Smallest league in the world
AARON BOWER looks at the remarkable two-team league operating in the Isles of Scilly
Football leagues seem to be getting too big. It feels like your football team play hundreds of games a season, all to finish horribly mid-table, or even worse. Long gone are the days of ten team leagues. Or are they?
Can we play you every week? Any football fan worth their salt has not only heard of that chant, but has probably sung it too. Of course, like most footballing chants it is sung in the spirit of banter and light-heartedness, but there is a league out there where that chant could be taken literally, and is probably wearing thin on players of that league, heckled by tourists.
Thinking of the location of the league, you’d be forgiven for jumping somewhere completely obscure and out of the blue, perhaps international football whipping boys American Samoa? Or even somewhere like Liechtenstein, San Marino? Not even close. Although Liechtenstein does get honourable mention – they have seven clubs but all compete in the Swiss leagues.
In fact, this league is a lot closer to home than you would believe. Just a 28 mile hop from British mainland lays the Isles of Scilly, made up of 145 separate islands. And, on one of the five islands that are habited, St. Mary’s, is where you will find the smallest football league in the world.
The Isles of Scilly football league has one thing in common with one of its British neighbours. Much like the SPL, it’s been dominated by two teams for a long time. Instead of Celtic and Rangers, since the 1950’s both the Garrison Gunners and the Woolpack Wanderers have been the top two teams in the league, with neither finishing any lower than second. Sounds impressive, but less so when you consider one minor detail – they are the only two teams in the league.
It wasn’t always that way though. In the 1920’s, when football reached the Isles of Scilly, each of the five main islands (St. Mary’s, Tresco, St. Martins, Bryher and St. Agnes) all had a football team. All five teams regularly competed in the magnificently named Lyonnesse Inter-Island Cup. The population of the Isles of Scilly has dwindled, though, over the years, with many people heading to the mainland for reasons such as studying or employment. This meant by the 1950’s only two teams were left. Originally known as the Rangers and the Rovers, in 1984 they changed their names to the Garrison Gunners and the Woolpack Wanderers.
And throughout the winter months, from November to March, the Gunners and the Wanderers slog it out in the very own Isles of Scilly San Siro – the Garrison football field, home to both teams. The season consists of 17 league games, but there is much more to this little domestic rivalry. As well as the league, there are two cup competitions – the Wholesalers Cup and the Foredeck Cup, played over two legs. Although naturally, it isn’t much of a cup run for the winner of either tournament.
There’s a festive special too, with the ‘old men’ taking on the ‘youngsters’ every Boxing Day. And every season begins with the Charity Shield, with the rules for taking part being... you’re either the Garrison Gunners or the Woolpack Wanderers. Simple really.
The faithful servants of the Isles of Scilly league even get to play their football on the international stage. Although, the term international should be used loosely. A combined Isles of Scilly team will represent their islands on the mainland, taking on a team called Newlyn Non Athletico. They also host ‘internationals’ too, with a team from Truro, Cornwall coming over to Scilly to take on the combined islands team.
The chances of other islands reforming a new team are remote; after St. Mary’s the next most populated island is Tresco – with a population of just 180.
One of the most unique things about this league is team selection. The teams are picked as they would be in a school playground. At the start of each season, the two captains sit down and pick their squads from a pool of players that have made themselves available. And amazingly, it provides an incredibly tight league.
There are players who have played for both teams, and won titles for both teams. This results in a league where there is very rarely a runaway winner. In fact, one league was settled on goal difference one year.
So, if you ever fancy a hop over the sea and onto the Isles of Scilly, make sure you catch a game of football on the Garrison football field. Then you can say you’ve seen the smallest football league in the world in full flow.
Wanderers off to a game Garrison Gunners and Woolpack