Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, the Woolpack Wanderers and the Garrison Gunners all share a place at the FIFA Museum in Zurich, Switzerland. While the first three are European superpowers and Champions League winners, it is unlikely you will have ever heard of the latter pair. Their claim to fame? They feature in the smallest football league on the planet.
The Isles of Scilly Football League, an affiliate of the FA, has just two teams and one club. Both the Wanderers and the Gunners originate from the St Mary’s Football Club, with the two sides playing against each other every week. And it’s been that way for 40 years. They kick things off with their own Charity Shield, and play a two-legged League Cup and an FA Cup final at the end of the campaign.
However, that’s where the similarities with the English game’s glitz and glamour end. Situated 28 miles south of Cornwall, the islands are prone to extreme weather, battered by rain and gales.
“The pitch is on top of a hill, and if the weather is coming from a certain direction there’s no doubt about it, we cannot play,” Matt Simons, the St Mary’s club secretary, tells The Sportsman of their Garrison Field home. “The big problem though is that we spend a good 30 minutes before a game on Sundays filling in rabbit holes with sand.”
It’s not just mother nature which can get in the way. With only 2,000 inhabitants on the island, around 40 are able and keen to play, meaning picking teams can be a struggle. That’s before you consider that everyone who gets to the age of 16 has to move to the mainland if they wish to continue their education as GCSEs are the limit on the island.
“We have our club AGM around August or September when we get the list of people who want to play,” explains Matt. “Then the captains select the teams and it’s like how you picked teams on the school playground. They get the list and go through it, first picking their vice-captains.
“We have a group of defenders, midfielders… often when one defender is picked then another is.” However, transfers sometimes have to be made to make sure it remains competitive when there are injuries or absences.
“There’s a danger it gets one-sided and a very real danger it’s over by Christmas,” adds Matt, who has been playing regularly for five years now that he no longer works in a pub, with Sunday Roasts having previously had to take precedence over Sunday football.
While club chairman Anthony Gibbons says the league is of a ‘pub standard’ and it is yet to be recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, the uniqueness of the league setup has attracted plenty of interest. In 2008, David Beckham, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Daniele De Rossi rocked up for an adidas advert as they toured the globe’s littlest leagues. Fifa are fans too.
“A team came over from Fifa,” Matt says. “We had a trophy which is a centimetre high, mounted on two pieces of wood and called it the ‘World’s Smallest Trophy for the World’s Smallest League’. They liked it, they wanted it, they took it. With permission, they had another one made for us and the original is currently next door to a replica Champions League trophy!”
Football’s governing body has even leased football strips, though some of the older memorabilia is lost for the time being, stuck in a local museum on the island which has been condemned.
However, the islanders have been creating their own history and upholding their own traditions, playing each other 17 times between October and March, including the big Boxing Day fixture where ‘The Young Bucks’ take on ‘The Old Guys’.
“It’s always a good one,” says Matt of the festive meeting. “At that time we will have 50 or 60 players, and all of the families and visiting relatives will be there too. Then we all cram into the pub; having not been a part of it that long, I can sit here and listen to stories from, like, 1987.
“Come the end of the season, there is a Golden Boot, there’s a Ref’s Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year gets voted for by the other side,” he tells us.
Five games into this season, the Wanderers - who boast the most championships and are current title-holders - top the table with 10 points, with the Gunners six points adrift with a single win to their name. The immediate hope is that they can get their league schedule back on track after the inevitable Covid-enforced breaks.
Matt, who is now 40, intends to keep playing until his own son turns 14 next year, the age at which players can join. There is often a dearth of players aged 17 and 18 though. After going to nearby Truro on the mainland to continue learning and gaining qualifications, some don’t return as accommodation and second homes can be difficult to acquire in the area.
So, have they got anyone playing who could make it in the big leagues? Not quite. “One guy who played a few years back was on the books at Stockport County I think,” reveals chairman Anthony, “and there is another player at Truro, who play in the Southern Premier League South.”
Despite the inherent difficulties, the Isles of Scilly still proudly sits in the pantheon of football’s European leagues. It might not be as glamorous as the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga, but try telling that to the Woolpack Wanderers and Garrison Gunners as their battle to both finish top and avoid ending bottom continues.