When you talk about rivalries, there arguably isn’t one in football to match this one. Forget the derby d’Italia, the old firm, El Classico, Boca and River, forget anything in the Premier League or at international level. When the Garrison Gunners and the Woolpack Wanderers face each other, the whole league trembles. That’s probably because they are the whole league. The Isles of Scilly football league.
With just two teams, it’s reputed to be the smallest league in the world, meaning the rivalry is electric and all consuming for football fans, there simply isn’t anyone else to follow. There are only roughly 2000 people living on an island of just over 6 square kilometres after all. The Scilly isles are the most southern point in the United Kingdom, just off the coast of Cornwall, and have their own local authority. These 2000 people can watch both their teams play each other 17 times during the course of a season to see who comes out on top. There’s no third place in Scilly football. There’s no promotion spot or relegation, just the winners and the losers.
The teams play on Sundays during the winter, from the middle of November until the end of March at the Garrison football field on the island of St. Mary’s, arriving by bike, moped, by boat or sometimes just a casual stroll across a field. They play out a fraught, passionate game with no quarter given and none asked, and at the final whistle all trudge down to the Scillonian club down the road for a few beers and some in depth analysis of how the game went. Woolpack Wanderers are the current champions and have also won it more often than any other team in the league.
You might just remember and Adidas commercial “Dream Big” shot on the Scilly isles back in 2008 featuring Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira and David Beckham, which is probably as much publicity as Scilly football league’s ever gotten.
But there’s a bit of footballing history to the 6 kilometre area. The whole competition started back in the 1920s with a competition called the Lyonesse Inter-Island cup, between St. Mary’s, Tresco, St Martins, Bryher and St. Agnes islands. Thirty years later only two clubs from any of the island remained – Rangers and Rovers. In 1984 both of these switched their names to the current Woolpack Wanderers (wearing red) and Garrison Gunners (decked out in blue).
As well as the Scilly football league there are two cup competitions; The Wholesalers Cup and the Foredeck Cup, both played over two legs and both played with the same good natured but fierce rivalry the league enjoys. Away goals don’t count. There’s also a charity shield fought bitterly for to kick off the league season.
Unsurprisingly, in this league, there isn’t a transfer, no minute by minute sky sports updates. Instead, both team captains sit down before the league begins and toss a coin to see who starts in taking turns to select their 20 man squad. The league’s oldest player, Chas Wood, who only retired at the spry young age of 70 thinks this draft system is ideal.
“The top two is the same every season, of course, but the league is still extremely well balanced. In five of the past eight seasons, the title hasn’t been decided until the very last match. Last year, the Reds got off to a great start and it looked as if they were going to win the title by Christmas. They were 18 points ahead, but the Blues reeled them in and it went right down to the wire. On the last day, the Blues only needed three points to wrap up a fantastic comeback, but the Reds, needing a draw, won the match 2-1.”
There are photographers and film makers present at a lot of the matches, but, in truth, the majority seem just as interested in the gathering of over 400 species of rare birds that flock to the beautiful archipelago seasonally, comfortably more than anywhere else in Europe. The rare birds, as it happens, are the reason the Isles of Scilly football season doesn’t kick off until mid November.
“Most of the players are employed in seasonal work within the tourist industry, for example as hotel staff, chefs, tourist guides or boatmen.”
It seems there may be tough times ahead for the Isles of Scilly football league. There aren’t really any educational facilities for kids older than 16, so they have to travel to the mainland. Less than 10% of them come back when their schooling’s done, preferring to try their hand in an area not so dependent on seasonal tourism. It means the league struggles harder and harder each season to drum up the required 40 odd players from the district. It doesn’t stop anybody, though. Young people do return from the mainland.
“I missed the island when I was on the mainland, although it gets quiet in the winter when the tourists leave. There’s not much to do but the football gives me something to look forward to every Sunday.”
It doesn’t help that property prices are on the up again and holiday-makers are pouncing on available houses, pricing many out of living in the area they grew up, and played football, in. There are nature warden jobs being created and a limit on new house builds to existing residents, so the island authorities are working to stem the brain drain to the cities. There is hope for the future, however. Youth five-a -side players on the island are coached by Plymouth Argyle, who are taking a greater interest in the local football there, meaning the league can at least look forward to a higher standard of game on a Sunday. There is even talk of one of the teams entering the FA Cup some season, what with the strong bonds between the islands and the FA, but it remains just talk for the moment, and there’s certainly no notions right now as far as entering the football league in general goes, the way other regional sides have. The attitude seems to be if that’s what future generations want than so be it, but with a dwindling population and dwindling fan-base, it seems for the moment at least, the passion and fire for the Gunners and Wanderers will be kept strictly local,
Photo by sion_a
Feature image by X42bn6
Feature pictures by Christopher Pledger
Photo by sion_a