Shinty: Fort William 4-3 Kyles: Jim Clark rally drives Fort
IF THE outcome was in doubt until the final seconds, the identity of the man who settled this pulsating contest was as predictable as the downpours of biblical proportions that punctuated shinty's showpiece final in Oban.
And lo it came to pass, that once again big Jim Clark stole the show, coming off the bench at half-time to score two second-half goals for the third year running, in the process ensuring that the men in yellow and black etched their name into sporting history by joining shinty's holy trinity of Kingussie, Newtonmore and Kyles, the only other teams ever to have won three successive Camanachd Cup finals.
Clark is a lumbering greybeard these days, and his contribution was almost entirely limited to two venomous and opportunistic strikes, yet it is scarcely possible to imagine a more dramatic intervention than that of the Fort William veteran. His first goal came with his first touch, within seconds of the restart and before many of the large crowd had settled after the half-time break, but it was his second that finally killed off Kyles. Not only did it come with just two minutes remaining, but it followed an impossibly dramatic seven-minute spell in which Kyles' gritty youngsters had fought back from 3-0 to level the scores at 3-3, with two of their goals fit to grace any final.
Clark's first goal straight after the break had given Fort William a two-goal cushion after Victor Smith's strike midway through a scrappy and unsatisfactory first half had given Fort a one-goal lead. When Gary Innes, the professional musician whose job keeps him away so often but who is one of Fort's most creative forces, turned smartly and thrashed in a third from 30 yards after 70 minutes, it looked as if the game would peter out to its obvious conclusion. Yet no-one had told Kyles and still they came, roared on by their legions of voluble supporters who dominated the ground in general and the large hill along one touchline in particular.
Even though they seemed done and dusted with 15 minutes left and three goals in arrears, Kyles had led a charmed life on their way to this final, winning two replays when they had been well-behind in the abandoned game, and they weren't about to give up in the club's first final for nine years. Before this match started they believed they were fated to win, no matter that they were facing the champions, a Fort William side who have displaced Kingussie as the game's dominant force.
If the youngsters' resolve ever began to flag, it was soon renewed by cries from the stands of "do it for Andy", a reference to dearly departed Andy Irvine, the skipper of the Kyles side which won the 1994 final and who died of cancer earlier this year.
Even then, when Fraser Macdonald scored a fine goal on 75 minutes, driving the ball across Fort keeper Scott McNeil from the left on a rare Kyles sortie into the danger area, it looked for all the world like a consolation goal. Then came a wonder goal from Duncan Kerr, the fleet-footed young forward who Fort coach Drew McNeil had identified as a danger man before the game began. He had looked the Kyles player most likely to score before the break, at one stage lashing two 40-yard shots just wide within a minute of each other. Now, as the match entered its 80th minute, he picked the ball up in midfield and with scarcely a look goalwards drove it into the top corner from almost 50 yards for a goal that brought a stunned crowd to its feet.
Not that Kerr was finished there. With Kyles sensing a truly extraordinary turnaround, the men in blue pressed home their advantage, lashing the ball towards the Fort goal at every opportunity. It might have been too much to hope for lightning to strike twice, but that's exactly what happened. Or, to be more precise, Kerr struck twice, the diminutive striker receiving the ball 30 yards from goal and out towards the right-hand touchline before immediately battering it goalwards. It was another strike-in-a-million, the ball flying over McNeil's flailing caman and into the top corner to send the crowd beserk.
Then came Clark to end the fairy story. If his killer blow – a scuffed effort in which he beat Kyles goalie Kenny Macdonald to an Innes cross – wasn't in the same class as Kerr's brace of goals, it was somehow fitting that it was the big Fort William forward whose late strike settled a match that only truly sparked into life in its last quarter but which then went on to provide a climax as memorable as anything witnessed in more than a century of Camanachd Cup finals. This is Fort's seventh successive final, but converting that presence into silverware has been Clark's province. In each of the last two years his brace of goals have been the difference between success and failure against Kingussie and Inverary for the men from Lochaber, a fact reflected by his collection of the Albert Smith Medal for the game's outstanding player after both of those Camanachd Cup final wins.
This time, despite the Cowal club's dejection at being pipped by Fort, it was equalling fitting that the Albert Smith Medal went to young Kyles defender Donald Irvine, a doughty defender whose play reminded many of his beloved uncle Andy's performance back in the 1994 final. It was that sort of day: replete with symbolism, a day history was made, old friends remembered and the sport of shinty showcased with a game that will live long in the memory of everyone who witnessed it.
Fort William: S McNeil; J MacLeod, A Robertson, N Robertson, N McPhee, C Bamber, G Innes, J MacDonald (capt), G MacKinnon, D Rodger, V Smith (M Lawrie, 70), B Simpson (J Clark, 45).
Kyles Athletic: K Macdonald; D Irvine, C MacColl, A King, R MacDonald, D Martin (C Milar, 60), G Irvine (capt), R MacLeod, F Macdonald, T Whyte, D Kerr, C Macdonald.
Referee: Ronnie Campbell (Fort William)
Scorers: Smith 32; Clark 46, Innes 70, F Macdonald 75, Kerr 80, Kerr 82, Clark 88.
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