Let’s not beat around the bush here. Major tournaments are invariably a let down. Whether it be the World Cup, Olympics or PDC Premier League Darts Play Offs, the expectation and anticipation often outweigh the actual event. But what if you go into a tournament with your expectations of quality low? What if the organisers do everything in their power to organise the tournament around the spectators? What if the organising committee virtually give tickets away free? And what if it was on your doorstep? Surely the best day in the year bar a visit from Saint Nicklas?
I pondered these questions as I stood on the deck of the boat, watching the coast of Southern England slip away under the tide and the seagulls. I was the luckiest man alive. Whilst others would be having a lay in, reading the sunday papers and thinking about whether to wash the car or cut the grass, I was going to the one of the biggest football tournaments being played. Yes, the CONCACAF Cup may have the glitz and showbiz that only the US could provide, and yes the Under17′s World Cup in Mexico, and yes the Woman’s World Cup was due to start in a few hours (featuring the German team who made THAT video). But could they really compete with the 14th International Island Games on the Isle of Wight. WOOF!
OK – so now you have recovered and regained your composure I can see that you are asking yourself how you missed this one. After all it only happens every two years, and it is the first time it has been on these virtual shores since 2005 when it was held in the Shetlands. 25 Islands with over 1,000 athletes were descending on the Isle of Wight to compete in 14 sports over 7 days. And the pinnacle of these is the football.
Fifteen Islands were to take part in the tournament and on the opening day of competition Danny Last, Cynical Dave and myself were heading over the Solent to see eight of these teams do battle in the ultimate day of international football. With admission set at £3 per game and the venues all within 8 miles of each other (everything in the Isle of Wight is 8 miles apart) it was going to be a top day. Oh, and have I mentioned the tandem? No? Well let’s leave that treat for later.
In the week leading up to the tournament there was talk the tournament may be reduced to 14 teams. The poor old Falkland Islands, the country with the longest journey were grounded due to the volcano in Chile. They had to postpone their warm up game at Blue Square Bet South Eastleigh due to delays in their travel plans so the smart money wasn’t going on them due to their less than ideal preparation.
Three times winners Jersey were sure to be the favourites, although hosts Isle of Man would be a tough outfit as too would be Gibraltar who had beaten the Faroe Islands in a “warm up” game.. My colours were being nailed firmly to the Saaremaa mast, simply because I liked their name although apparently Gotland ladies team were well fancied (according to Callum J Smith that is).
The opportunity to see four games in one day does not present itself many times in one’s life so a day like today would need some meticulous planning. Actually we could have also slipped in half of Isle of Man ladies v Gibraltar ladies as well but we have to draw the line somewhere – in terms of overload not watching women’s football.
We emerged from the mist of the Solent in Fishbourne just as the sun started to shine through. A quick stop at the media centre to pick up our bag of Natwest goodies and team sheets galore and we were off some 8 miles north to the world famous Cowes.
For a quick preview of the teams we would be seeing, head off here for a minute.
Game 1 – Gotland 2 Isle of Man 4 – Cowes Sports FC
Cowes is the posh totty of the Isle of Wight. We parked up and wandered along the High Street that would be a mecca for any aspiring football hooligan/casual with outlets for Henri Lloyd, Stone Island and Lacoste. We looked out of place but couldn’t quite put our finger on it. Then Dave realised – we didn’t have jumpers slung around our shoulders. Danny and I didn’t have a jumper so we made do with a beach towel. A couple of Doombar’s later watching the local buses complete a course that would shame International It’s A Knockout, accompanied by every turn of “He’s never going to make that” wet our whistle for the feast of football and we headed up the “steepest hill in the Isle of Wight” (©Cynical Dave) to Westwood Park, home of Wessex League One side Cowes Sports FC.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. I am not a ground hopper. The idea of 4 (4.5) games in a day was appealing, sure. The idea of fitting an agenda around this was good as well. But I have no interest in ranking facilities, finding a teamsheet (I have plenty if someone wants to buy one btw) or drinking local ales (Ale of Wight was a lovely pint though). There were plenty of said folk in the ground already, with their groundhopping carrier bags and their groundhopping hats, pouring over maps of the island as to how they were going to get from Cowes to Shanklin in time for the Isle of Man v Gibraltar ladies game. So that is the last of that talk.
The game was delayed by 15 minutes because the earlier fog had delayed the arrival of the Isle of Man kit. And it was a kit worth waiting for with its SBOBET sponsored front. Impressive line up from the Online betting company – West Ham, Cardiff and Isle of Man. All of the talk in the bar was that 2011 was “Their year” and to put a cheeky bet on them.
The game kicked off at 2.15pm. At 2.15pm and 8 seconds Isle of Man were 1-0 down. Peter Öhman took the ball one step, two step and wellied it in there. Now I am not sure if this technically counts as International football but if it did it would have broken the 11 seconds of Hakan Sukur from the 2002 World Cup Finals against South Korea. Coincidently, and this is a massive co-incidence that will have conspiracy theorists pondering this long into the night, Cowes Sports had previously been involved in one of the fastest ever goals. In April 2004 one of their reserve players, Marc Burrows, scored after 2 SECONDS in a game versus Eastleigh. Must be something in the water.
Gotland had dominated the opening 8 seconds and so the goal wasn’t a surprise. However, Isle of Man bounced back and within a minute they had equalised as a ball over the top found the Manx having too much pace for the Semi-Swedes and it was all square as the forward made no mistake.
Despite the heat the pace was relentless with the Gotland keeper earning his Dime (Dime’s are by far and away the biggest chocolate in Sweden along with Plopp) time and time again, getting every lucky break and deflection. Unfortunately at the other end it was a different story. On a rare foray into the Isle of Man half, Gotland’s blonde centre midfielder (well, they are all blonde so it could have been any one of four) lined up a shot that took a wicked deflection past the already committed Manx keeper. Half time and it was 2-1 to the Gotlanders.
The half time speech in the Isle of Man dressing room must have been delivered by the Lord of Mann (the Queen) as the team came out fired up and scored three goals in the first twenty minutes of the half to stun the Scandinavians. It was what they deserved. Short neat football, stronger on and off the ball and more direct had paid off and set them up nicely for the game on Monday with Falkland Islands, where a win would take them into the semi-finals.
With the game all but over, and the groundhoppers already starting to grade the sugar in their little groundhopping book we got in the car and drove 8 miles across the island to Brading Town. After parking the car, walking down a little country lane and climbing over a fence we came across the best ground in the world.
Game 2 – Rhodes 2 Greenland 1 – Brading Town FC
“Woah…steady on old chap” you may say at my previous statement. But let me set the scene for you. A lush green meadow, sloping down towards the coast with a view of hills on either side. Add in a small little clubhouse, cars parked around the edge of the field like a village cricket green, and the occasional old London underground train passing at the far end of the ground. Perfect. And we had noise, even to an extent atmosphere thanks to the travelling Greenland fans.
The biggest island (that is not a continent) in the world, and also the second furthest away in this competition (Falklands being the furthest) had brought their own tifosi, making themselves heard around the pitch. The coldest place in the tournament were taking on the warmest, Rhodes, although looking at the coaches you would never had guessed. Greenland’s bench was bedecked in shorts, whilst Rhodes management team had two layers of shell suit.
The Greeks had taken a 30 minute lead when Pantagiotis Mathios scored but they were made to sweat by a determined Greenland team. With only 56,000 people, the odds on me coming out of retirement to play international football would be slashed to less than 3/1 if I renounce my British passport. But they continued to huff and puff. For some of them the sight of the old London Underground tube train trundling past put the keeper off and twice Rhodes took advantage, scoring their second in the 55th minute when Pompou. Greenland threw everything they had at the Greeks and scored as the game entered injury time when Pavia Mølgaard turned the ball in.
But there was no room for goodwill and an olympic spirit as Rhodes tried every tactic in the book to waste time. With five minutes of injury time played Lukas Necas was sent off for a playful push on a Greenland defender – one of those you used to do in the playground with someone kneeling behind the victim. Necas stormed off and tried to get into the dressing room, which was locked so he was forced to petulantly kick a plastic cup around for a minute. But he wasn’t to be alone for long as keeper Eleytherios Skylas got a second yellow for handling outside his area. And with no subs left the captain took the yellow jersey for the final action in the game.
So two games down and you might be wondering what was happening with our beer tally? Well for some ludicrous reason no beer was being allowed outside of the clubhouses so the past couple of hours were relatively dry. We headed off to possibly the finest pub in any fair Isle in the world, the Horse & Hounds. You know the one, 8 miles from Brading, 8 from Newport on that junction. Thatched roof, ivy, you know the score. Three cold Greene King IPA’s and a pocket full of stuffing from the help yourself Carvery that Dave assumed meant just that rather than actually paying for a meal. We quickly ate all the evidence although it had seen better days, 12 June 2010 I would suggest.
So two down, two to go – well almost. With a four figure crowd expected at Newport for the “home nation” game we only planned a brief 30 minute stop at East Cowes FC for the “Battle of the Baltic”.
Game 3 - Åland 3 Saaremaa 3 – East Cowes FC
Fifteen minutes (and 8 miles) later we parked in the “official” car park at East Cowes, which was essentially the car park for the 5-a-side pitches. Next to us drew up the Groundhopper mobile. Out they climbed, complete with comedy hats and out came the note books to grade the car park surface. ”Not as black as Torbay from memory”, “About 3 inches shorter than West Wight Community College”, “Same longitude as Burphem Meadow tough”. Tick in the box.
They quibbled at being asked to pay ANOTHER £3 to get in AND 20pence for a team sheet. “This is the first Island Games where we have had to pay to get in.” Said the lead hopper, getting out the red pen to write something bad in his book.
This game hadn’t really fired up the locals. In fact there were more people watching the five a side on the far side but we didn’t care. This was international football at its best with Finnish Åland taking on Estonian Saaremaa. Each of the Finnish substitutes gave their counterparts a nice badge to remember them by and so to return the favour Åland gifted Saaremaa with a goal after 20 seconds as Marti Puuk scored from distance. They doubled their lead four minutes later when Elari Valmas turned, held off a defender and smashed it home.
It looked game over but just as we left the ground the Estonians pulled one back. And then another. Two-all at half time as we travelled 8 miles (of course) south for THE event of the weekend.
Game 4 – Isle of Wight 4 Ynys Môns 0 – Newport FC
I don’t think Newport FC have ever seen anything like it. Over 800 had crammed into the ground with a fair few from North Wales and it seemed most were queuing for food, served by a man with more metalwork in his body than Steve Austin (Kids – ask your Dad about the $6m Man AND not some fake WWF wrestler). This truly was the biggest night out on the Island for years.
The home support was vocal to say the least and I think that swayed the referee into awarding the hosts a penalty in the 14th minute for what seemed like an innocuous challenge. However, Ian Seabrook didn’t let that worry him as he calmly slotted the ball home.
Half time approached with no further goals. The teams and officials from Gibraltar and Alderney were in the crowd, after the former’s 6-1 win earlier in the day. There was no doubt this group was going to be decided by the meeting of the hosts and Gibraltar on Tuesday.
The game was wrapped up in the ten minutes after half time as Charlie Smeeton scored just after the break, finishing off a great team move, and then substitute Levrier scoring a few minutes later. Scott Jones scored a fourth just as we were leaving to give the scoreline a one sided look. For us it was an 8 mile (of course) trip back to Fishbourne and the ferry home.
As the sun set over the Solent we sat on the deck of the ferry and reminisced about one of the best days of football you could have had. Nineteen goals in four games were a good return but it had been the organisation, the enthusiasm of the locals (and the organisers), the surprising beauty of the surroundings. But above all it had been the fact that we had escaped not fulfilling our promise of riding around the island on a tandem*.
To get the equally comprehensive version of the day head on over to European Football Weekends.
More photos from the day in pleasure island can be found here.
*Ah yes. The tandem. It was one of those 11.34pm on a Saturday night conversations after far too many Beck Viers. We did for about 2 minutes consider it and then Twitter sort of took over and we fuelled our own fire so to speak. Can you ever imagine Danny or I on a tandem? I mean please! However, if any companies such as Greggs, Fullers or Adidas are reading and want to give us free stuff in return for a bit of publicity then we will consider anything…ANYTHING.