Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Pretty Good Season

Well, it has been a pretty good season on the international front when all said and done. The obvious highs were the European Mixed Championship, Ladies' World Universiade and World Junior Championship Gold Medals that Scotland/Great Britain won at either end of the season. The European Championship Silver Medal was also a performance to savour in what it would seem was the last outing on the international stage for Kelly Wood – more of Kelly later.

I liked the gutsy Silver Medal that Tom Brewster, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow brought back from the Mens World Championship. It would have been good for them to beat Canada’s Stoughton in the final; in truth, they were probably a bit gutted that they didn’t win that last game. But, I’ll tell you something for nothing; that was a high class field out there and to finish ahead of Edin’s Sweden and Ulsrud’s Norway – that took some doing and no mistake. The gainsayers and couch potatoes back home were wondering just how far Tom would get and there were all sorts of below the belt insinuations about how good or bad a team it was that Scotland had out there. Well, Tom and company sorted them all out good and proper is all I am saying and good on them too.

My own view is that the junior men would also have medalled were it not for some terrible luck. Of all the weeks to get ill! They will be back though; two of their number, Colin Dick and Billy Morton will challenge again in the juniors and skip John Penny has found himself a berth at third in David Edward’s new look team next season. Colin Howden has left the junior ranks and now must make his way in the shark pit that is big boys curling.

But none of that is what I really wanted to talk about in this last Behind the Glass blog of the season. No siree. What I want to draw your attention to is the sudden flowering of young talent in the Scottish game this past season. Just a year ago, I was bemoaning the fact that the twenty-something generation seemed to have been posted missing in action in the senior game. Now, the game is positively youthful in nature. Yes, there are still the veterans; Warwick Smith, David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Hammy McMillan, David Smith, Pete Loudon and Euan Byers are not ready to draw their pensions just yet. But there is a wealth of talent bubbling under in the men’s game, make no mistake.

I did a quick, 'back of the fag packet' (difficult when you don’t smoke – I must have spent hours looking for a fag packet) bit of research the other day. My question was, “What percentage of the competitors in this year’s Scottish Men’s Championship finals were below thirty?” Maths was never my strong point so, when it came to the actual calculation, I thought for a minute or two; I tried various different calculations on my calculator (one of my answers was 1 – I didn’t think for a minute that that could have been right. Another answer I came up with was infinity and I realised, mathematical natural that I am, that that was probably incorrect as well); then I just gave up with all of the percentage nonsense. So the answer, my friends, to the question, how many curlers under the age of thirty competed in the Scottish Championship finals 2011, is nineteen out of forty – give or take and I would need to see a couple of birth certificates, but it is of that order. Look at the final itself – Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow, Scott Macleod and David Soutar are all the right side of thirty and four of the five are nearer twenty!

On the ladies' side of things, the future is even brighter, it would seem! Same question (same percentage nonsense – eventually I just gave up, threw the calculator to the floor and stamped heavily on it. It was strangely satisfying – until, that was, I tried to use it again. Then I lost my temper again but couldn’t find anything to throw on the floor, so slammed the phone down instead). Twenty four or thereabouts of the thirty-two competitors were under the magic thirty. Fantastic! And when you think that our junior ladies' team won Gold Medals at the World Junior Championships and that the ladies' team also won Gold Medals at the World Universiade – well it is all looking good for the future of competitive curling on the ladies' side of things as well.

Talking of the ladies, we have a number of tried and tested young skips – people like Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan (who are playing together next season) and Sarah Reid have all won medals at the highest level. There are also some talented young top end players – people like Kerry Barr are still playing competitively. I would really like to see the likes of Rachael Sims and Vicky Sloan get their competitive curling shoes on again as well though and challenge at senior level as they did at junior (not forgetting, of course, that Rachael is a past Scottish champion in her own right). Also coming through, though still at junior level is Hannah Fleming’s young team. Talking of which, I understand that there are some changes afoot in the junior ladies' teams for next season; one of them is that Lauren Gray is leaving her own team to join Hannah. Becca Kesley is going to play with Jennifer Dodds – but more of all that next season!

Sadly for Scottish curling, though not for the lady herself it has to be said, we will be without the services of Kelly Wood, who is moving to Canada. Kelly first sprang to international attention in 1999 when, as a very young Scottish champion skip, she played her way to a creditable fifth place in the World Junior Championships. Since then, she has impressed with a series of feisty displays – interestingly initially mainly at skip, occasionally at second, but I wonder if her best position of all has not been third. I feel sorry for her in this regard only: when a Gold Medal beckoned at both the World Championships and European Championships last year, it would have been fitting had her team mates and she won at least one of them – but it was not to be and the Scottish team was robbed at the last in both championships. Silver Medals at international championships are not to be sniffed at, but she deserved at least one Gold Medal on her resume. We should wish her well in her new life and bemoan yet another lost curler to the Scottish women's game.

The summer will bring the third playing of the Stirling Skins competition, so the rumble of stones will not entirely lost in Scotland during the next few months. September will be quick in coming around though and with it all the promise and hope that a new season always brings.

Enjoy the summer!

Photo of Kelly Wood © Skip Cottage.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Train Crash Heading for Scottish Curling

There is a train crash approaching Scottish curling and their names may very well be Anna and Ben Fowler. OK – maybe it will not be the Fowlers, but it will be someone of their ilk.

“And who,” I hear you ask, “are the Fowlers?”

Ben is a keen young curler from England. He skipped his school team, Judd, to victory in the English schools curling championships at Fenton’s rink. Mark this next bit well: twenty four teams entered the championships from seventeen different schools. Curling in England, my friends, is no longer the domain of the expat Scot anxious to throw a few stones; curling is being taken up by a new group of young enthusiasts, some of whom will doubtless go on to represent their country with pride in championships to come.

These youngsters are keen enough on the game that we Scots exported to the rest of the world, to travel abroad and compete in international competitions. He and his team of Harry Mallows, Matt Spicer and Oliver Kendall travelled to Lockerbie in December to compete in the Lockerbie Junior Invitation tournament. They were accompanied by a ladies team skipped by Ben’s sister, Anna Fowler, with Hetty Garnier, Naomi Robinson and Angharad Ward.

Later in the season, Anna took a team to the European Junior Curling Challenge in Prague. She skipped Hetty Garnier, Angharad Ward, Lauren Pearce and alternate Naomi Robinson to three wins. They ran eventual winners of the competition, Norway, close and were right in the game all the way until they gave up a three in the seventh end of their game. Meanwhile, Ben skipped Harry Mallows, Ben Alexander, Matt Spicer and alternate Oliver Kendall to one victory in their competition. Given their age, there is potential there for teams to grow from that pioneering cadre of young curlers into seriously competitive curlers on the European and world stage.

So why do I compare them to an Inter City 125 bearing down on Scottish curling at top speed?

Well, for the answer, we need to pay heed to something that an old friend of mine, JohnJo Kenny, has been warning us about these past few years on the Scottish Curling Forum. I once described it as curling’s very own West Lothian question and it raised its head again when the recently announced changes to the qualification process for the World Championships was announced. At the moment, GB gains its right to compete at the Olympics by virtue of Scotland’s performance at the World Championship. That system will continue for the next Olympic cycle, although there are far-reaching changes also announced for World Championship qualification; more of that in a later blog, perhaps.

So there we jolly were are, five years down the line, and Scotland are competing in the last round-robin game against England, or maybe Wales. If they win, they get to compete in next year’s World Championships. If they fail to win, they are relegated to a qualifying competition. And GB’s entry into the Olympic Games depends upon success at the Worlds.

And let’s just say that you are Ireland, or Denmark or France and that you are in that mix as well. And you are looking at England face off against the Olympic-point- gathering nation for GB participation.

Level playing field? Are you happy?

I didn’t think so.

It is a real, real problem that somehow needs to be addressed by the High Heid Yins pretty soon. And I just do not see a way around it, if I am honest. It genuinely is not fair and cannot be allowed to continue just as soon as one of the other home nations gets themselves up to a level where they are competing regularly at World Championships.

Football’s answer to this question has been very simple. The authorities have refused to allow teams to compete for GB in the Olympic Games for a number of years. Their attitude to the situation is that anything that might call into question the home nations’ right to compete as individual nations in other championships must not be allowed. So they do not enter the competition.

Is that an option for the curling authorities in GB? It doesn’t look like it, does it? Massive funding and support; jobs; winter games medal opportunities every cycle; arousal of interest in the sport; growth of the sport – all of these things seem to be tied in to continued support of participation in the Olympic Games so, despite the protestations of many curlers, perhaps most notably Pennan’s own David Kelly, I do not think that is an option.

JohnJo pondered that perhaps GB will enter a team for the World Championship that is essentially picked annually from a squad of talented curlers, relegating Scotland’s place in World curling to an annual appearance at the European Championships. Helpmaboab if that happens, dear reader! The World Championships started over fifty years ago as an annual competition between the champion rinks of Canada and ... Scotland! For one of the founder countries to be withdrawn from that competition to allow the continued participation of GB in the Olympic Games would be one step too far for this curmudgeon, let me tell you! Yet, I fear that is where we may end up.

Who said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch?” They were right, you know.