By Eric Mackinnon
Midsummer Tournament Final
Lewis and Harris Select 1
Glasgow Island 0
Alan Hansen famously claimed that you can’t win anything with kids. Billy Flower has once again proved his theory was undeniably flawed.
Some of football history’s finest teams have been built on the foundation stones of the raw, the remarkable and the promise of youth.
Fergie’s Fledglings, the Busby Babes and even on home soil Lochs’ Magnificent Maroons were built on producing their own youth players. Now the Lewis and Harris Select have followed suit having been rocked by a host of call offs – around 30 players making themselves unavailable – handing opportunities to play with the regional representatives to a quintet of schoolboys.
Teenagers James Macleod, Micheil Russell-Smith, Colin Maclean, Craig Macleod and Jack Maclennan swapped their schoolbooks for Midsummer Tournament winners medals as each played their part in a stunning win for Flower’s reshuffled pack.
Fears the players were too young or too experienced to be handed Select caps proved unfounded in what is arguably football’s greatest paradox. Players are too experienced to play yet can only earn experience by playing. If players are blooded too early they can burn out while juggling junior and senior football at the same time yet if a player of genuine quality is held back cautiously then they can stagnate and never progress to the required level.
The first three each started the first game with Macleod producing a stunning performance in goal which defied his young 16-years. Such was the impression he left that it will be difficult for any of the older, more experienced keepers to wrestle the gloves out of his grasp now.
In midfield Maclean and Smith showed the type of fearlessness few players of their age exude as Smith demanded the ball time and time again and Maclean purposefully bounding up the flanks. The Select’s blend of youthful verve and swagger, twinned with a spine of established players, produced a performance of searing pace, incessant movement, collective confidence and individual excellence to beat Uist and Barra in a blockbuster semi-final before dominating Glasgow Island in the final.
While the youngsters made their undeniable mark the Select were packed with Midsummer heroes.
David Macmillan made a welcome return to the Select and proved once again to be the peerless master of his midfield craft. A calming influence and incessant creative probing, Macmillan displayed excellent judgement and an unyielding spirit and he was forever cajoling colleagues and talking the younger team-mates through the game.
Dan Crossley continues to defy the laws of gravity with slaloming runs and poetic balance. Alasdair Gillies was a rock in the anchor role in midfield, shielding his defenders to let Macmillan and the midfield pull the creative strings.
Fraser Macleod scored a double to tip the semi-final in his side’s favour with his leveller a goal of genuine class.
But top man for the Select once again, and Midsummer Player of the Tournament for the second year in a row, was the irrepressible Scott Macaulay who confirmed his status as the shining star among the gems Flower and assistant Dano Macdonald have assembled in the last few years.
He scored the winner in the final and was a constant thorn in the sides of both teams the Select came up against even forgiving the fact he missed an open goal with a header from eight-yards.
Not only did they deserve the victory, they won little victories all over the pitch throughout - movement, technique, attitude, stamina, energy and desire. And the icing on the cake was served with tremendous coolness when regular goal machine Fraser Macleod and champion goal maker Scott Macaulay switched roles as the former centred looking as if he had all the time in the world to pick out the unmarked Macaulay to sweep the ball home from 20-yards with the keeper out of position.
“Immense pride at this victory as when all the pre-tournament problems are assessed, it is possibly one of the best victories I have been part of since taking over the Lewis and Harris Select,” beamed Flower.
“We told the players that the most important word was belief and they had to go into that tournament with belief in their own ability, belief in themselves as a new squad and they had to believe that they were good enough to win that cup and take it back home.
“Our players had to get up at 5am, make a seven and half hour journey and had just twenty minutes to prepare for first game, then only 15 minutes before playing the final. We had a squad of only 15 players which included two who came out of their sick bed to travel and five under 18’s, three of whom started the first match.
“Yet they were given a game plan for each match and it is to their credit that they carried out their instructions with distinction. Very proud of them all and delighted to see them receiving their rewards.”
For most of the final Lewis and Harris were in stylish superiority, Glasgow Island their unwilling victims with the latter finishing the game with ten men after an x-rated, unnecessary tackle from former Lewis and Harris regular Andrew Dunn who chopped Dan Crossley down at knee height.
Glasgow Island, who eased past Glasgow Islay in their own semi-final, named a strong line-up and they should have drawn first blood inside the opening few minutes after David Kinnaird arrived on a midfield burst at the back post only a foot too short for a tap in.
From here it was almost all one-way traffic with Colin Maclean blasting a shot over the bar and Fraser Macleod heading a Macmillan cross over the top.
Macleod also spurned the next chance after linking up with Macaulay who fed his strike partner into the inside right channel.
Their impressive form continued after the restart as Lewis and Harris cranked up the pressure on the Glasgow Island goal. The goal came after another link-up between the Carloway goal-den boys when Macaulay rolled in Macleod who saw his shot charged down on the edge of the box by G.I keeper Iain Mackay. The ball came back to Macleod who, with his back to goal, unselfishly rolled it to his left for Macaulay who swept the ball into the corner from outside the box for his first ever Select goal.
Glasgow Island almost hauled themselves level with a charge straight up the park as Dunn cut the ball back for Kinnaird who had more time than he anticipated before he mishit a shot which trundled across goal for James Macleod to scoop up.
It was quickly back to dominance for Lewis and Harris with the energetic Crossley carving out a golden opportunity to wrap the trophy up with a jinking run and crossfield ball to Colin Maclean who was in acres of space 12-yards out but could only steer a volley over the top with his instep.
Glasgow Island were being repeatedly caught out by long balls over their defence which were releasing Fraser Macleod. Two such passes inside three minutes gave Macleod two sniffs of goal but each time his sights were unusually off target as he dragged both wide of the far post.
Macmillan had the next chance after a flowing passing move resulted in Macaulay feeding the ball into the path of the sprinting midfielder but his strike curled away from goal.
Fraser Macleod had the game’s final chance as yet another ball over the top sent him scampering into the wide channel of the box but again his first time shot went wide of the box but having produced two moments of magic to win the semi-final and laying on the winner in the final he allowed himself a wry smile at seeing the type of chance he has taken with such regularity this season – 35 already – go begging.
The final whistle sounded to wild celebrations on the Lewis and Harris bench as their much changed squad had risen to the occasion and surpassed all expectations with the manner in which they took the trophy home across the Minch.
Now for Select bosses Flower and Macdonald the challenge ahead of their first ever participation in the North Caledonia Cup will be how to leave any of the Midsummer heroes out when the plethora of injured and unavailable players come back into the reckoning for September.
All 15 players who made the trip to Airdrie impressed and the players that missed out will be nervously looking over their shoulders ahead of the North Caledonia Cup announcement.
Lewis and Harris Select: James Macleod, Peter Mackenzie, Calum Tom Moody, Stuart Flower, Alasdair Gillies, Colin Maclean, DJ Clinton, David Macmillan, Dan Crossley, Scott Macaulay, Fraser Macleod. Subs: Micheil Russell-Smith, Craig Macleod, Daniel Macleod, Jack Maclennan.