Occasionally, I love a little bit of an offbeat adventure. In line with my growing love for off-the-beaten-track football, when I learnt that the Island Games – a sporting competition for those from small islands, like Guernsey and the Shetlands – would be holding their football competition in Anglesey in mid-June, I couldn’t resist bringing my bike over and taking in as many as I could.
Anglesey is at the far end of the ferry line from Dublin to Wales, which meant early and late ferries as a foot passenger got me to just the right spot, and I found if I watched the games and almost immediately got back on my bike and headed for the next one, I could watch four full games in a day. This was the second time I’ve squeezed four live football matches into a day, and I can’t deny it’s probably one too many, but it’s hard to say no to seeing teams like this.
As this was half cycling adventure, half niche-football, here’s a little map of the route between the four different village grounds, starting at Holyhead Ferry Port and finishing – because I couldn’t resist the ride back, and by the evening I was tired enough it seemed the only sensible option – at the notoriously named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Station (yes, I copy and pasted that, and yes, it does have four Ls in a row somewhere in the middle there). My route was essentially right through the heart of Anglesey, doubling back a couple of times to make the maximum of four games in the day. It’s 37 miles (60kms) in total, which I found tough enough in the heat with a rucksack full of books on my back (I bought quite a few of my CONIFA books to sell):
GAME ONE: St Helena 1-2 Western Isles (9th/ 10th place play-off – Aberffraw FC)
St Helena were probably the main draw of this entire idea for me. A tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic with a population of less than 5,000, their road to get to Anglesey had been quite an odyssey, involving raising nearly €20 for every person on the island just to afford the tickets and accommodation – they did this by selling shirts, scarfs, pins etc.
Unsurprisingly the team aren’t anything that special, but there was a fantastic feeling of achievement about them just being there (you can read a lot about them on the unofficial blog, run by Pat McGuinness, here).
Having been well-beaten in most of their games to this point, the side looked quite naive but were highly entertaining, playing a fairly attacking style of football, and boasting one of the most athletic 50-year-old goalkeepers I’ve ever come across, with the man between the sticks pulling off a couple of impressive point-blank saves.
What’s interesting about these niche games is they tend to attract the same few people, as well as locals, naturally. I tracked down Chris Walker, who provides radio commentary on a host of niche football games through his website CW Sports Radio – the man’s an encyclopedia of obscure football knowledge and seems to know everyone involved. Adam Beaumont (a shirt collector who’s been feeding me information on football on Oceania on Twitter) was hanging around too, as well as the aforementioned Pat McGuinness. It’s a slightly nerdy but really well-meaning community, and nice to catch familiar faces – Chris, in particular, was a mainstay at CONIFA games last summer.
Western Isles, a Scottish island side, got a late winner to avoid penalties, and should probably have won far more comfortably. I didn’t mind too much, though I’d like to have seen St Helena get a result, as the lack of penalties meant I could get to game two in time for kick off.
These games were all proving very rural. Aberffraw FC was down a series of tiny lanes off the main Anglesey through road, RAF planes shooting through the sky above, and cars a rarity. The actual ground is surrounded by slopes to allow crowds to see, with a shack serving tea and snacks, two roughshod changing rooms and dugouts the only protection from the wind.
GAME TWO: Jersey 3 – 1 Hitra (5th/ 6th place playoff, CPD Bodedern Athletic FC, Bodedern)
There were, in fact, five games taking place on the Thursday I travelled to Anglesey, but with kick off clashes, I had to choose one to sacrifice. That turned out to be Orkney against Alderney, which would have written off both game one and two as options. Needs must and all that.
It turned out the second ground, a tiny pitch tucked between old stone walls behind a school in the town of Bodedern was probably my favourite. They had a tiny shipping container stand, most of the fans crammed into a little walkway between a wall and a barrier down one side, and the burgers (£2) were better than you’d get in plenty of much bigger spots.
The game wasn’t the best, though. Played under searing heat, it was pretty clear Hitra – a team of big Scandinavians from about halfway up the coast of Norway – were not able to handle the temperatures. A fairly classy Jersey team, who probably deserved to be competing higher up the table, methodically took them apart. If it wasn’t for a really strong performance from the Hitra ‘keeper – who for some reason the local ball boys seemed to get a bit of fun out of mocking – Jersey would have annihilated them.
As it turned out, Hitra took one of about three decent chances they had in the game and came out with a respectable 3-1 result in Jersey’s favour. It sounds ridiculous to say it was blisteringly hot in North Wales, but, well, it was. And I had another ride ahead of me to catch game three…
Guernsey 3 – 2 Isle of Man (Island Games semi-final, Gwalchmai FC)
There’s a renewed intensity to the later games in the day, as teams battle for the meaningful places in the tournament. Both these teams had quite an aggressive feel to them that was missing from much of the Island Games, and the game had a bit of a niggly sense around it, with the very physical Guernsey contingent posing problems pretty quickly.
At some of these games, in exposed but sunny conditions, wind was a major factor, too. The three little stands at Gwalchmai – where I quickly noticed how many people were speaking Welsh, not English, clearly a first language in this corner of the island – weren’t going to have much impact on the gusts blowing through from one end to the other.
Guernsey were clearly better suited to the conditions, with a hefty goal kick and a bit lump of a striker, and went 2-0 up before half time against the Island Games holders. The Isle of Man came back quickly, though, and levelled up through some of the best football in the game in the second half, before being sucker punched by a late Guernsey goal.
A great game of football, and a decent crowd, many of whom seemed to have a broader awareness of what was going on with their own team, Ynys Mon, down the road. The entire Jersey squad coming out to loudly cheer against Guernsey was quite good fun, too.
Ynys Mon 2-1 Shetlands (Island Games semi-final, Llangefni Town FC)
Games involving the hosts tend to be by far the biggest games at these tournaments, and the slog of a ride over to Llangefni Town proved well worth it.
Every game at this tournament was free entry, but seeing a local turn out of 1,500 at the first real ‘stadium’ of a ground all day was well worth the effort, with views difficult to come by around the sidelines.
I’d been briefed on the Shetlands, who had lost their main attacking players early in the tournament to injury and always looked like they didn’t quite have enough for the hosts, who led 2-0 inside the first half and never really looked like losing that lead.
Llangefni is the kind of place you’d hope to find on non-league travels: warm beer cans on sales from a table, a BBQ in the corner, local radio commentating by staring over the heads of people stood on the barrier, looking a little bewildered.
By this point I’d been riding in the blazing sun all day, was starting to go pink and feel more than a little dehydrated. The last six miles into the place with a name too long to type again, along tiny narrow lanes on hill ridges, were full on. I suspect I smelt bad. But as far as days exploring obscure football go, I think I’d do well to find many much better.
I travelled to the Island Games in Anglesey in mid June 2019, pursuing a general interest in obscure football that’s only grown since the publication of my book on CONIFA earlier this year. Hosts Ynys Mon went on to win the tournament in front of 3,000 at Holyhead Hotspur FC the following day, winning 2-1.