Risking life and limb for glory

Matt Tench visits the dangerous world of shinty, where on this occasion only a record ended up smashed
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The Independent Online
"Hockey," said Jock Turner, choosing his words carefully, "is fairly restricting. In shinty there are no hands, no feet, but everything else is legal."

It was a couple of hours before shinty's cup final, and Turner, a broad shouldered Glasgow policeman, was in contemplative mood. The subject under discussion was what made shinty - or camanachd as it is known in Gaelic - so dangerous. It all came down to being able to wield the stick, or camen, unfettered by the petty limitations imposed on hockey players.

This could lead to some fearsome injuries, Turner, who is chairman of the South of Scotland Camanachd Association, said, and to illustrate the point he promptly whipped out his dentures to reveal a chasm where his four front teeth should have been.

The ball, too, could be lethal to players who wore no protection. Gordon McIntyre, for instance, lost an eye that way, though it did not prevent him returning to score the winner in last year's cup final. Kingussie, the best side of recent times, had been vanquished on that occasion, but they were back this year, and apparently better than ever. The league had been won without losing a game and victory in the Glenmorangie Camanachd Cup final would give Kingussie the grand slam.

Shinty is played throughout Scotland but Kingussie's opponents could not have been closer. They came from the next door village of Newtonmore, the two existing in a permanent state of cheerful enmity three miles apart in the game's Highlands heartland. Newtonmore have enjoyed the ascendancy for much of a 100-year rivalry, but Turner, like just about everybody else, felt their young side was overmatched on Saturday, all the more so because they would be without Evan Cheyne, their best defender, who was suspended after being sent off a few weeks earlier.

There was just one reason for Newtonmore optimism, Turner said: the wind that was beginning to swirl across the Fort William ground which is sighted spectacularly in the shadow of Ben Nevis. Newtonmore, it seems, are the Wimbledon of shinty and like to hit the ball long. "They'll lather the hell out of it,' Turner predicted.

As the teams were welcomed onto the pitch by the pipers, it was possible to detect the similarities to that other cup final - the scarves, the painted faces, the football songs specially adapted - but what struck you more were the differences. There were no touts, no players' pools and, best of all, no Jimmy Hill.

Of the 24 players who lined up ready for the aptly termed hit-off, most eyes in a crowd of around 2,000 were focused on Kingussie's Ronald Ross, a legend in the making whose resemblance to Roy Race goes way beyond the alliteratively obvious.

Ross has enjoyed a prodigious season, scoring more than 70 goals when half that number would normally be regarded as a remarkable haul. His presence in the Kingussie side was not without its poignancy for Newtonmore supporters, for he might have been playing for them. Ross's mother comes from thoroughbred Newtonmore stock, but his father Ian, a Kingussie player and their manager for the last six years, claimed seigniorial rights and 24-year old Ronald has been wearing their blue and red hoops since first picking up a stick. "Newtonmore were a wee bit scannered," said Turner, and you knew what he meant.

Ross was quick to make an impact as battle commenced amid a clatter of camens and blur of extended limbs. Ross's first shot on target came after four minutes, the first camen snapped moments later. As Kingussie settled into their rhythm, their No 6 spun neatly in midfield. "Ally Dallas never bought a drink in his life," a man in a thick blue and white scarf muttered darkly.

After 10 minutes, Ross scored, turning impressively before drilling the ball home from 12 yards, and by half-time it was clearly going to be Kingussie's day. Ross had plundered a hat-trick, his attacking partner Kevin Thain claimed two more, and the favourites were 6-0 ahead. An inexperienced Newtonmore side were making numerous errors at the back and seemed incapable of disturbing a Kingussie defence marshalled by Dave Borthwick with Hansen- like aplomb. The only question for the second half was whether Kingussie would break the cup final scoring record of 11-3 held, naturally, by Newtonmore.

They did, with Ross scrambling home his fifth deep into injury time to secure a 12-1 victory. The rewards in what remains a proudly amateur sport were a handsome cup and a gallon of the sponsor's finest to fill it. For Ross, who would be a millionaire were he similarly successful as a footballer, there was simply the glory and a shrug of the shoulders. "I know footballers earn millions, but they're not as fit as us," he said.

His captain, Ali Borthwick, had no quibble with Ross' status as man of the match. "I don't know what Ronald has for breakfast on a Saturday morning," he said, "but I want some." And would Ross go on to be regarded as one of the sport's all-time greats? "I think he already is."