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.
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.
As you might or might not know, I’m a life-long Aston Villa fan. It’s been a rocky road. In the early days, it was quite good fun: a flamboyant, attacking club that won things – albeit relatively minor things like the then Coca-Cola Cup – and reached finals on a regular enough basis to bring lots of excitement. I had a season ticket as a student, by which time the club was a lower mid/table Premier League struggler, but still boasted the flair of people like Juan Pablo Angel and Thomas Hitzelsberger (don’t laugh, they were both excellent to watch). I still make roughly a game a year, which is less than I’d like, but as much as is really fair in the context of having a young child and living in another country.
In the next two weeks, Villa have the chance to regain their status at the top table, so I’ve decided I’ll take the chance to write about it. For two games. Or three. However long it lasts. I won’t be there, in all likelihood, but as far as a small number of games go, there’s nothing bigger than the playoffs. Time to ramble…
And so to year two: the play offs (and so, the play off diaries) strike again.
It’s funny that it can feel like your football team has gone through a complete cycle of transition, and yet come the end of the year, you find yourself facing into the same old battle to re-join the elite. 2019 Villa are a different team to the one that faced Middlesbrough and then Fulham in 2018. They’re a better attacking outfit. Probably a better defensive outfit, too, though they’re certainly liable to concede more chances and far less likely to shut up shop if they go ahead. They’re also far less likely to find themselves up against a team they can’t unlock.
It has to be said, firstly, that this has been one of the most interesting season to be a Villa fan in living memory. I’m almost at the point, as I said last year, where there’s a tiny bit of me that would prefer to stay in the Championship simply for more of this. The Championship is an equal and fiercely competitive league compared to the Premier League, and has far more in common with what I remember the Premier League being like when I was growing up. There’s a lot to like, and that’s before you get to Villa’s particular drama. So I have mixed feelings.
This season has had some distinctive highlights. We’ve had the cabbage incident back in the Steve Bruce era. The longest run of consecutive wins in the club’s history. The absolute doldrums of the first few months of the season, and the blast through from peripheral playoff contenders to comfortably getting in.
There was Jack Grealish getting attacked on the pitch and then scoring the winner against them from up the road, and that wonder-goal from Hutton against… Sure, well you know, them from up the road again. There have been two absolutely brilliant loan signings, in Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings, and the football – whisper it – has been really exciting since February or so (who could forget that 5-5 draw with Forest). Having a new manager in Dean Smith who’s clearly a mad fan of the club has certainly helped, too.
The issue with more championship action for Villa next season, though, is obvious. The Championship is very much a breeding ground league, and while Villa have been a selling club for a generation, if we’re honest, the loss of those two loan signings and (almost certainly) Grealish would, in my opinion, be the loss of three of the four biggest stars of this season (the other is John McGinn, for me, in case you’re wondering). It seems likely a lot of what’s been great about this year would be gone with it.
So it comes down to three games, again…
And so, once again, we come to this: the cliched ‘lottery’. I don’t know how to call it. Villa are on form – especially if you’re willing to set aside the loss to Norwich on the last day of the season, which saw half the team rested. The record against West Brom isn’t great this season, though you do have to offset that somewhat with the draw at the Hawthorns being largely down to an injury time handball goal by Jay Rodriguez which quite definitely shouldn’t have stood. This team are so much better than anyone would have credited only a few months ago, but – given I’m giving little credit to any favourites tag – there’s still a three in four chance it hasn’t ultimately meant anything at all.
So what about Albion? The full-on local rivalry isn’t there for me, despite the clubs being so nearby. I quite like Albion. For years they had that kind of ‘upstarts’ thing going on, a team with little bits of quality dotted through them that was willing to attack even when it didn’t seem that well-advised. Those yo-yo years looked entertaining, and I’d imagine they were a lot of fun to watch. I want to beat them, of course, and I don’t think it’ll be easy.
They have a squad full of premier league-quality players (not that it’s always a positive – see Villa last year), and are capable of being extremely strong. They should probably have been closer to the automatic places, but have looked like they’re in a little bit of a tumultuous mess at various times this season. Hopefully, the indifferent lot turn up for at least one leg of the semi-final, as if they do, I suspect Villa would have enough to put them away.
But we shall see. Only an idiot would go into the play offs with any level of confidence. Besides, not long after the plays off last season, it looked very much the club might disappear completely, which kind of puts the whole thing into context, right?
Que sera sera? Try telling me that at half 12 on Saturday…
So I’ve had a couple of people get in touch about my forthcoming book, CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten. A few things have changed over the last few months, perhaps inevitably, so I just want to fill in anyone who might be interested on the detail, especially those of you who have kindly pre-ordered the book (which you can still do here, if you’d like, though as circumstances change – see below – I might have to stop taking those orders – I will make it clear on the page if I do so).
Thank you to all those that have helped out in any way so far, from the dozens I’ve interviewed to those who’ve financially supported this – you’ve really made it a whole, whole lot easier.
First of all, I recognize some of you might not want a big long-winded update, so here it is all summed up in a couple of paragraphs…
In short:My plan was always to self-publish this book. However, I’ve been approached by a very reputable literary agent about working with me to get hold of a publisher. Her previous work includes Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography and a couple of books by Lee Price which explore similar areas of football to CONIFA. The submission process to publishers will inevitably slow down production, so while I’m all but done with my end, I’m going to hold off on publication for now.
The agent and I have agreed that if there are no takers on the book by late November, I will go ahead with self-publishing, ideally in time for Christmas. I appreciate that I had planned to publish in late September, and some of you might have considered that a factor when you bought a copy. This is too good an opportunity to pass up for me, so while I’m sorry for the delay, I have decided to go with it regardless. With that in mind, if you pre-ordered, and would prefer a refund to waiting for a later publication date, I completely respect that. Just get in touch, and it will have your money back with you within a couple of working days. You should also have received an update email from me.
In a little more detail: To be honest, I always anticipated this being an indie book. CONIFA might be growing, and articles are now appearing around tournaments in mainstream publications, but I wasn’t convinced the market was there to go to publishers, and I’m still not, entirely. People have been incredibly open with me, though, both from within CONIFA, and in terms of producing stories around the teams for the book. I think what I have is a genuinely fascinating insight into the organization. It might be a little sports-nerdy and quite political at times, but it also has some unbelievable stories behind it all.
The latest draft is about 65,000 words in length, and has some details that have really surprised me: I’ve learned a huge, huge amount as I’ve gone along. I’m not going to spill it all here, for obvious reasons, but I thought there’s no harm in telling you a bit about what I’m covering.
There’s a park match taking place at the side of the pitch at Fisher FC, in the shadows of the towering buildings of the Isle Of Dogs. Kids in Bristol Rovers shirts and kids in Tibet shirts have little idea what’s going on over on the pitch, but their intense battle for supremacy isn’t a bad contest.
Bristol Rovers fans’ affinity for Tibet is a strange side angle on this tournament, one that’s jumped out like the Tottenham fans’ strange love for Hungarian side Szekely Land, and the Watford fans’ love for Panjab.
It’s the final day, and I’m completing my ‘clean sweep’ of every team in the CONIFA World Football Cup: by sheer good luck, the two I haven’t seen – Tibet and the United Koreans In Japan – have drawn each other in an 11th and 12th place playoff, in a convenient location in fairly central London that allows plenty of time to head over to the final.
Tibet have been followed passionately, by all accounts throughout the tournament, and while they’ve been close, they’re yet to pick up a win. They take the lead, through a powerful edge of the box drive, but spend most of the game pegged back into their own penalty area.
The largely dominant Koreans equalise with about ten minutes left, and threaten to snatch it. Instead, they win on penalties, though not before Tibet score their first, and their striker rips off his shirt and does a Hulk impression to celebrate. The Tibetans are sung out by the haunting melodies of their fans: they’ve massive underdogs and they’ve been close in most games, playing a multitude of players from semi-pro leagues. They’ve done themselves proud.
I decided to skip the third/fourth place play-off and spend a couple of hours writing – as you can probably imagine, I have a substantial amount of work to do on my CONIFA book now, and also a certain amount of football fatigue. The two games today bring me to a total of 16 live games in a nine-day period (and only six of those nine days had any games at all on them), so I’ve been going some.
The final, way up north in Enfield, drew in a massive crowd. An entire squad of Abkhazians were draped over the closed off area of the stand. Tuvalu players climbed trees to get a better look at the pitch. Behind one goal, a large group of Hungarians set off flares and sung throughout, while the Northern Cyprus fans responded with melodic pipe and drums, and countless flags.
“To understand Panjab, you need to talk about the partition of Hindustan, and the effect it had on people of any religion other than Hindu or Muslim. We were just caught in the crossfire.”
I love the conversations that happen around this tournament, and one of today’s was an in-depth lesson on the history of Sikhism, and the consequences of the formation of India and Pakistan on the religion. Panjab is one of the few entities that represents both.
This was a real ‘up and out’ day: four games of football in a day is, let’s be honest, too much. But it was necessary:
I’ve been quietly fostering a small behind-the-scenes goal over the last five days: to see all 16 CONIFA sides in action in person. That probably doesn’t sound all that challenging, given the tournament lasts ten days, but in realit,y it required two results to go my way today. I saw Panjab and Tuvalu for the first time at Sutton United, and I needed both United Koreans In Japan and Tibet to lose today so I can catch them playing each other before the final on Saturday. I don’t want to wish defeat on anyone, especially the loveable Tibetans, but I got lucky: it happened.
Seeing Tuvalu was just excellent. They’re one of those teams who can’t defend, at all, and as the game went on they played a higher and higher line, allowing a fairly weak Tamil Eelam team – a side who hadn’t scored before this game in the entire tournament – to simply play the ball in behind them and run onto it. That said, Tuvalu were surprisingly adept going forward, and smashed in a couple of brilliant goals, including one hit at pace on the volley from 15 yards, to lead 3-1. Both sides also missed a penalty, the Tuvalu ‘keeper making a diving save to keep out the Tamil Eelam finish.
Then Tuvalu capitulated, conceding three late goals to lose 4-3, the last two goals coming in stoppage time. Probably the game of the tournament so far, though you have to feel for the (smaller) islanders.
After a brief lesson in the history of Sikhism and the importance of the Panjabi identity, I caught the first half of the North Indian team’s win against hosts Barawa, too, which ultimately ended 5-0. They were the highest ranked team coming into the tournament (though not the favourites), and looked very decent if lacking a particularly outstanding playmaker. They’ll play for fifth place next.
Every tournament, even a World Cup, has a lull: a moment when – if only for one game – you wonder if there might just be something better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s England’s invariably turgid group games against ‘lower standard’ opposition at the World Cup, or a player dispute at CONIFA, a tournament wouldn’t feel quite real without it.
That moment has just arrived for me. It came somewhere between A Tuesday morning mini-scandal, and a quarter-final thrashing. Both involve unfortunate hosts Barawa.
Someone observed to me today that CONIFA seems to be taking part in large part on Twitter. It is an impressive social footprint the tournament is leaving across London, a part of which I am contributing to, in my own little way. It was through that particular medium that I learnt of a dispute over the results of Group A on Tuesday morning, after the final games took place on Sunday.
Barawa’s star man Mohamed Bettamer, a former Libyan international and African Champions League player, was evidently registered after Barawa’s opening game of the tournament against Tamil Eelam on Thursday night, and went on to be a critical player in both their loss against Cascadia, and in their win against Ellan Vannin. The latter result saw the Isle of Man side knocked out. Barawa won the game 2-0, and Battamer got a goal and an assist. Ellan Vannin vociferously protested. I gather, from asking around, that Cascadia weren’t overly happy with his inclusion, either.
Some have made the fairly obvious point that Bruce Grobellaar turned out for Matabeleland on Sunday, against Tuvalu, and also wasn’t on the squad list. I’m inclined to believe that CONIFA have been universally lax with the rules on player registration, as they suggest, given the obvious difficulties with sorting squads for a tournament like this. But the pure fury reigning down on the organisation from the Ellan Vannin side – and Barawa’s radio silence on the issue ahead of their game with Northern Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon – didn’t do the tournament any favours, right or wrong.
I understand the need for a laid back process around player registration – as CONIFA’s Secretary General pointed out on Twitter, several teams wouldn’t have made the tournament without it – but I also understand frustrations at the late inclusion of a clearly very good forward. There’s a bit of me that wonders if Ellan Vannin might have been better served taking it on the chin, but then again, I understand their frustration. Perhaps quitting the tournament and heading home early, though, was a little overblown (and yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done).
As a result, the lower-tier ‘placement’ games are heavily disrupted, with Tibet turning out yesterday against a late, volunteer opposition drawn from the local Turkish community, and given a by in a game that should have been against Ellan Vannin.
“We’re Turks, not Greeks. I can’t imagine any player from Northern Cyprus would ever want to play for Cyprus, any more than he’d want to play for Greece” – it’s a quick outline from a fan, but a good summary of one of the most convincing arguments for the ascension of a non-FIFA affiliated country from its current status. Northern Cyprus have had players – like Muzzy Izzet – turn out for Turkey, but turning out for the current Cyprus team is just unthinkable.
The Turkish-Cypriots in Enfield on Sunday afternoon are passionate, and more than happy to lay out their position, as the inverted Turkish flag – red on white rather than white on red – of the Cypriot Republic sits draped all over Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II ground.
The Abkhazians were somewhat less forthcoming on their relationship with Georgia – “we don’t talk about that,” two tell me, before launching into the longest national anthem I’ve ever heard in competitive sport, delaying kick off by a couple of minutes to allow for their solemn orchestral opus.
Two years ago, CONIFA’s second ever World Cup was played out in Abkhazia, a separatist region of north-west Georgia, with the hosts taking the title in penalties, and followed fanatically. Over 5000 people attended the final.
Their bid to retain the title crashed and burnt this weekend, first against Hungarians in the Ukraine, Karpatalja, with the late replacement side who’ve risen to the occasion beating them 2-0, and then with a 2-2 draw in which they couldn’t add to a late equaliser against Northern Cyprus in a ‘must win’ encounter.
This was an odd game, perhaps best described as melodramatic. It was poorly refereed, and with the Abkhazia side a touch aggressive, and the Northern Cyprus side willing to go down at the slightest touch, things were a little farcical at times. Nevertheless, Abkhazia opened the scoring with a thunderbolt of a finish from 25 yards, though Northern Cyprus has been in charge for much of the game. The Cypriots hit back to lead 2-1, before a late penalty and lots of farcical bickering saw out the game at 2-2, enough to see Northern Cyprus through in second in the group, and holders Abkhazia out.
Ellan Vannin, another side I had pegged as a potential winner, crashed out elsewhere as Cascadia got more than the five-goal goal win they needed against Tamil Eelam to overturn the Isle of Man side on goal difference, and see themselves through alongside hosts Barawa, who shocked Vannin.