Geographies of Football: Guernsey FC's Flying Start
Second up in our mini series of posts which consider the geographies of football is a close consideration of Guernsey FC, a year on from their formation. Here, Chris Nee of England website The Stiles Council, the twofootedtackle podcast and In Bed with Maradona assesses their time in Division One of the Combined Counties Football League and wonders just how far the Channel Islanders might rise following promotion at the first attempt.
Some people just get things done. Daunting challenges are embraced with nonchalance and the prospect of criticism shrugged off in order to focus on the task at hand.
For non-league aficionados one of the inevitable stories of the 2011-12 season began to take hold as far back as last April, with its roots winding back into a longstanding debate over whether the island of Guernsey should, could and would be represented in the English football pyramid by a club team. Guernsey FC is an abstract concept that became reality, fuelled in its battle against sceptics and logistical obstacles by impressive wealth and an admirable determination to succeed.
And succeed they have. The Green Lions gained legitimacy as a club last spring, when the Football Association accepted them into the non-league system and the Combined Counties League – more typically home to clubs in the south east of England – welcomed them with open arms into its second division, Combined Counties League Division One. With a huge helping hand from sponsor Sportingbet, Guernsey have since covered not only their own travel costs but those of opponents visiting the island.
They have cruised through their first campaign and have gained promotion from the tenth tier of English football with plenty of room to spare. In truth, it was easy. Guernsey will be a genuine challenger in the Combined Counties League Premier Division next season and may well already be sounding out the Isthmian and Southern Leagues ahead of 2013-14 should they earn another promotion.
Such a smooth start must be credited not only to the quality and sheer number of players made available for selection by the club’s unique situation – which allows them to play for GFC, the more traditional Guernsey representative team and their local Priaulx League sides – but also to the people involved in running the club. Guernsey FC benefits from a leadership corps that must be the envy of most of the non-league system, not just those clubs at Combined Counties level. Tony Vance, alongside his assistant Colin Fallaize, has negotiated the labyrinthine nature of this unusual project and proved himself to be an exceptional coach. Observing Vance and Fallaize on a match day, it’s clear that the pair are passionate advocates of Guernsey football and the GFC project, and that they enjoy leading a team of significant talent towards its full potential.
Off the pitch, the club is guided by another enviable partnership. Chairman Steve Dewsnip has been a driving force behind the realisation of the GFC project. Club secretary Mark Le Tissier – seen at matches proudly sporting a club suit and tie – is a stalwart of the Guernsey Football Association, from which the leadership of Guernsey FC emerged, but will step down from his voluntary role as the chairman of the GFA in June.
Despite the club’s early successes, the conversation is not always civil among the Bovril and Bean Jar at the top table of Guernsey football. While Le Tissier’s motivation is based on his desire to spend more time with his family, his resignation announcement in March was the latest indication of a gradual separation between Guernsey FC and the Guernsey FA as tensions on the island grow. The availability or otherwise of Guernsey FC players for the traditional Muratti Vase matches formed the epicentre of a row that continued for the lion’s share of the season and has spawned other spats along the way.
Vance himself resigned as the island’s representative team coach in December, citing a lack of support exemplified by a short-lived GFA rule that precluded any player who rejected the change to play for the representative team from being offered the opportunity again for the remainder of the season; in other words, it would punish any player who chose to play for Guernsey FC on match days that clashed with the island team’s fixtures. Sam Cochrane, Guernsey FC’s captain and first signing, described the rule as “ludicrous”.
The schism between Guernsey FC and elements of the island’s football establishment had already come to a head in November with the resignation from all football roles of Graham Skuse, the Guernsey FA’s former referees development officer and the secretary of the Priaulx League’s then champions, St Martin’s. In an open letter to the media, Skuse pulled no punches. “I think Guernsey FC are destroying Guernsey football,” he wrote. “Recently I have seen players show a total lack of loyalty or respect. People masquerading as a football club are taking advantage of that lack of loyalty by shamelessly stripping the assets of member clubs.”
It was an explosive piece of correspondence that made crystal a complaint that had been bubbling under the surface during the early part of the season, and highlights the fact that Guernsey FC’s position – so privileged in many ways – is far from an easy one. The Football Strategy Committee was launched just a week before Skuse’s attack, and aims “to ensure that GFC does not adversely affect the sport on the island”. Unfortunately, enthusiasts in Guernsey will likely have to adapt their priorities and standards, because Guernsey FC is undoubtedly changing the landscape. Cochrane announced in October that he would be focusing his efforts entirely on the new club at the expense of his local side, North. A day later a local article about defender Simon Geall suggested that St Martin’s supporters were not especially enamoured with his decision to be involved with the Green Lions.
Irrespective of the inevitable wranglings and growing pains, there is much to be excited about for those who do choose to embrace the new project. Talented young players like Joe Alvarez and Rhys Jordan provide able back-up in a squad that has eased its way to the title and barely broke a sweat. Chris Tardif has been a reassuring presence in goal, and while the defensive players have played a vital role it is Guernsey’s more attacking players that can always be relied upon to hit the headlines.
Dom Heaume is a pleasure to watch in his role as a very modern front-man, leading the line using his height and physicality but also dropping deep to adroitly link play between the lines. Ryan-Zico Black is one of the club’s best known players, and not just because he has played at a much higher standard and represented Northern Ireland at Under-18 level. He was filmed for a feature on Brazilian television on March after TV Globo discovered that he was indeed named after the legendary Brazilian footballer. He was also Paul Gascoigne’s first signing for Kettering Town, and published an autobiography at the age of 26. He’s a man of diverse character and a fantastic footballer, driving the creativity of the Green Lions with an elegant touch and an imaginative football brain.
But while Black is the big name in Brazil, Ross Allen has dominated the Guernsey story on English shores. A pure goals corer playing far below his level, Allen had scored 19 league goals by the end of September – a figure that included no fewer than five hat-tricks. He hasn’t let up since, firing in over 60 goals and counting. By the time the final whistle blasts at Guernsey’s forthcoming CCL Cup (Premier) Final against Colliers Wood United, Allen’s remarkable season may well have scaled yet more impressive heights. At times, his presence in the opposition half in the tenth tier of English football has almost seemed cruel.
Given the ease with which Allen and his colleagues have thundered their way through season number one, commentators are now asking just how far they can go. With the continuation of investment at the current level and an unobstructed passage through leagues that could theoretically be less welcoming than the Combined Counties, Guernsey FC might even have Football League potential. Unfortunately for Dewsnip, Le Tissier and everyone involved with the club, it doesn’t really work like that.
They certainly won’t have an easy ride even next season, and if they do get as high as Step Four of non-league – and they probably will – Guernsey will have their work cut out. There are arguably already indications that a limit will soon be found, although it hasn’t been quite yet. Guernsey’s cup exploits have resulted in a EL Records Premier Challenge Cup trophy after defeating Colliers Wood at Farnborough last Friday, but they haven’t had it all their own way against higher opposition despite an emphatic statement of intent against Ash United in their first competitive game against Premier Division foes. While there are players at GFC capable of playing further up the pyramid, it’s not going to be easy getting them there and there may need to be a gradual improvement of the players at Vance’s disposal. Where those players come from will be one of the most fascinating questions in the Guernsey story in the coming years.
Regardless, the minimum target for the current set-up and quality of Guernsey FC is some way off. Given the heavy investment in the club by Sportingbet and the massive amount of commitment required of staff and players to spend an almost inhumane percentage of their waking hours high above the English Channel, nobody is in this to settle for mediocrity. The sponsors, management and players of Guernsey FC are undoubtedly working towards a much higher goal, and it would be surprising if that goal isn’t for the club to reach the Football Conference’s second tier in the next 8-10 years – and that’s a conservative estimate.
It’s a lofty target and an extremely tough challenge with many difficulties, controversies and setbacks surely awaiting the Green Lions along the way. But they’ve answered all the questions of them so far and come out smelling of roses. What effect the burgeoning Guernsey FC might have on football on the island is an altogether different matter.
Thanks to Chris for a great piece. If you’d like to check out his writing then best follow him on twitter.