‘We refused to let our high standards drop’

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ANY team coach will tell you that the tag of ‘overwhelming favourites’ is rarely one which sits comfortably: like coconuts at a fairground, you’ve been put up there on a pedestal which is not of your own making, just waiting for everyone else to try and knock you down.

Last year, though, Bute’s first team wore the mantle more lightly than most. They went into the 2011 season as everyone’s favourites to win South Division One, and to secure promotion back to shinty’s top flight at the first attempt.

And they did so in style, completing all 18 league games without dropping a single point, scoring 79 goals in the process, and winning the Balliemore Cup for the third time in eight years into the bargain.

Before the season began, first team coach Barry Martin told The Buteman that his aim was simple: to lead the team to promotion, and not to let their top flight standards drop along the way.

Even before the first game against Aberdour in March, though, he was already starting to wonder – in private at least – whether his players might be capable of something really special.

“The prospect of not dropping a point was in the back of my mind all along, I’ll admit,” Barry said this week.

“With no disrespect to any of the teams in South Division One, the difference in standard compared with the Premier Division is like night and day.

“The important thing for us was that we didn’t let our standards drop at all. One of the biggest plus points for me over the year was that we kept our training sessions and warm-ups at the same tempo as we had done in the Premier Division.

“Psychologically it’s very easy to fall into the habit of only playing as well as you need to play, but we managed to keep things going at a high standard all year.”

Those high standards were confirmed by some excellent cup performances - the team reached the last eight of the Camanachd Cup and beat Inveraray at the Winterton in the Macaulay Cup before losing a dramatic quarter-final at Kyles Athletic in June.

But Bute’s most memorable cup moment of 2011 was still to come. Having won the Balliemore Cup in 2006, the last time they were eligible to enter the tournament, Bute began their bid to regain the trophy with a 3-0 home win over Ballachulish in May, before securing their place in the final in dramatic fashion with a penalty shoot-out defeat of Lochaber.

That set up a final against Caberfeidh in Portree in July, for which a large contingent of Bute supporters made the long trip north to cheer the team on to a 2-1 victory in the Skye sunshine – with many more waiting to greet the team as they arrived back in Rothesay 24 hours later.

“We always knew winning the Balliemore was a real possibility,” Barry continued.

“We stuttered a bit against Lochaber in the semi-final – they must hate us no end, because time and time again we’ve been their stumbling block.

“The league was our number one priority, but winning the Balliemore Cup was a real bonus – and it was a great occasion.”

That cup triumph set Bute up perfectly for the run-in to the league title, which was secured after a victory at home to Glasgow Mid Argyll at the end of August, which ensured promotion with three games to spare.

Unfortunately, a prolonged spell of wet weather meant it was several weeks before the last of those games could be played, though wins away to Taynuilt, Oban Celtic and Kilmory eventually ensured Bute would achieve their secondary goal of completing the season with a one hundred per cent league record.

“The end of the season was very stop-start,” Barry continued. “The rainy spell could really have knocked us off our stride, and you could see the effect it had on the mindset of one or two players.

“But it was good to see the way some of the younger boys, like Ruairaidh Soane, stepped up to the mark – in our last game at Kilmory you could see the effect on Ruairaidh’s game of having quality players like Robert Walker, Roberto Zavaroni and Graham Fisher around him.

“We achieved our primary goal when we won promotion, but we still had that one hundred per cent record to aim at, and it was really pleasing to see the part players like Ruairaidh, Leighton Reid and John Beattie played.”

* With the triumphs of 2011 now but a distant memory, pre-season training for all Bute shinty players – both first and second team – begins this Monday, January 16, at 6pm on the all weather surface at Rothesay Joint Campus.

The Thursday night sessions at the joint campus games hall, which have been running throughout the winter, will also continue each week, while it is hoped that details of pre-season friendly fixtures can be finalised soon.