Wednesday, February 20, 2013

There is something about the Scottish...

Copey writes:

I don’t know whether it is just me, but there is something very special about the Scottish Championships. I only made it to seven final stages of our national championships. Maybe nowadays those curlers who make it year after year become blasé about it; maybe the chances that the top curlers get to curl overseas – far more than we ever got in our pre-funding, pre-Ryanair day – mean that the Scottish has less of a frisson than it used to do. I remember the very first time I ever competed – it was Perth in 1978. You walked in to the old rink and immediately you knew that you were at an event that was beyond the run-of-the-mill. There was something in the air.

I still get that feeling of excitement to this day – especially on finals day. The stakes are high; the competition is fierce; nerves need to be of steel and, let this be said, the quality of play on offer rarely disappoints. 

Of course, they get it easy nowadays. The quality of ice that they play on is the stuff of dreams to those of our generation used to tracks and fall-backs. A nipper in those far-off days was the noisy child in the stands. Our defensive hands were shown on tricky ice and the game was a draw-free zone until a team was down. The free guard was still strutting his stuff outside Buckingham Palace and misses there were a-plenty.

Work kept me away during the week. I was in Amersham, of all places – at the northern extremities of the Metropolitan line. Here’s a thing; when you get to the outskirts of our capital city, the 'tube' is no more a tube than the Glasgow-Edinburgh express. There’s a fact for you to share with your mates over a thoughtful cigar and no mistake. Amersham it was and with a dodgy internet connection to boot. I followed things from afar and occasionally with a buffering delay of an hour or two built in. I followed progress and wished that I was somewhere else – and maybe some time else as well! We live for our youth.

And so to Sunday; at last, we were making the trip north for an old-fashioned day out. The ladies' final was first up and, with due respect to other feisty competitors, the cream of Scottish ladies' curling had risen to the top with the eye-watering prospect of Eve Muirhead versus Hannah Fleming. Who would have thought ten years ago that a curling writer could have written the following of a Scottish ladies final? In international competition, the eight competitors have amassed between them 24 Gold medals and 7 Silver medals. That is an astonishing statement to be able to make and speaks volumes of the quality on offer in Scottish ladies' curling.

We, the watchers, settled back on the bleachers – all but full for the final - and were prepared to be entertained. The Fleming team came out of the blocks at a gallop and their 2 in end five gave them a 4-2 half-time lead. What happened thereafter will be mulled over by the experts for a while to come. Maybe they relaxed a tad; maybe they lost a bit of focus; maybe my old mate and new Scottish senior champion, David Hay, paid a little visit to the Brocks fireworks factory in the break, but whatever it was, the Muirhead team, from hanging on in the first five ends dominated the business end of the game. A big 3 in the sixth end set the tone. They were four shots to the good coming home. Debbie Knox, Hannah’s faithful coach for many a long season, was called onto the ice deep into the tenth end (maybe her input would have been more valuable earlier on in the second half), but by then it was too late and a clearly delighted Muirhead team celebrated a famous win against a team that will be a real threat in years to come.

And so to the men. Logan Gray had tweeted for supporters to come out dressed in 'loudmouth' gear. This is great for the game – colour and excitement. Interestingly, there was a general feeling in the ice hall of support for the underdog. Keith MacLennan and Sandy Gilmour both pitched up in suits that took the breath away. Outrageous trousers were in evidence and Team Gray had electric green shirts and dapper green, black and white check trousers. Sensibly, space up the stairs was limited, so the bleachers were again all but full. It took you back to the old days when crowds were numbered in their thousands. There was a real atmosphere down in the ice hall that added to the occasion.

The men came out. Now, everyone has a view on funding; on five man teams; on the Olympic effect; on curling’s own West Lothian question; on the effects of coaching and all of the rest of it. But, I don’t care. Really, I don’t. When it comes to those nervous slides in a darkened ice hall with the TV cameras waiting and a big expectant crowd sitting hard by the rink - that’s the test. That’s what separates the kids from the grown-ups; it’s curler v curler and that’s what makes the Scottish so special in the curling calendar. You can feel the tension – the nerves. There’s a kind of electricity in the air. Static. A buzz.

Add the side stories. Logan and Michael were Stirling Young Curlers together a decade ago; Ross Paterson and Richard Woods played front end for David Murdoch last season; Tom and David were rivals on ice for years before this season; the same two were team mates in a World Junior Championship almost twenty years ago and played together as kids in Lockerbie. Scott Andrews was up the stairs where he had been on the ice in the previous two finals. Scott, Tom, Greg and Michael were attempting to join curling immortals, Hay (Chuck), Bryden, Glen, Howie and McMillan (Hammy) as three-in-a-row winners of their national championships. On the other hand, Logan, Ross, Al and Boobsy were going for their first win in their national championships. Underdog versus incumbent. I could go on.

And then it was all over! I am going to be honest. I thought that Logan’s last draw against two in the second end was good from his hand. So did the sweepers, who did not really hit it hard until about two thirds or so of the way down the rink. As it crossed the hogline, it seemed to suddenly lose weight. By now the sweepers were pounding into it as if their lives depended on it. Then it stopped – agonisingly short and it was a steal of 2 for the Brewster team. And that was that.

In truth, it was always going to be difficult to fight back from three shots down, but when you are not quite getting the ice (as Logan admitted he wasn’t) and when they are playing just that little bit better than you are, it becomes a long, lonely struggle against the odds. Eventually, Logan and his team offered their hands after eight ends and Team Brewster became Team Scotland. Scott was down on the ice as fast as a butcher’s dog and the five of them celebrated a great win. Logan and his team will be back to fight another day. Words are cheap, I know, in their situation, but they are all talented curlers and hopefully this taste of the big time will whet their appetite for more.

What of the World Championships?  More of that later but suffice to say for the moment that we have two world-class teams going out and with a following wind…

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