Thunder in the mountains as Scots progress

There were reports of a small earthquake in the Andorra region last week.  The epicentre of the quake was found to be the dressing room of the Scotland mens volleyball team.  And the cause – Scotland have returned to the big stage of European volleyball with qualification for the finals of the SCD European Championships for the first time since 2003.

Scotland, still ranked number three all-time in the SCD rankings, had not qualified for the last two finals, and were seeded at number seven for the current event, so that a 3-1 match record with all wins in straight sets will undoubtedly have sent the message to the other competitors that Scotland are back in business, competitive and hungry for the success that has eluded them in recent years.

AndorraThe idyllic Pyrenean principality of Andorra was the setting for the Thistles qualification attempt, with four matches to decide the outcome of the campaign.  An extensive phase of preparation and matches including victory at the Scottish Open and a second place finish in the Leeds international tournament left the boys in good form coming into the most important matches in Simon Loftus’ short tenure as coach.  However there is a world of difference between playing club sides and bona-fide international selections.  With national pride at stake, anything is possible, and even the smallest mouse can roar.

As Andorra has no direct air links to the rest of the world, and in view of a tricky three hour coach journey into the mountains, Scotland travelled out early to have a full day’s preparation ahead of the opening match against Ireland.

Ireland, making their return to the championships after missing out on the last two editions, were noisy and full of energy in the early exchanges but they were always second best to a Scotland team seeking to make an early impression on the event.  As the Scots raised the tempo of the match, scoring with ease in the outside zones, Ireland’s resolve crumbled like a clay idol, and as error followed unforced error, Scotland were able to seal the victory 3-0 (25-14; 25-18; 25-13) in just 68 minutes.  Ally Galloway and Callum Green posted almost identical match scores, both +7 in attack and passing at 2.67.

Leading the group after the first day, the next challenge for the Thistles came in the daunting form of Cyprus.  Cyprus own the SCD competition – they have lost only once in the history of the event, and have been champions in each of the last five championships.  Travelling with an eight person support staff including three statisticians who provide a live analysis of the match to the bench, Cyprus take their volleyball seriously.  Their national league is fully professional, and relaxed regulations on immigration mean that foreign nationals can more easily acquire a Cypriot passport than in some other European countries.

Having watched Cyprus overcome the hosts on day one, the Scotland coaching staff identified that nullifying the Cypriot off-setter Vladimir Knezevic was key to success.  Serbian-born Knezevic  had had a field day against Andorra, hitting at 54% and scoring 17 winners, but he was kept much more quiet against Scotland, with libero Barry McGuigan excelling in reading Knezevic’s offensive moves.

However, Cyprus proved to be more than a one-man team and a good performance from captain Nikos Kolas was key to their 3-0 (25-16; 25-20; 25-19) victory.  The closest Scotland came to worrying the favourites was at the end of the second set, when they had an opportunity to tie the match at 21-21.  However a positional error allowed the moment to pass and Cyprus were able to preserve their 100% record against Scotland.  Ally Galloway again top-scored for the Scots with 11 winners in the match; a niggling knee injury restricted Callum Green to a cameo appearance, but Michael Penny was a more than able replacement,  scoring on over half of his attempts.

Men's National TeamScotland were now playing knockout volleyball, as another reversal would have proved fatal to their qualification ambitions.  A busy second day paired the Thistles with Faroe Islands.  Faroe had ended Scotland’s campaign in each of the last two tournaments, and desperately needed another victory to keep their slim chances of progression alive.

It was clear from the outset that Faroe’s gameplan was centred on a strong defence and clever counter-attacking, and Scotland set about systematically battering the islanders into submission.  The Faroese were powerless to stop the taller and more athletic Scots from scoring almost at will, and it was only some carelessness in attack from Scotland that prevented the match from being a one-sided drubbing. 

Scotland outscored Faroe 41-23 at the net, but also gifted 35 points through errors, more than Faroe were able to muster on their own account.  A 3-0 (25-19; 25-18; 31-29) result in Scotland’s favour was fitting reward for their sustained aggression on the Faroese defensive unit.  Only in the dying moments of the match did Faroe mount any kind of pressure, coming from 18-22 behind to tie the set up, and holding no fewer than five set points, all of which were successfully retrieved by Scotland before the Thistles were able to seal out the victory.

There then remained a single obstacle to Scotland’s progress, in the shape of the host country.  While other nations rely on players from a variety of clubs, the national team of Andorra  is a club in its own right.  Playing in the third tier of Spanish volleyball, SC Andorra came agonisingly close to promotion to the second league last season, and elevation to the professional ranks.

Head coach Simon Loftus demanded a more disciplined approach from Scotland, and he was repaid in spades; Scotland made only nine errors in the match, outscoring their opponents at the net by 41-33 and controlling a tall Andorran team with key kill blocks.  The straight set victory (25-20; 25-20; 25-23) fails to reflect the degree of control that Scotland were able to exert on the match, in what was an unhurried march to the winning post.

Simon LoftusCoach Loftus was in ebullient mood at the post-match press conference.  “I’m pretty overwhelmed to be honest” he revealed.  “We got some big performances from some big guys out there today.  Stuart Edgar and Brian O’Neill were brilliant for us, but they’ve been brilliant for us since day one.  Chris Lamont was a superstar; if he can’t get into the GB team playing like that then they must be in good shape”.  Loftus reserved his highest praise for setter Gavin Watt.  “Gav played like a veteran all week.  You just can’t keep him down, he’s been injured, he’s been dropped, he’s been through the wars and he keeps on raising the bar.  For me he was our best player out there”

But there was also a tone of reality from the coach.  “What’s gone before counts for nothing now; we’re in the finals and we need to prepare properly for the finals.  Cyprus showed us the level that you need to have to compete here, we’ve lost twice recently to Luxembourg, and Andorra will be stinging after this result today.  We need to maintain the focus and work even harder to be ready for the finals.”

The finals of the SCD European Championships will see Scotland return to Andorra in May 2011, seeking to cause another seismic disturbance.  For the moment though, the Thistles grow high on the peaks.