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Kilmallie manager John Stewart is clear on what’s required for Kilmallie to continue their progress next season and fitness is at the core.

The club’s annual general meeting takes place at Caol Community Hall on Saturday January 25 with an 11am start but it would be a major surprise if Stewart wasn’t to continue in the role which saw him lead Kilmallie to Mowi Premiership survival following their promotion from the National Division at the end of the 2018 shinty season.

After floating between the National Division and the Premiership in recent years, Kilmallie cemented their place in the top flight last season with a game to spare and their boss is looking for more of the same.

‘Our aims for next season are pretty much the same as last year,’ said Stewart as he prepares his side to go again. ‘There’s always the worry that having gone into last season flying after winning the National and Balliemore, we won’t quite have the same bounce this time around.

‘However, we’ve told the boys that staying up was as big an achievement as the league and Balliemore successes and we now want to improve further and get closer to Caberfeidh who finished just above us. Cabers have Scottish internationals like Craig Morrison, Blair Morrison and Kevin Bartlett who are great players so everyone has to be at it to make it happen.

‘There are some key requirements though and I must say that fitness is a huge thing in the Premiership. You can see the advantage it gives you, especially on the wings. The speed at which teams like Kingussie and Oban Camanachd play makes it difficult to compete against unless you are also at your peak fitness. You also come up against the best defenders in shinty – guys like Rory Kennedy.

‘It’s really night and day compared to the National Division. It’s such a cut-throat league and it’s pretty much two leagues within one as the top clubs battle it out for the title and the others look to avoid relegation. Hopefully, our experience last season will stand us in good stead though and we really need to treat every game like a cup final.

‘However, I’ll know more about where we are at after the pre-season. We are training on Tuesday and Thursday each week; fitness on Tuesdays and stick work on a Thursday.

‘The turn-out has been okay so far although we’ll subtly switch nights if we think anyone is avoiding the fitness sessions,’ he laughed. ‘We are lucky to have the 3G pitch at Lochaber High School to work on though. It’s a great facility.’

Kilmallie were troubled by injuries during the second part of last season and boss Stewart still has concerns. ‘Daniel Stewart will miss the start of the season as he has a hernia problem. It will probably be April before we see him back in action. That’s a blow as he’s been terrific since he joined us and he was our top scorer last season.

‘Liam MacDonald is another concern. He’s been troubled with a knee problem for a while. I’d love to have a fully fit Liam MacDonald in the side and the same goes for Michael Rodger.

‘Jordan MacPhee and Ryan Stewart are both working their way back to fitness so we’ve had a number of injuries to contend with. Aaron Sandison is back training again though and that’s good news.

‘So fitness, player availability and getting that early confidence will be key to our chances. I’m giving up my time to do this job and I give it my all so I expect full commitment from everyone else too.’

Stewart also recognises the need to introduce younger players when the time is right. He said: ‘Ben MacKinnon and Aidan Love are two of our promising youngsters. Ben is an attacker whilst Aidan is more a wing centre. Both made appearances from the bench last season and we could see more of them in the first team if they keep working hard.’

The backbone to the Kilmallie team remains unchanged as Stewart continued: ‘Innes Blackhall will again be a main player for us next season. I didn’t see anyone get the better of him last year and he thoroughly deserved his place in the Scotland U21 squad. He can play anywhere and I could actually do with two or three of him in different roles. I think half back is his best position though; he’s very influential whilst playing there.

‘Steven Stewart has been excellent since he joined us from Fort William, Craig MacIsaac is another who has a big role to play and we are lucky to have a keeper like Shane Gillies who I consider, along with Cameron Sutherland (Oban Camanachd) and Scott MacLachlan (Inveraray) to be one of the best keepers of his age group. Calum MacDougall is another terrific player. He travels from Edinburgh to train and play for Kilmallie which is great commitment. He’s a big lad and he really needs to realise just how good he actually is.

‘We would also like a cup run this year. Last season, we drew Newtonmore in the first rounds of the MacTavish and Macaulay, both in the space of a month, and we exited both competitions so a kinder draw this time around would be welcome. We also lost out to Lochaber in the Camanachd Cup second round soon after so we’d definitely like a longer cup run this time around.’

Kilmallie are helped by the fact they have consistency off the park ahead of the new season as Stewart explains.

‘Archie MacPherson will continue as my assistant and he’s a huge help, bringing great experience having previously been a manager is his own right. He also took the North U21s last season.

‘Ryan Stewart will take the training and put the boys through their paces whilst John Wallace provides first aid and we are very lucky to have someone with John’s skills. Meantime, former first-team keeper Kevin Toye stays on as Kilmallie second team manager where he’s doing a tremendous job.’

Looking back on last season, Stewart said: ‘We had a good pre-season last year including friendly wins over Beauly and Fort William and we started well last season with league wins at Newtonmore and Lochaber.

‘However, we then went on a six-match losing run in the league until we picked up a point at Lovat in a match we probably should have won. We moved Innes Blackhall to half back for that match and it’s a switch that paid off as it seemed to settle the team.

‘That result gave us confidence and we later added wins over Kinlochshiel and Inveraray to pretty much secure Premiership shinty for another year. However, we also lost to the bottom two sides – Lochaber and Inveraray – during the season.

‘It’s important next term to take as many points as possible from the teams round about you so our matches against Caberfeidh, Fort William and Glasgow Mid Argyll in particular will be key next season.

‘The fixtures became very stop-start towards the end of last season. I’m not one to blame the Camanachd Association for that. I think there were a lot of contributing factors but it was a nightmare to deal with. We were at Lovat in the middle of August and didn’t play again until we faced Kingussie in mid-October. We had stopped training by then and with our last match against Kyles Athletic was scheduled for mid-November so sharing the points in that match was definitely the right thing to do.

‘It was great for all the boys to secure our Premiership status with one game remaining. Myself, Archie (MacPherson) and John (Wallace) thanked all the players for their efforts. The aim was always to keep Kilmallie in the Premiership and we were all delighted to have managed it. It’s taken a lot of hard work and effort but it’s been well worth it in the end.’

Looking ahead, Stewart added: ‘It’s important to have the local derby against Fort William back. Fort William have done the right thing over the last few seasons and they’ve built a really good side. They are quick and, if they start well, they could have a good season in the Premiership. As with any prosperous shinty club, there is a committed backroom team who ensure smooth running from the youths right through to the seniors.’

John Stewart highlighted the work done on their Canal Parks pitch as an example, saying: ‘There is so much good work happening behind the scenes. Donald Lamont and Peter Jackson do a great job looking after the pitch. We had the prestige of hosting last season’s Sutherland Cup final and finalists Lochside Rovers and Lovat seconds were very complimentary about our pitch and facilities. That sort of thing is great for the club’s reputation and a lot of people put in a big effort to make it happen.’

Kilmallie have two pre-season friendlies confirmed as they meet Oban Celtic at Mossfield on Saturday February 22 and they have lined up a BSW Cup clash with Lochaber on Saturday February 29, the week before the new season starts and Stewart may add to that schedule.

Stewart first broke into the Kilmallie as a raw 15-year-old, all of 25 years ago. He became the club’s most decorated player over that time, enjoying National League and North Division 1 title wins. He was also a vital part of a squad which featured in several cup finals – one Camanachd Cup and five MacTavish Cup amongst them – but a cup success proved elusive.

His talent as a regular goalscorer was recognised on the international stage with nine senior Scotland caps and three appearances for the U21s to his name and that international prowess is something he encourages his own players to aim for.

‘I tell our guys to aim to become international players. Kilmallie have had numerous players represent Scotland at U17 and U21 levels over the years but they should always aim to kick on into the senior side. Liam (MacDonald) has achieved it recently on a couple of occasions but there should definitely be more.

‘I’ve no doubt Innes (Blackhall) can do it but there are others too like Shane (Gillies) and Calum (MacDougall). These boys would all benefit from a mix of club and international shinty.’

Fitness, ability and hard work were attributes John Stewart oozed as a player and they are the standards he sets his squad with the countdown to the new shinty season well under way.

Oban Celtic pre-season friendlies

Oban Celtic’s pre-season plans are complete.

Dougie MacIntyre and Les Kinvig have set their charges a testing schedule, starting with a match against Lochaber at Mossfield on Saturday February 1.

The Oban Celtic second team take on their Inveraray counterparts, again at Mossfield, a week later.

The Oban Celtic first team will be tested against Mowi Premiership side Kyles Athletic at Dunoon on Saturday February 15 whilst they host top flight opposition once more the week after with Kilmallie the visitors to Oban.

Oban Celtic will complete a busy month against Mowi South Division 1 side Taynuilt at Mossfield, with the annual Robert Wylie Memorial Cup at stake, on Saturday February 29, just seven days before the new season starts.

The Oban team will defend the trophy having beaten Taynuilt 3-0 at the Taynuilt Sports Field last year. The goals were scored by Daniel MacMillan, Ross MacMillan and Lee Askew whilst Neil Carmichael was awarded the man of the match quaich.

All the friendly games throw up at 1pm with the exception of the meeting between the Oban Celtic and Inveraray second teams which is a noon start.

Oban Celtic assistant manager Les Kinvig said: ‘We’ve set the boys some tough games with Kyles, who are one of the game’s top sides, Lochaber and Kilmallie all in the Premiership last season. That lets our boys see the level they need to get to.

‘We’ll try a few things and maybe use one or two of our first team fringe players in the reserve match against Inveraray whilst the Taynuilt game allows us to introduce some of the second team boys into the senior side.

‘The weather has hampered the start to our pre-season training but we are under way now. The stick work and training is one thing but you can’t beat getting pre-season played, that’s where the real benefit is, so we hope the weather doesn’t scupper our plans.’

Oban Camanachd reshuffle

Oban Camanachd have reshuffled their pre-season plans to include a meeting with Ballachulish.

The Scottish Sea Farms Glasgow Celtic Society Cup holders welcome Mowi National Division side Inveraray to Oban for their first pre-season friendly on Saturday February 1 with the Oban Camanachd and Lochside Rovers players having an inter-club mixed match a week later.

The Glasgow Mid Argyll first and second teams travel to Oban on Saturday February 15 whilst the Newtonmore first and second teams are the visitors the week after with Oban Camanachd and Lochside Rovers providing the opposition.

The Oban Camanachd squad round off their pre-season schedule with a trip to the Jubilee Park to take on Ballachulish, who finished second in Mowi South Division 1 last season, on Saturday February 29 .

Meanwhile, Oban Camanachd were unable to go ahead with their sixes tournament as the weather once more proved a formidable opponent on Saturday January 18.

The club have looked at all alternatives but, due to the weather and time constraints, the event will now take place later in the year.

Lovat set three

Lovat have confirmed three pre-season friendlies, all against Mowi National Division opposition, ahead of the new shinty season.

With co-managers Alan MacRae and Jamie Matheson taking over from Fraser Gallacher in the close-season, the Balgate side will look to build on their Lovat Cup victory over Beauly when they meet Glenurquhart at Balgate on Saturday February 8.

They follow that up with a clash against Strathglass on the following Saturday with the venue dependent on playable pitches.

Lovat were to play Lochaber on Saturday February 22 but that game is now off and they complete their preseason programme against Skye Camanachd at Balgate on Saturday February 29.

Pre-season friendlies begin

Inverness and Kinlochshiel are set to get the pre-season friendly matches under way on Saturday January 25.

The sides renew rivalries after meeting at the same stage in previous pre-seasons.

However, they will wait until nearer the time to confirm the venue with the weather and playable pitches being the main factor.

WCA fixture list

The Women’s Camanachd Association are putting the final touches to their fixture list for the 2020 shinty season.

Clubs should be informed of their fixture schedule before the end of the month.

Badenoch are defending champions in the Mowi National Division with Skye looking to retain the Mowi Valerie Fraser Camanachd Cup.

2020 Glengarry tournament

There will be a full house at Glengarry’s annual indoor tournament to contest the Johnstone Rose Bowl at the Nevis Centre, Fort William, on Saturday January 25.

Badenoch are reigning champions having beaten Glengarry in last year’s final.

There will also be a player of the tournament award, won by Badenoch’s Kirsty Deans last year. The tournament starts at noon.

The Johnstone Rose Bowl was donated to the Glengarry Girls’ Shinty Club in 1998 (a year after the team was formed) by Mrs Ailsa Johnstone of DA Johnstone and Son Contractors, Invergarry, who have been loyal sponsors ever since.

Gaelic Community Shinty Sixes

The game of the Gael and the language of the Gael met as the Gaelic Community Sixes took place at Millburn Academy on Saturday January 18.

Both Gaelic speakers and Gaelic learners battled it out in a tournament designed to encourage the use of Gaelic in shinty.

Six teams competed in the men’s competition with Skye Camanachd defeating Inbhir Nis 6-2 in the final following the section games.

Strathglass came out on top in the ladies’ competition whilst BSGI Buidhe and BSGI Purpaidh contested the Cupa Bhòrd na Gàidhlig. The sides drew 3-3 in an exciting encounter with BSGI Purpaidh taking the honours following a penalty shoot-out.