Saturday, 19 November 2011

Guernsey & Jersey: neighbours but world's apart in football strategy

This article also appeared at InBedWithMaradona.com

Guernsey’s entry into the English football pyramid has produced some early success but don’t expect Jersey to try and emulate their Channel Island neighbours.

The first two home fixtures for the newly formed Guernsey FC (GFC) in Combined Counties Division One produced emphatic wins – 5-0 over Knaphill, 3-0 over Warlingham – with both games watched by nearly 1,500 fans at Footes Lane.

Although players with Football League experience such as Chris Tardiff and Ryan-Zico Black are playing for Guernsey, both are Channel Islanders and the side is very much an attempt to provide regular football for the island’s local players that is made possible by sponsorship from Sportingbet rumoured to be worth around £250,000.

Jersey have ambitious plans too, but these involve the island pursuing a higher grade of football not at club level but internationally. There are seven teams in Guernsey’s main competition, the FNB Priaulx League, but 19 clubs are affiliated to the Jersey Football Association (JFA), whose senior members believe that following their neighbour route into the mainland pyramid would fundamentally weaken their game at a grass-roots level. GFC is not the Guernsey Football Association but a new club; a misconception not helped by former GFA president Mark Le Tissier being briefly involved in both before leaving to focus on the new club side.

To pursue a similar plan in Jersey, members of the JFA would need to quit to form or new club, or an existing senior club, such as First Tower or Jersey Scottish, would need to join the English pyramid. So far, both options have been rejected. Instead, over the past five years the JFA has been pursuing a ‘meaningful’ games programme for their national side. Premier League reserve sides, such as Blackburn and Sunderland, have flown over for games, while at youth level international sides from the other Home Nations are regular visitors but Jersey’s attempts to join the wider international arena have been stymied.

Only places recognised by the United Nations are able to join UEFA – a move designed to placate Spain, who threatened to quit international football if an application to join the European body by Gibraltar during the 1990s was approved. The change in UEFA statutes was not retrospective, allowing the four Home Nations to retain their historic international status, but has succeeded in keeping out other international aspirants, such as the Gibraltarians, Kosovo, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – and Jersey.

Jersey has a population of 87,400 – roughly double that of FIFA members Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino - and while former England international Graeme Le Saux is their biggest name, there are significantly more of his ‘countrymen’ playing professionally than there are Andorrans or Sammarinese.

Brett Pittman features in the Championship for Bristol City as a striker, while Peter Vincenti and Curtis Guthrie both play in League Two at Aldershot and Accrington Stanley respectively.

Jack Boyle did not make the grade at Southampton, but Marco Zocchi was offered a pro contract at Bournemouth last year and Michael Weir – son of JFA president Ricky – recently signed a two-year contract with Portuguese first division side CD Nacional after an impressive year on loan last season at AD Camacha.

All these are younger players but, despite all this evidence that the JFA’s strategy is working, as a British Crown Dependency the island remains in international limbo. Jersey has as much independence as the four Home Nations – probably more in terms of taxation – but will never meet the UN’s membership criteria.

In 2007, the JFA wrote to Michel Platini and the UEFA president responded, confirming that there could be no exceptions to their statutes: Jersey’s international ambitions were seemingly stifled.

In January of 2008, outgoing Football Association head Geoff Thompson visited the island and took up Jersey’s cause. His mandate at the FA was gone, but Thompson was also a FIFA vice president and took up Jersey’s case.

Later that year, Jersey hosted an international tournament – of sorts – staging a three-team event with Madeira and Gibraltar and Thompson subsequently persuaded FIFA to set up a Small Nations working group to try and help non-controversial places stuck in limbo. This lobbying culminated in Thompson returning to the island with Urs Kluser, development director for FIFA’s ‘member associations and development division’, in April 2010. The visit was the third and final leg of Kluser’s expedition that had also taken in the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu and Sint Maarten - a Dutch administered territory that occupies half of the Caribbean island of Saint Marten.

But there was no breakthrough for Jersey and a double whammy followed: Kluser left FIFA last September and Jersey’s other main ally, Geoff Thompson, departed earlier this year. The international arena seemed beyond Jersey and that was seemingly confirmed by Guernsey’s move into club football – a move that could even endanger the historic annual Muratti Vase between the Channel Islands as this season’s game is just days before the end of the Combined Counties season.

The Muratti apart, Jersey’s main ‘international’ outlet is the football tournament at the bi-annual Island Games. Two years ago, Jersey won the title for a record third time beating the hosts Åland 2-1 but lost their title this year, going down at the semi-final stage in the Isle of Wight.

The JFA have not given up though and plans are being formulated to stage an 'International Challenge Shield' next June in Gibraltar that would feature these two sides, the Isle of Man and – depending on club commitments – Guernsey. All four sides are, like many French territories, stuck in international limbo but the likes of Guadeloupe and Mayotte do get to play in the bi-annual Coupe de l’Outre Mer.

Every two years, the Fédération Française de Football spend €900,000 staging the Overseas Cup for French territories, while the Dutch FA is helping organise the annual ABCS Cup for Dutch speaking countries and colonies. Could the Shield perhaps be the start of something bigger for those remnants of the British Empire that also need an international leg-up?

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