At the last NatWest Island Games, the Western Isles Men’s football team took to the turf to take on the Isle of Man in their group opener with a sense of great anticipation for a young and undoubtedly talented side..
A new-look WIIGA side were hoped who could give a strong showing and account of their abilities.
Ninety minutes later and the Western Isles Men were strewn on the turf, shell shocked and disappointed to go down 9-0. It was a turning point for a squad which immediately realised what they had to do. By the next game, just a day later, they had improved beyond measure in a clash with hosts Jersey. They then went on to win their final two matches in Jersey to finish 11th overall.
Fast forward two years and there is a renewed optimism around the WIIGA camp about a men’s football squad with the youngest average age in their history of competing at the NatWest Island Games and also about how the team reacted and dealt with the difficult opening day defeat two summers ago.
“The preparation for Gotland has been completely different to the run up to Jersey,” explains WIIGA Men’s Football team manager Eric ‘Strada’ Macleod.
“We gave the boys a break after the season and we started in October. We emphasised that to go the Games we had to put in the effort. We didn’t want to just turn up at the Games which maybe we have done previously.
“This group of players have been very responsive. We started training two mornings a week plus two track sessions a week and a Saturday evening. This five sessions a week allowed us to track the players progress and work on all different elements for fitness.
“The boys have been absolutely fantastic and we can’t praise them enough. Some of them couldn’t even get shower before going to work at 8am following these sessions.”
He continued: “It’s been going really well. We’ve had to downscale the training a little as the boys are now in their club seasons. So in the run up to the Games the boys are doing two mornings a week on strength and flexibility and we are doing a technical/tactical session on a Saturday.
“Some of the players are also playing two or three matches a week so we are trying to watch the boys recovery as well as keep our own preparations going.”
The recurring issue of a lack of competitive games for WIIGA in the run-up to travelling to the Island Games remains the biggest obstacle to the Western Isles but there seems to be no easy solution.
Invitations, including a contribution to the financial costs of travelling to Lewis, were made to Inverness Caley Thistle, Ross County and the top 10 teams in the Highland League for warm-up matches against the Western Isles.
Unfortunately none came to fruition due to a lack of free dates in the busy Highland League diary towards the end of the season.
But ‘Strada’ is adamant the squad are better prepared, trained and drilled as they pack their passports for Gotland, in comparison to Jersey last time.
“It helps,” agrees Strada as we discuss most of the squad have previous Island Games experience from Jersey.
‘In terms of getting them involved in training, changing their mindset and knowing what preparation we had to do. The biggest thing from Jersey for us was there wasn’t a huge amount of difference in technical terms amongst the middle group of teams but there was a noticeable difference in power.
“They were powerful, powerful athletes. That aspect of fitness needs emphasised and the boys knew if we went into that level of competition again we know now what we have to do and that helped us get the boys on board back in October and have a clean run at it. There have been no disruptions .”
He went on: “What do we do to prepare for that first game? So we are not caught cold. Part of that is experience which we have learned form. We know little about Greenland but we know they are powerful and they are traditionally a very fit, strong team. So we hope the experience from 2015 is the key and there is no doubt we are much better prepared this time around.
“But the opening game in Jersey was as much mental as it was physical. We recovered through the games really well and our best game was the 3-0 loss to Jersey. That sounds bizarre as we won our next two matches but we produced our best football against a very strong side on the back of a very demoralising defeat.
“All credit to those group of players to recover from a 9-0 defeat. Mentally they responded superbly and we finished 11th in the end which has given us a clear target in our minds.”
In Gotland the Western Isles have been drawn in a difficult group against the host island, Norwegian islanders Froya and Greenland. Just one team qualifies from each group which means there is very little margin for error and a good start is imperative.
“We want to beat our 11th place finish in Gotland but we don’t want to get carried away,” said Strada.
“We are a more confident group as we are better prepared. So much will depend on our first game and the result there will determine what happens. The standard of these teams has risen so much and we are trying to respond. We are confident we can be more competitive and we can show we are a good side.
“There is no room for error. It is a tough group and we really want to be in every match for as long as we possibly can be. If we can that then that’s a success
“As much as this is about winning we are still very much in the development stages of this team.”
While the squad boasts an average age of just 22 and includes a pair of teenage schoolboys in Luke Mackay and Angus Macdonald alongside university students Eachainn Miller and Micheil Smith, there remains a core of experienced players.
Peter Mackenzie has a number of Island Games on his footballing CV but Domhnall Mackay has more experience of WIIGA than any other footballer.
“Domnhall Mackay has played in every single Island Games, and played in fact every minute of every match for the Western Isles which is invaluable experience,” said Strada.
“It is a tremendous record for Domhnall but with so many young players I think having youth too is a good thing. Eachainn and Micheil playing at a high standard and we are really pleased with the group.
“Selecting the squad from the long list wasn’t easy but the thing for me was the home based guys in the squad made over 90 per cent of the sessions. That was put to them two years ago as a target and they committed to the process.
“We always said at the start players could do everything to rule themselves out but at this point all you can do is be in it to rule yourselves in.
“A number of players ruled themselves out through not attending enough sessions. That doesn’t include the mainland based boys but we did ask they made every effort to all that when they were available they made sure they were there.”
The final squad list for Gotland includes no players based in the Uist and Barra league but Strada insists that is something he expects and hopes to change ahead of the next football event at the Island Games – Guernsey 2021.
“There is good ability in Uist and Barra and I was down there a number of times and last time I was down their attitude was brilliant,” he explained.
“They had 22 players there for two sessions and produced excellent work. The challenge we have is that we need to maybe look at how we can join up our thinking. They have a great coach down there in Kevin Morrison and he is very willing to help as much as he can but the biggest challenge was the players just weren’t as fit as we would like them to be. It wasn’t an ability thing but a fitness thing but that’ll change and maybe it came a little too late. I’m positive it will change as they have good players, a good man there and they can look at this and think that when the time comes again in the future they will work on their fitness more in the winter and when it comes to selection they are in the running.”
Western Isles: James Macleod; Gordon Mackenzie; Domhnall Mackay; Angus Macdonald; DI Maclennan; Peter Mackenzie; Gordon Campbell; Alasdair Gillies; Innes Iain Morrison; Archie Macdonald; Robert Mackenzie; Robert Jones; Micheil Smith; Martainn Shields; Eachainn Miller; Alexander Macdonald; Luke Mackay; Stewart Munro.