With just a single goal separating the two sides in each of the last five finals, shinty’s showpiece event, the Camanachd Cup, has shown an unrivalled capacity to produce remarkable, nail-biting climaxes.
In the process, a series of goalscoring conquering heroes have etched their names into the sport’s history. In recent years, Fort William’s Jim Clark, Kingussie’s Ronald Ross and Kyles Athletic striker Roddy MacDonald – who scored four goals in last year’s incredible 6-5 cup final victory over Argyll rivals Inveraray – have all put in bravura match-winning performances on shinty’s biggest stage.
Yet no-one has eclipsed Danny MacRae’s unbelievably dramatic hat-trick for Newtonmore against bitter rivals Kingussie two years ago. It was, after all, 25 years since the greatest club in the history of the sport had won the cup, a period in which the neighbouring village of Kingussie had dominated the sport and picked up a dizzying 13 Camanachd Cup winners’ titles (including a 12-1 humiliation of Newtonmore in 1997).
The whole village of Newtonmore was willing their side on with a desperation born of a quarter of century of frustration, and none so more than MacRae’s father Angus, a former club captain and legend who won the Camanchd Cup eight times and had played when Newtonmore last won the cup in 1986.
And how Newtonmore rose to the occasion. Defender Norman Campbell won the Arthur Smith trophy for man of the match by shackling Ronald Ross, the game’s greatest goalscorer and, at the other end, MacRae put in a muscular, menacing performance that brought the record crowd at Bught Park in Inverness to its feet. All three goals were stunning strikes, his last settling the affair deep into the cup’s first ever extra-time.
“It was the best match of my career, an amazing day,” says MacRae. “The whole of Newtonmore was there, and it was the biggest crowd any of us have ever played in front of. The game started at 100 miles an hour and never slowed. We went in at half-time 3-1 up but, when they drew back to 3-3, all I could think was ‘oh no, please not against Kingussie’ but we dug deep and dominated extra time. The feeling I got when I scored that winning goal is impossible to describe.”
Macrae will be a marked man on Saturday when Newtonmore take on reigning champions Kyles Athletic in Fort William. He’s already scored 32 goals this year – his highest tally at this stage of the season – and the men from Tighnabruaich are uncomfortably aware that the burly 6ft 1in striker has a record of scoring important goals. As well as that cup final hat-trick, the 29-year-old bricklayer scored the winner in the league deciders in 2010 against Fort William, and then in 2011 against Kyles at Dunoon.
Saturday will see a resumption of the most storied rivalry in the sport, with the first Kyles-Newtonmore final for 33 years. The two clubs are shinty’s Old Firm, with Newtonmore having 29 Cup wins to their name and Kyles 21 (after Kingussie, also with 21, the next most successful club, Fort William, only has six). The two clubs are mutually respectful – each played in the other’s centenary celebration match – and with Kingussie’s golden generation now a memory, Kyles and ’More have resumed a historic rivalry that stretches way back to their first Camanachd Cup final meeting in 1905.
MacRae’s father played in the 1980 final, won 6-5 by Kyles at Kingussie, while his first four cup finals were all against Kyles.
Newtonmore just pipped Kyles to the league title last year but this year they have dominated the league, wrapping up the title yesterday with a win at lowly Kinlochshiel with three games left to play.
Yet despite Kyles’ dip in the league, the Camanachd Cup holders remain Newtonmore’s biggest challengers, as they recently reminded the Eilan men when they beat them 3-2 in the MacAulay Cup final.
“That was such a frustrating day,” says MacRae, who scored a goal and had another disallowed at Mossfield Park in Oban. “We played well but several refereeing decisions went against us, including the sending-off of our captain Jamie Robinson just after half time. It was – how shall I put this? – very annoying. There’s definitely some unfinished business there.”
Despite both sides chasing a double, that MacAulay Cup final was their only meeting so far this season, with both league matches still to be played. MacRae is wary of Kyles, and has a strong sense of how the game is likely to unfold. “Kyles are much smaller, leaner and younger than us,” he says. “We’re much bigger and stronger, so we’ll tend to come out on top in the tackles but they’re really fit and mobile and will try to move us around and tire us out.
“Our mission is to stop their centres like Dunky Kerr getting the ball into Roddy MacDonald because he scores a lot of goals and caused a lot of damage in the MacAulay Cup final. Keeping him quiet is top priority.”
That task will fall to Norman Campbell – “He’s hard and skilful, the best defender in shinty,” says MacRae – and Ackie Macrae, who’s moved from attack to defence with outstanding results. But MacRae concedes that Newtonmore may need to score a hatful of goals to claim the club’s 30th Camanachd Cup final victory, and knows that the creative partnership of centres Stevie MacDonald and skipper Jamie Robinson, who is just back from a two-match suspension following the MacAulay Cup final, will be crucial, as will the form of forwards Glen and Fraser Mackintosh.
But, most important of all, says MacRae, is the knowledge that each team carries the hopes of their village, with both Cowal and Newtonmore set to empty for the final.
MacRae spent his youth at Eilean Bheannchair watching his father playing and “had a caman in my hands as soon as I could walk” but he only played once with his dad, who came out of retirement to play with his son, was sent off and promptly re-retired.
Newtonmore veterans of that 1980 6-5 defeat by Kyles, men such as Norman MacArthur and Eilan goalscoring legend Barnie Crawford, will be in attendance today, hoping to see the next generation confirm that Newtonmore are right back where they think the team belongs, at the pinnacle of shinty.
“No pressure then,” laughs MacRae – but he sounds like he means it...