Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A Highland Fling double header

Regular Soccermongery readers know how I love to experience the lore of other football nations to see how their fans, players and stadia fit together.
..and if you know your history! Celtic fans before kickoff.

And there's few lands this sassenach has greater respect for than Scotland. When football was proclaimed to be 'coming home' at Euro 96, the very assumption seemed one-eyed.

No doubt England is 'a' home of football. The Sheffield Rules and the Football Association are indeed foundation stones. But it was the Football League and my beloved Aston Villa that was literally built on the pioneering skills and drive of Scots. Archie Hunter, George Ramsay and William McGregor are basically the forbears of the football industry. They did it from Villa's boardroom, touchline and playing fields.

And so it was with a keen eye to history, I went along with my pal and fellow journo Iain Ramage to not one, but two games. Talk about making the most of a Saturday afternoon!

Terry Butcher's team play for him.
First destination: the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium for Inverness Caledonian Thistle against Celtic. Hype sprang eternal from the local press. Fresh memories of a 3-2 Caley win the season before coupled with Celtic's Premier Lag to Rangers put a determination in the step of the home team.

And a well organised Caley proved a match for the visitors even growing in stature as the game progressed. That was until Greg Tansey was sent off for what boss Terry Butcher called "assault by fingernail". A midfield challenge with Georgios Samaras ended Caley's chances as Celtic eventually broke the ten men's resolve - but not until the hour mark.

Celtic's sell-out end sung with vigour all game even finding time to taunt Terry Butcher for being both English and outclassed by Maradona in Mexico. To me, those taunts sound like back-handed compliments. Inducted into the Scottish Football Hall Of Fame earlier this month, the ex-Rangers star must reflect with quiet satisfaction at Celtic's attention. After all, it was 25 years ago.

Still, one day Scotland will be good enough to play Argentina in the second round of a World Cup - well, possibly.
Good game!
It was disappointing to see the Caley contingent punctuated by empty seats but walking out of the stadium to see a beautiful stretch of water, forest and hills certainly wasn't. There aren't too many more beautiful settings for top division football in the whole world.

After a minor battle to get out of the car park, it was six miles down the road to our next game, a Highland League encounter between leading lights Nairn County and Lossiemouth at Station Park. With no preconceptions of what to expect, I must say I was totally bowled over by the experience.

Walking into the ground, I saw about thirty heads above the perimeter wall. I imagined a modest uncovered terrace about ten rows deep. Turning the corner, to see a mound of turf was a bit of a surprise. The row of heads stood at the back of the hill for the best view. Truly a Spion Kop!

It's such an intimate ground. Fans and players, keepers and management interact. There's nowhere to run and hide at this level. You can hear everything. For Lossiemouth, read potty mouth!
As the visitors left back took a throw, a kid in the stand shouted, "you need a haircut!". The mop top, two hours from a Saturday night out just nodded in agreement.

Special mention for Andy Neill and Connor Gethins, who looks a real talent. I haven't watched enough football north of the border to make a judgement on how high he could play, but surely there's a Scottish League club who could use the ex-Peterhead striker's services again.

Honoured to talk to Les Fridge on the pitch post-match
We sat in the main stand and watched ebb and flow to a three-all climax, although opportunist Lossiemouth took their chances when County should've wrapped it up at 2-nil and 3-2.

The Highland League is played with commitment, pace and fitness. There's quite a lot of chasing the long ball.

Donald, the club photographer saw me take a photo of Nairn boss Les Fridge and offered me my own private audience with him at the final whistle. I was on the pitch talking football with the boss! That doesn't happen at Villa.

The ground is beautifully maintained and every club official wears a Nairn tie to add to the air of pride and professionalism at the club.

"Haste ye back", an expression I heard a few times during my afternoon. I really hope to very soon.