League Preview - more twists and turns than a rollercoaster!

Warming up for a new season of league football.
Warming up for a new season of league football.

Sometimes there are seasons and achievements in island football which live up to the hype. Sometimes they surpass it.

For Carloway 2017 was most definitely the latter.

Their league season last time around began with humbling 6-0 home defeat at the hands of neighbours and rivals West Side.

The fact this result was sandwiched in-between cup defeats in both the ABC Cup and Jock Stein Cup to West Side again meant optimism for the season was low.

None the less Carloway fought back superbly and ended the season as league champions following a remarkable run of results, which saw them unbeaten on league duty for the remainder of the season.

But can Carloway retain the title in the face of tough opposition this year?

Manager Graeme ‘Windy’ Miller believes they can.

“I’m quite confident we can compete for the title again,” he insists.

“Retaining a tile is always difficult, but we want to give it a real go and we will have a strong squad.”

Andrew ‘Tago’ Maciver is unavailable this year as he is in America, while Ally ‘Laxay’ has switched to Lochs. But in their place Miller has recruited well and Stuart ‘Bubble,’ Callum Masson, Andy Morris and Lee Johnson have all put pen to paper.

Carloway can also consider Neil Sinclair as a new signing after he moved to Carloway from Barra right at the tail end of last season.

The main rivals for Carloway’s title this season are expected to come from West Side, Point and Lochs.

The Maroons new man at the helm Kevin Anderson has worked hard to retain the services of the famous old guard who have brought so much success to Leurbost and barring injuries he is confident Lochs will once again be a force to be reckoned with.

“We have a good squad but a fairly small squad,” said Anderson.

“The key for us is staying fit and avoiding too many injuries but we are delighted to have the likes of David Macmillan, Andy Murray and John ‘Uig’ Morrison all committing to playing as much as they can.

“Also convincing Angie Campbell, Jim O’Donnell and James Macleod to stay when it looked like they were all leaving is big for us.

“Robert Mackenzie should be fit again and Peter Mackenzie is playing too, so I’m quite excited.”

Anderson has also lured Ally ‘Laxay’ to Lochs, signed Doug Bryson from West Side and convinced Calum Tom Moody to lace up his boots again, while he also confided he has irons in the fire for three more signings, but he is reluctant to name them until they are secured in ink.

In Spring 2017 West Side burst out of the traps like a ravenous beast smelling the footballing blood of their rivals.

Beating title rivals Point away, putting six past Ness, five into the Aths’ goal and thrashing eventual champs Carloway 6-0 suggested West Side were the team to beat.

But the wheels came off for the Siarachs, who faded away, as their neighbours recovered to be crowned champs.

Just one new face has joined the Barvas club in DJ Macleod who is looking to return to senior football following injury, while Bryson and Colin George Morrison have moved on.

“We have the same bunch really as last year,” said West Side manager Murchadh Macdonald.

“The young boys are older and stronger and look strong in training so I think you always have to be a little confident.”

He went on: “We hope to be there or thereabouts this year and getting a good start is usually the key, although it didn’t help us last year as we faded away. Carloway then went on a great run while we and the others had a slump.”

He added: “Pre-season has been good in terms of fitness, but it has been hard to get friendlies due to a lack of pitches and teams calling off, but all the teams are in the same boat as us.”

Point, who were widely touted as favourites last time around, will be operating with a much smaller and more streamlined squad this season reveals manager Angus Mackay.

The Reds have lost Daniel Macleod and Matthew Campbell to the mainland where the boys have relocated, Alfie Macmillan has gone to United and Angus Macdonald will miss the first two months of the season due to university

“We’ve lost a good few so we will be using a much smaller squad this season,” explained Angus.

“We haven’t taken anyone in except the ex-Benbecula goalie John Allan but he is currently injured. It’s pretty much looking to the juniors to make up the squad and team numbers for some games.”

He continued: “The player pool on the island is so small. People always ask if we have singed anyone, but there is no one to sign, and if we did take a player from another team they might not have a team and that defeats the purpose as we all want to have a league going.

“I think West Side look to have the biggest squad on paper but most teams are operating smaller squads and we all could struggle at times and it will depend on what team any of us can put out on the day.”

After a difficult couple of seasons, 2017 saw the blue half of Broadbay see significant progress on the park, as Bomie’s Back team began to show massive shoots of recovery.

This year he is aiming for more of the season and he is putting his faith in his current crop of players and their extensive youth squads to supplement the senior pool.

“We have Ally ‘Tolsta’ available for the season to cover the goals and we have signed Kyle Munro from United,” said Bomie

“DJ Macdonald is someone we are hoping will play this year and come back, but that apart, we will be going with what we have and also giving chances to some of our very talented young players in the junior teams. But we have to be careful with them and not overuse them. They will not be players we rely on and while we will give them runs here and there we are mindful not to lean too heavily on them.”

“Last year our target was to break into the top four and this year we want to consolidate and perhaps have a wee cup run to give the boys a boost.

“We knew when we came in this was a big job and at least a three year project and we have worked hard to improve and we are confident we can do well.”

Ness are another side to express their delight at having retained the spine of their squad with talented players like Micheil Smith, ‘Titch’ Morrison and Jack Dunlop all snubbing admiring glances from rival clubs to pledge their future to Ness.

Speaking this week Ness manager Chris Macdonald acknowledges his side are a match for anyone when they have their top XI on the park, but like most clubs he says numbers are thin on the ground.

“Retaining the nucleus of the team is huge for us and we have managed to bring in Colin George Morrison from West Side too,” he said.

“But Lewis football is a numbers game and we are not alone in thinking we would like to have a few more players in the squad. We are light on bodies but the bodies we have are good quality.”

He continued: “When all our players are available we will do well, but we need to try and stay fit and avoid suspensions. We are all looking forward to it and I think it will be a very close season.”

Stornoway United are the team most like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates - you never know what you’re going to get with them.

One night they can beat then-reigning champs Lochs, or hold West Side to a draw. But on others they can ship nine goals at home to Point. Two trips to play Ness away show their inconsistency as they triumphed 2-1 in Fivepenny on their first trip north before going down 6-1 on their next visit.

United manager Grant Hunter is hoping for more consistency this season with his young side a year older, more experienced and crucially all staying together for another season.

“We are looking pretty strong and all the senior guys have stayed and we are excited for the new season.”

Alfie Macmillan has signed from Point, Hugh Mackenzie, Scott Macrae and Coinneach Smith have also been jettisoned into Goathill with Kyle Munro the only departure.

“We have signed well but Chris Dempster has taken a year out which is a bit of a downer,” continued Hunter.

“I think it’ll be another interesting year and there will be three or four teams round us, but on any given day we could give any team a fright, as we have proved in the past. Point seem to be our bogey team and we hope to do better against them this year. We are buzzing for it to start again and see how it goes, but I think we will do better again.”

Stornoway Athletic ended the season bottom of the pile but despite propping up the rest the final league table only tells part of the story.

Until the final weeks there were a number of teams jostling for position and any of them could have slipped to the foot, so fine were the margins between them, in the battle of the clubs at the bottom.

And Aths also reached a cup final as they displayed some resilient and good form in the cups giving Aths fans and manager Magnus Johnson plenty to be positive about ahead of the coming campaign.

The Stornoway side will be without long standing stopper Ali ‘Koch’ Morrison this season with the 37-year-old hanging up his boots but Colin ‘Titch’ Macritchie has resigned after reports he too was considering taking a break.

Callum Masson and Stuart ‘Bubble’ have moved on, as well with Scott Macaulay taking a year out of the game, further depleting the numbers available to Johnson.

But Ross Macrae is available for Aths again this season while John Woodman has also agreed to play giving the manager plenty of reasons for optimism.

“We have lost a few and we are low on numbers but so are a lot of clubs,” he said.

“We have a very decent U18 team and this will mean these boys will have a good chance to play and stake their claims. Hopefully some of them can step up and take the chance.”