Right end of the stick

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WHEN Richard Tulloch was announced as shinty's first ever salaried chief executive, few questions were asked beyond: who? Understandable, given that the man charged with leading the sport into a brave new era has spent the last 30 years in management posts in England. Yet, only four days into his new job, the Aberdeen-born 55-year-old has already shown he is unlikely to remain a stranger to the Scottish shinty community too long.

Since Wednesday, he has been involved in discussions with Argyll and Bute Council officials about the possibility of taking the Camanachd Cup to Dunoon for the first time. One of his next tasks will be to step into the waters between the Camanachd and MacAulay Associations, muddied recently by the latter's decision to withdraw the MacAulay Cup competition this term. Chosen to lead, he will do so.

Yet this articulate strategist is not about to sweep gung-ho into his 30,000-a-year post leaving a trail of confusion behind him. His policy, instead, will be to reach out to the sport's lifeblood and open his ears as well as his arms.

"I am keen to get around the clubs, maybe inviting three or four of them at a time to meet me on their territory," says the former Cumbernauld shinty player. "It is very easy to delude yourself you are close to people when there is miles between you. I have learned that through experience."

Despite a high-flying managerial career in English local government, charities and quangos, this is Tulloch's first post in sport. Years in dealing with groups at community level, however, have taught him the value of listening.

"I come at this with no baggage. I do feel my career has given me a lot of transferable skills, though. I am keen to meet people and ask them how they feel about what we do; what we could do more of, less of and what we shouldn't do at all. My role at the moment will be very much listening rather than doing this or that. We need to build bridges and appreciate roles people play."

Reaching out to people is, of course, a two-way thing. How will a sporting community, often conservative in its outlook, welcome him? Working down south, after all, means there is not a lasting lilt of the Doric upon his tongue. Yet, delving deeper into his background, it appears the events which shaped Tulloch's early life often took place within sight of a shinty field - or at least a free-hit away from one.

He was one of the first co-editors of the Shinty Yearbook, back in the early 1970s, and an enthusiastic, if unspectacular, player. Passion for the game, therefore, is not something he will have to scroll for in his personal organiser.

"Peter English set it up in 1971 then head-hunted myself and Douglas Lowe to co-edit the Yearbook. We did it for five years. I also formed Northallerton Shinty Club in Yorkshire, but it was extremely difficult to get together a first 12 to play. Still, we managed to take part in the St Andrews Sixes five years in a row. We were one of the first clubs to come into the game outwith Scotland.

"London have obviously come since, but we had a modest degree of success."

Modesty is certainly something Tulloch exudes. He describes his efforts swinging an ash caman as "not very good", although his claim to fame is scoring both goals for Northallerton in a 2-1 victory on the Fife coast a couple of decades back. Since then, being good is something which seems to have come fairly naturally to him in his career, despite any protestations otherwise.

Originally trained as a town planner, Tulloch worked his way up through several high-level posts in the north east, largely on the back of his leadership and people skills.

Non-confrontational in approach, he is under no illusions, however, as to what is expected of shinty's first ever leading man. He also knows tough decisions will have to be broached if the sport is to continue to develop in this country.

"I am aware there are tensions and relationship issues which have to be dealt with. I would hope to speak to the MacAulay Association, for example, to see if there is anything which can be done there. It is great to see new clubs such as Nairnshire, Lochbroom and Ardnamurchan setting up but, equally, we need more referees. We need to get our thinking caps on.

"Another thing we have to do is spread the load of volunteers. Developing them is critical. I have worked with the voluntary sector and you see clubs and organisations falling away when one member dies or moves away. I know it is not very sexy to talk about things like that but it is still vital."

Shinty has grown in tandem with the communities in which it first sprung and, naturally, there are traditionalists who drag their heels against the move to expansion within. Still (by definition) an amateur game, detractors fear the drive towards greater professionalism at HQ level will damage the game at the grass-roots. It is an issue Tulloch knows will crop up during his tenure and one he is respectful of. It is not one he will brush under the carpet, however.

"There is a potential issue regarding cultural dilution. Expansion, by its nature, will always encounter things like that. However, I don't come at this with any axe to grind. If the members' collective view is against change, then the Board have intellectual challenges ahead. I have already been encouraged by the willingness to expand in a lot of areas. As far as I am concerned, shinty is a great game to play and as many people as possible should be able to enjoy it," he argues.

Whilst propelling the sport into new areas and exploiting untouched opportunities in line with the game plan will form part of Tulloch's portfolio, he is also pragmatic in his aims.

"We are not going to see shinty kicking football off the back page of the Daily Record in ten years. It is not going to happen," he says. "However, if we can make it more accessible and expand it into other, new areas like the Central Belt, that can only be a good thing. People from sportscotland said recently that shinty is showing itself to be more professional. We must build on that.

"At youth level, we also don't want to see people who want to play stop because there is no structure in place to keep them."

It might only be four days into his stewardship, but it sounds as if shinty's new man knows the brief.