Small­est league in the world

AARON BOWER looks at the re­mark­able two-team league op­er­at­ing in the Isles of Scilly

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - Contents -

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

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