhaps – the thoughts of the lonely woman plying her trade on the Embankment.

The Leeds City Museum in situated in the impressive building that was once the Mechanics’ Institute in Millennium Square. At the entrance to “The Story of Leeds” Exhibition are the portraits of 20 or so famous people from the city, including the dual rugby international Jason Robinson, the snooker player Paul Hunter, the boxer Nicola Adams and the cyclist Beryl Burton. However, it was in a non-sporting context that I was making my visit.

Arthur Louis Aaron was born in 1922 and attended Roundhay School (which, as it happens, was also where I was educated many years later). He enlisted in the RAF in 1941 and was promoted to Flight Sergeant two years later. It was in August 1943 – 76 years ago this month – that the Stirling bomber, of which he was captain, came under heavy fire whilst on a mission over Italy. Several of the crew were killed, including the navigator, and Ft Sgt Aaron himself was badly injured, losing the use of an arm and part of his face. Nonetheless, he saved the remaining crew by directing the stricken plane towards North Africa and a landing in Algeria. He died shortly afterwards.

The posthumous Victoria Cross that was awarded to Ft Sgt Aaron is exhibited, along with his other medals, in The Story of Leeds Exhibition together with a maquette to acknowledge his

life and accomplishments and the letter written to his parents by Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command.

On Friday, I sat for a little while in the café of the Leeds City Museum. Outside, the rain continued to pour down. I had been prevented by the elements from watching a cricket match. (On the same evening, several thousand Ed Sheeran fans would have been drenched when watching their idol perform at a concert in Roundhay Park). The Yorkshire cricketers – with an average age of 26 for the squad that had been announced for that evening’s fixture – had been frustrated in their efforts to make progress in a one-day competition.

These were minor inconveniencies.

Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron VC DFM died at the age of 21.

Imperious Saints

18th August 2019

When I purchased my ticket (in February) for last Thursday’s Leeds versus St Helens Super League encounter at Headingley, I had expected a close contest between two of rugby league’s traditional heavyweights.

As it happens, the sides have had differing fortunes this season. Leeds have been in a struggle to avoid finishing in last place in the 12-team league table – with automatic relegation to the Championship – though a couple of recent victories have greatly aided their cause.

By contrast, St Helens have been the dominant side in 2019, having won the League Leaders Shield several weeks in advance of the Top 5 play-offs for the Super League title, which will begin next month. Indeed – remarkably – as things stood at the kick-off, the 14 point difference in the league table between St Helens and the teams in joint-second place (Warrington Wolves and Hull FC) was the same as that between Warrington/Hull and the bottom-place team (London Broncos). In addition, St Helens have secured a place in next Saturday’s Challenge Cup final (against Warrington) at Wembley.

In the build-up to the game, I had wondered if there might be an unfortunate echo of the Scotland-All Blacks match at Murrayfield in the group stage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. (The £85 I invested for a seat at the end of the West Stand in the corner of the ground was, at that time, the most I had ever paid to see a sporting event). On that occasion, the Scottish team management took the game so seriously that they decided to field a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the crucial group encounter with Italy the following weekend. As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator, I thought that this was an absolutely appalling decision. Not only was it an insult to the spectators that had paid considerable sums to watch the match – and mine was by no means the most expensive ticket – it was hugely disrespectful to the opposition and to the tournament itself. (New Zealand won the match 40-0, scoring six tries in the process). Whether coincidence or not, I have not paid to watch the Scotland rugby team since.

The question was, therefore: given that St Helens might wish to protect their key players from injury in advance of the significant matches to come, would they follow Scotland’s lead and field a reserve team?

To their great credit, the answer was: no. Of the 17 players who represented St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-final – and whom one might therefore suppose constituted the first-choice side – 11 played against Leeds. On the basis that some of the absentees had been unavailable through injury for the last couple of weeks, my assessment was that perhaps only two – the winger Tommy Makinson and the scrum-half Danny Richardson – were genuinely being shielded.

The risk of a mistimed injury was illustrated mid-way through the first half when St Helens’s French half-back Theo Fages was hurt in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Ash Handley from scoring the first Leeds try and had to receive treatment on the pitch for several minutes. Thankfully, however, he recovered to play a full – and influential – part in the remainder of the match.

The first half was evenly contested with Leeds holding a 10-6 lead until a few minutes before half-time. At that point, St Helens pressed firmly down on the accelerator and the first of three tries by the impressive centre Kevin Naiqama signalling the start of a period of dominance through to the hour mark in which they registered 30 unanswered points. A couple of late Leeds tries gave the score-line an element of respectability for the home side – including a second for Handley to make him the league’s joint-highest try-scorer this season, no mean feat in a side that has been generally struggling – but the final tally of 36-20 was an accurate reflection of St Helens’s superiority. The headline to Peter Smith’s report in the following day’s Yorkshire Evening Post – “Imperious Saints canter to victory” – summed it up pretty well.

This was my first visit to the Headingley ground since the completion of its major overhaul. The two fine new stands running along the full lengths of the touchlines complement the Extentia Stand at the St Michael’s Lane end of the ground, from which I had a full view of the proceedings. Only the triangular-shaped terrace for visiting supporters at the far end of the ground remains from the venue as it used to be. It is an attractive stadium and a worthy location for the Leeds club.

“All we need now is a team to match the surroundings”, said the elderly man to my left as the sun was setting behind the St Helens support and the kick-off time approached. The subsequent events on the pitch confirmed his analysis of the current status of the Leeds team.

My view from a raised perspective behind the posts enabled me to appreciate fully the speed with which St Helens transferred the ball across the pitch and the options provided in the different running lines taken by the support players. At the heart of the action was the excellent Jonny Lomax – Fages’s half-back partner – who invariably took the ball as second or third receiver from the play-the-ball and went through the repertoire of skills with his variations in passing and kicking and, occasionally, dummying the pass to run with the ball. His performance was a pleasure to watch as were, in their different ways, those of the aggressive prop forward Luke Thompson and the elusive Regan Grace on the left wing. “He’s a good player, is that” said my neighbour in admiration, after Grace had skilfully side-stepped the covering defence and registered St Helens’s opening try.

It’s a theme I have explored before. The pleasure of watching top sportsmen at the top of their game.

A Local Rivalry

5th August 2019

In Scotland, the footprint for the locations of the 10 teams in the Premier Division of the sport of shinty – the Mowi Premiership – covers a large area across the north and west of the country: from Strathpeffer, a couple of miles from the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, to Tignabruaich in Argyll. However, the fiercest rivalry is between two near neighbours – Kingussie Camanachd Club and Newtonmore Camanachd Club – separated by a mere three miles in the Spey valley.

Kingussie gained an entry into the 2005 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most successful sports team, having won their league for 20 consecutive years. This run was later extended to include all of the first 12 seasons of the Premier Division, which was established in its present format in 1996. However, the tables have turned in recent years: Newtonmore have won 8 of the last 9 league titles and are the current champions. Moreover, Newtonmore are also the holders of the prestigious Tulloch Homes Camanachd Cup, the knock-out trophy which they have won a record 33 times and which they will defend next month in the 2019 final. (Kingussie were eliminated by Kyles Athletic at the quarter-final stage).

I have reported on the intensity of local sporting rivalries before, of course. An Ordinary Spectator offers reflections on Headingley versus Roundhay (rugby union) and Hull FC versus Hull Kingston Rovers (rugby league) for example, as well as (at a slightly wider level) Yorkshire versus Lancashire in different forms of cricket. On Friday evening, during a visit to the Highlands (with my wife, Angela), we took the opportunity to observe how this played out in Premier Division shinty when Kingussie (sitting at the top of the league) hosted Newtonmore (in fourth place, but with games in hand).

The Kingussie ground at The Dell is about half a mile out of town on the road to the ruined Ruthven Barracks, which were sacked by the retreating Jacobites after their defeat at Culloden in 1746. The arena comprises a flat, well-maintained pitch, bounded by trees on two sides, with a small grandstand on the popular side and an electronic scoreboard to the right of the tea-room behind one of the goals. Overlooking the venue is the 1600 foot Creag Bheag, which Angela and I walked up and over the following day on a route that then took us from Loch Gynack to the scattered remains of the former Raitts Township, where community life was brought to an end by the Highland Clearances of 200 years ago.

Not surprisingly, the combination of the battle for local bragging rights (as well as league points) and the warm weather generated a sizeable crowd: perhaps 500 or so. We stood in the shade towards one end of the pitch, where we had a good view of the whole expanse as well as a clear sight of the intricacies of the close-quarter play when the ball came into our vicinity.

Although shinty’s playing area is much larger than that for rugby or soccer – pitches are usually 140-170 yards long – it was noticeable that the action shifted from one end to the other remarkably quickly, as the defensive players on both sides were adapt at striking the ball considerable distances in hurried circumstances. There were obvious overlaps with the skill-sets of not only golf and hockey, but also tennis: the re-starts when the ball went out of the play on the side lines took the form of a tricky double-handed overhead serve with the ball being struck by the toe-end of the stick.

What also came across very clearly was the full commitment of the players. It takes some bravery to compete for the ball, either in the air or on the ground, amidst the furious wielding and full-blooded swings of the sticks. Some of the players wore helmets, though not all. Early in the match I judged, in particular, that it would be very unlikely that I would ever volunteer for the position of goalkeeper: a decision that was emphatically confirmed later on.

The close matching of the two sides was evident. The play took the form of a series of close tussles, with very little time available to the player with the ball. Unlike in soccer, where a side might make a series of unchallenged passes, without gaining ground, in order to control the tempo of the game, there was no respite here. Likewise, unlike in rugby, where there can be a fluidity of movement through one side running or passing the ball through several phases of play, here there was a rapid turnover of possession between the sides.

I sensed that the individual players were familiar with their direct opponents. On some occasions, when there was a hold up in play, pairs of players seemed to engage in friendly conversation, as if enquiring about the health of their respective families. Seconds later, play having restarted, they would be crashing into each other without any holding back. I thought that the referee handled the game well. He seemed to pull up most of the obvious fouls, without detracting from the physical component of the encounter.

Kingussie had most of the early play and it was something of a surprise when, after 10 minutes, Newtonmore took the lead, a long-range shot being misjudged by the home goalkeeper. Kingussie’s mobile forward line posed a continual threat, however, and, after the interval, two impressive strikes appeared to have secured their side the win. Then, in the third minute of added time, Kingussie carelessly lost possession in midfield and a final Newtonmore attack saw them squeeze home the equaliser to the delight of the visiting support. (Unfortunately, there was a lack of available team sheets with which to identify the players). The final score was 2-2.

After the final whistle sounded, Angela and I walked down the touchline towards the tea-room. When we reached the end of the pitch, we noticed that no-one else seemed to have moved very far and that the players were still out on the pitch. At first, I thought that this might have been analogous to watching the rugby league in Toronto (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator), where the match is just part of an afternoon’s socialising for the local spectators. However, it transpired that for this Kingussie-Newtonmore encounter – with the league points having been shared – there was to be a separate penalty shoot-out to decide the winners of the Sir Tommy MacPherson Memorial Trophy.

We had a close view of this from behind the goal (though safely to the side). The players took turns to blast the ball at the respective goalkeepers, the latter attired sans helmet or gloves. The outcome was decided when one of the Newtonmore penalty-takers fired his shot straight on to the Kingussie goalkeeper’s fingers – a guaranteed fracture, I would have thought – and the ball stayed out of the net. The next Kingussie penalty was taken by the goalkeeper himself, who duly and emphatically dispatched his effort. When the final Newtonmore attempt sailed over the bar, high and handsome like an 8 iron, the cup was Kingussie’s.

And so ended an enjoyable evening. I had not only added another sport to the list of those on which I have reported in book or blog, but I had also – to my reward – done so in the context of the local community in which it features so significantly. If there were any doubt about that, it was assuaged by the sight of the toddlers-– some aged no more than 3 or 4 – running on the pitch, complete with their sticks of appropriate size, at half-time and at the end of the game. Some will be participants in future Kingussie-Newtonmore encounters, no doubt.

Postscript

The brief match report in today’s edition of The Scotsman states that Kingussie’s goalscorers were Ruaridh Anderson and James Falconer. The Newtonmore goals were scored by Fraser MacKintosh and Conor Jones.