“IF you don’t put them in you can’t know what you’ve got,” was the legendary Sir Matt Busby’s famous mantra.The late, great Manchester United manager was a firm believer in youth so the batch of babes blooded by then-Lochs boss Kenny Macleod back at the turn of the century would be a fitting tribute to the Scots legend’s memory and belief in young players by spearheading the most successful period in the history of Lochs FC.
And Busby would have heartily approved of the elevation of kids Macmillan, Morrison, Martin, Macleod and Mackenzie from the Creagan Dubh youth team to island football legends.
Lochs won so much with their batch of youth team graduates that Macleod made King Midas look like a merchant of scrap metal – a trophy trend continued by successor Robbie Mackenzie who only recently ended his stint in charge.
In their proud 77-year history the maroon ribbons of Lochs had only been attached to silverware 20-times until 2001 when their golden generation burst onto the scene.
The emergence of the new breed of Lochs starlets sparked a remarkable trophy glut in which they won an incredible 34 major prizes – almost double the amount the club had scooped since being formed in 1934.
This included six league titles, two Highland Amateur Cups, seven Jock Stein Cups and eight Lewis Cups, while on the personal award front the Lewis and Harris Player of the Year award was won by a Lochie seven times in the past nine seasons.
It wasn’t just the sheer volume of trophies and gongs which made their way to the Creagan Dubh trophy cabinet that was impressive – it was the manner in which they won them.
Over the past decade, Lochs’ football ethos has been a wondrous and breathtaking sight. A combination of searing pace and incessant movement, mixed with youthful verve and precocious assurance, with a splash of collective confidence and individual excellence.
They played the most attractive football in the league in recent memory, where the passing ability and vision of Murray and John ‘Uig’ in midfield dovetailed perfectly with the rapier-like forward thrusts of Macmillan, Don ‘Lava’ and Martin.
Their blitzkrieg approach made them almost unstoppable, which at times they were as three league campaigns without a single defeat and four seasons with just a solitary mark in the loss column, testify. The record books show an unerring level of consistency and one which future sides will struggle to match.
The Lochs side were to be so deadly in front of goal they would often run up score lines which read like dialling codes. A net-bursting 1,398 goals were scored in their 11-seasons on the front line which equates to a remarkable average of 128 every campaign.
Their success transcended to both sides of the Minch with their two Highland Amateur Cup wins in three seasons highlighting the gulf between them and the other teams’ right across the entire Highlands and Islands.
In the Lewis and Harris League era, Lochs have been so successful in no small part because of the depth and passionate commitment of their squad. Each of their players worked tirelessly for their side while fully in the knowledge that they are not guaranteed a first-team place every week.
As well as their incredible technique and natural talent, team bosses Macleod and Mackenzie always installed a team ethic into the squad and now new gaffer Roy Shirkie must ensure that a similar philosophy is accepted by a new breed of players.
“The young boys who come in will have to realise just how hard those boys worked and for how long to get to where they did. They will need to do their best to tag onto their success and do it for themselves now,” he admitted as he settles into his new role.
“You won’t get anything unless you work hard as that’s the basis for all success then skill takes over.
“The league table over the past decade tells its own story and for a long time there was nobody who could come near Lochs and although it might be the end for some of the guys but when you speak to some of the other guys who are left they are still as desperate as ever to keep winning.
“And there are still plenty guys left who have been there and done it like David Macmillan who isn’t just a great player but he is a player who works so hard too. He doesn’t wait for things to happen as he goes out and makes things happen instead,” he continued.
“Lochs also have a couple of younger players who are very promising too but while I don’t know them yet, I will in the coming months.
“I would hope to challenge for the title straight away next year. We have a strong side, many of which have won the league before, so to say anything else would be unacceptable and both the players and myself would be aiming for a title challenge.
“You have to take your cap off to Kenny (Macleod) and all the boys who have been there before as they couldn’t have done any better or won much more than they did. They were a smashing team.”
Shirkie’s job for 2012 and beyond will be to forge the past and the future together in a potent blend for the present, a difficult balancing act has rarely seemed simpler.
But back in the mid 1990s junior boss Kenny Macleod sat back and watched the crop take their first Lewis and Harris footballing steps and realised something very special was brewing in the Creagan Dubh teapot.
“I knew early on how good they were going to get,” insisted Macleod, bristling with pride as he recalls the early stages of the squad.
“Even at a young age they were way ahead of the other teams at that level. They were playing under 14 football when they were still only 12 or 13 but they won the lot at that level even when they were younger than the rest of the league.
“Right through each age group they stormed through winning almost every single trophy they were in for. I remember at under 16 level it was Point who were our nearest rivals but we beat them something like 16-1 in one of the league deciders. We were just way ahead of the other sides at that level.”
Lochs were a joy to watch, and for Macleod to manage, with their verve, swagger, charisma and it was his unwavering belief in his teenage charges that tempted him to take over the senior side.
“That’s why I became senior manager,” he revealed. “I knew just how strong and how good this bunch of players were and could be. At the time I took over it was basically the end of the Lochs team at the time although three or four stayed on.
“Around seven or eight stepped straight up from the juniors and were keeping some of the more experienced and established players out of the team. The first cup available to us in 2001 was the Acres Cup and they won it.”
But the celebrations of Lochs remarkable record invites a question: where do they stand in the pantheon of local football legends?
Comparisons across the teams and generations are inherently inexact, because of the changing context. Right and wrong answers are almost impossible, but they will go down in history alongside the most decorated and celebrated sides in island football history.
“For me they are without doubt the best ever Lochs team,” insisted Macleod with a steely look. “The midfield of Andy, David and John was the best midfield I’ve ever seen in island football. Footballing-wise I would say they were better than the famous Ness team of the 1980s which won so much. It is hard to compare them as they were in different eras but I think Ness were a more physical team although they had very good players like Neil McRury and Iain Todd.
“But there were two or three different teams within Ness’ period of winning trophies,” he went on. “For a while they had a lot of local boys but by the end they had become almost a Select group with players from all over.
“At the same time Lochs took in a few but the traditional spine was always the boys who came through the youth team together.”
Kenny led Lochs into battle 263 times and emerged victorious on 206 occasions. In that same period he watched the Maroons plunder a net-bursting 959 goals and helped steer them to 25 different trophies.
His successor Robbie Mackenzie picked up the baton and has won 70 of the 99 games he has been in charge and helped hook a further nine honours, but Macleod confesses to fears over the future of the Maroons.
“I was disappointed last season as I felt they could have done better but that’s football,” he mused. “I do think a few of them are quitting too early as they aren’t that old. Ally and Don are still young enough to play but of course it’s their own choice but I think they could have a good few years left in them.
“The next Lochs team will have a lot to live up but unfortunately there is not a lot coming through. There are a good few young players like Calum Mackinnon but whether they will play for Lochs is another thing. I’m worried that Lochs might not even have a team in the future which would be hellish.
“I’m a bit worried about the future but hopefully they’ll get everything up and running again. I don’t know if they’ll ever be as successful again with the spirit this group had,” he added.