As Guernsey prepare the 2019 Island Games, but resolutely opt against following the influx of near neighbours Jersey, Yorkshire and Ellan Vannin into CONIFA, I caught up with Guernsey football CEO Gary Roberts about the state of football on the island of Guernsey.
In the interview, he reflects on the success of Guernsey FC, established in 2011 and now playing in the eighth tier of English football despite the obvious travel difficulties presented by playing teams entirely from outside of the island. The team has provided a route to conventional football for people from the island, population 63,000, whose biggest football export to date is Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier.
We also talk about the Muratti Vase, an annual contest against Jersey, and about their history in the island games. Dig in…
I’ve talked to a lot of relatively small-entity football sides like yours in the course of the last few years, and Guernsey is one of only two I can think of where a single name really jumps out as representing you – Matt Le Tissier (Bruce Grobbelaar and Matabeleland is the other one, in case you were curious!). Does Matt have much of a footballing legacy on the island?
Matt is part of a well-known family, with another three brothers who have all played for Guernsey’s Senior Men’s Representative team. Indeed, the three brothers created history when all were selected to play in the Muratti Vase Final in one year, which was the first and only time in which three siblings played in the same Muratti match. Matt himself was recognised as being a stand out youth player but because he signed with Southampton did not play any senior football or ever play in a Senior Men’s Muratti.
Matt did play on one occasion for Guernsey Football Club (for whom his brother Mark is the Chairman) in the 2012/13 season when the club was faced with playing 23 games in 43 days.
I’m aware you’re running a non-league side in Guernsey at the moment that plays English teams in hte league on a regular basis. That must have been financially and logistically difficult, though I understand you’re getting great turnouts and playing some good stuff. Has it achieved everything you’d hoped for as a project?
The club was established following Guernsey’s success in the FA Inter-League (formerly Systems) Cup and subsequent participation in the UEFA Regions Cup as the English FA representative. This led to the GFA identifying a need to identify another playing opportunity for the island’s most talented players, and the concept of establishing a club to participate in the English football league pyramid was formed.
After eight seasons playing in this pyramid, those involved, and the GFA, would likely be of the same opinion that the project has, and continues, to provide the desired playing opportunities. The existence of Guernsey FC and the pathway it now affords young players in Guernsey serves as a realistic and viable aspiration.
Where do the Island Games fit into Guernsey’s competitive football environment?
The Island Games remain an important part of the football calendar in Guernsey, as shown by the success that Guernsey has had since 2003, when it has not failed to claim a medal in the Games that it has entered. The GFA identifies the Games as a priority, and is focussed now on 2021 when the tournament is again held in the island.
You’ll go into the tournament as one of the favourites as the most decorated Island Games team. Are you feeling confident travelling to Angelsey?
We are sending more of a developmental squad to Ynys Mon next month. After another 38 game season for Guernsey FC, a number of senior players were in need of rest/ rehab and so we have taken the opportunity to mix some established players with those that have ambitions and the potential to be involved in the squad for the 2021 Games
Where is the team that you take the Island Games drawn from – is it a mix of club sides on the island?
The squad is generally a mix of players from Guernsey FC and a small number of players from other local clubs, although this year the number of Guernsey FC players will be far less than in recent years due to the above-mentioned reasons.
Tell me a little bit about the Muratti Vase…
This competition remains a focal point of the annual football calendar, and continues to attract significant interest as evidenced by over 2500 attending the recent match. Whilst the competition has now been played 103 times, the desire to lift the famous trophy, which is one of the oldest in UK football, remains as strong as ever.
Is there a distinctive Guernsey style of football?
In recent years, there has been a move towards playing a fast-paced possession-based style off football – particular within Guernsey FC and also within the Guernsey FA Academy, which exists to provide a pathway for young players into Representative teams, the Island Games and also to play for senior clubs, including Guernsey FC.
How is the financial side of the operation – is it fair to assume it’s quite difficult to pull together given the travel involved?
Travel to and from Guernsey is both expensive and often logistically difficult due to the small number of airports with direct links to the island.
What kind of community develops around the Island Games in your experience? Is it a big thing for people in Guernsey?
The Island Games when hosted becomes a significant community event on the island, and having seen the plans for 2021, I am confident that the whole island community will once again be engaged with the tournament.
With Gibraltar now playing internationally, and Jersey having been turned down, do you hold out hopes for a Guernsey full international side playing under UEFA? Does something like CONIFA appeal as a route to international-ish football?
Guernsey has no plans to look at the UEFA route, and the existence of Guernsey FC has ensured that there is no demand for playing unaffiliated CONIFA football. Having a team playing weekly English pyramid football at a level likely beyond CONIFA ensures that a suitable and appropriate games programme already exists for Guernsey’s players.
What are Guernsey’s footballing hopes for the future? Are they centred heavily on Guernsey FC, or is there a far wider scope?
Guernsey FC remains an important element of the football structure in Guernsey, but it is not the sole focus. Football in Guernsey needs a strong and healthy Guernsey FC, which in turn equally needs the Guernsey FA, its Academy and other existing local clubs. The future is bright for local football with participation in affiliated football increasing and plans recently approved to create Guernsey’s first national football stadium facility which will be home to the GFA, the GFA Academy and Guernsey FC, whilst being a focal point for the wider football community.
Thanks to Gary Roberts for taking the time to answer my questions.