BY TOMOS KNOX
The four national teams of the United Kingdom are supposedly England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each with its own FIFA affiliated side, these nations have spanned generations and produced some wonderful footballers, and in the case of England have even won the FIFA World Cup, triumphing by a margin of 4-2 over West Germany in 1966 – a fond memory to those who witnessed that historic match.
Every one of those teams has qualified for the World Cup at one time or another and while only England and Scotland who have competed in the European Championships (neither having experienced success in that sphere) it’s Northern Ireland who can – remarkably – still claim the title of champions of these islands, having emerged victorious in the final edition of the British Home Championship in 1984; the trophy remains the property of the Irish FA.
With the success and the intense media coverage that surrounds the four main international sides of the UK, the fact that many other international football teams exist within the UK’s borders tends to go unnoticed. After all, why watch the Shetland Islands battle it out with Orkney on an amateur pitch when you can watch England versus Norway? It is easy to see why Britain’s lesser-known representative sides get so little attention; the fact that the other national sides of the United Kingdom are not members of FIFA makes simply funding a trip to face overseas opposition or to compete in a tournament a daunting challenge.
Amongst these overlooked teams are Guernsey, Jersey, the Shetland Islands, Anglesey, as well as others. The Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory lying in the South Atlantic Ocean also boasts a national side, as does Saint Helena, an island of similar status lying approximately 6,000 kilometres away. However, the national team that is perhaps best known in the sporting world is Ellan Vannin, the national football team of the Isle of Man.
Technically, the Isle of Man - a small island based in the middle of the Irish Sea - has two national football teams. One, the Isle of Man FA Representative side, is effectively run by the English FA, and competes against English amateur clubs. To be eligible, a player needs only to be registered to a local team, meaning that non-Manx footballers can represent the team, despite having no connection to the island. What’s more, Manx-born players who ply their trade in England, or further afield, cannot represent the IOMFA team.
This is what led to the creation of the Ellan Vannin national team. “Ellan Vannin” – meaning “Isle of Man” in the Manx tongue - was created with the intention of promoting Manx culture on a global level. Created by the Manx International Football Alliance in late 2013, the team employed a rather different selection process to the one used by the IOMFA side: players had to be born on the island, or have Manx heritage – the so-called “Grandfather rights” – in order to represent Ellan Vannin.
Realising that joining FIFA was not an option, the Manx IFA began searching for an alternative to the global governing body, and found duly one. The newly founded Confederation of Independent Football Associations were the perfect match for Ellan Vannin: it was young and promised success, and had a comparatively large membership – but more importantly, had a tournament on its way, set to be held in June 2014 and hosted by the Sápmi, more commonly known as Lapland, in Sweden. Ellan Vannin joined ConIFA in early 2014, and played their first match – against Monaco – soon after. The game transpired to be a virtual walkover, as the Manx side hit ten goals without reply past their beleaguered Monegasque opponents. If this match was anything to go by, Ellan Vannin was a side positively brimming with aptitude.
Full of confidence and anticipation, Ellan Vannin entered the inaugural ConIFA World Football Cup and were drawn in a group alongside Nagorno-Karabakh, a republic in the South Caucasus, and the County of Nice, a historical region of south France. The latter side, despite only having been formed in April 2014, had a number of OGC Nice reserves amongst their ranks and appeared to be potential cup-winners. By contrast, Ellan Vannin were deemed to be outsiders by the tournament’s bookmakers, NordicBet. Their odds to reach the final were 250/1, provoking consternation from the Manx IFA.
Having arrived in Östersund, Sweden for the tournament, Ellan Vannin played their first match versus Nagorno-Karabakh and within ten minutes were 2-0 down. It initially seemed as if NordicBet had been accurate in their predictions, but then the Manxmen hit back after winning a penalty on the stroke of half-time. However, it took 45 more minutes for Ellan Vannin to grab the equaliser, with Antony Moore netting in the 90th minute. The game was destined to end as a draw, but Frank Jones scored in added time to seal a vitally important comeback victory for the Manx side. They had succeeded in their first game, now it was down to sealing victory versus the County of Nice in order to progress to the quarter-finals.
Despite being seen as the underdogs, Ellan Vannin immediately made their presence felt and within 30 minutes were 3-0 up. However, as Nice regained control of the match, the Manxmen conceded two goals, making the score 3-2. Thankfully for Ellan Vannin, Daniel Bell was on hand to drive the ball home in the 87th minute, effectively sealing the match. The Manxmen had emerged as the dark horses of the tournament, and qualified for the quarter finals.
The quarter-final proved not to be quite as straightforward as the group stages, and after drawing 1-1 with Iraqi Kurdistan, the match went to penalties. Fortunately, the Manx side were triumphant and reached the semi-finals where they faced Armeans Suryoye. It proved to be a fairly facile victory for Ellan Vannin, with the score ending 4-1 to the islanders. Ellan Vannin had qualified for the ConIFA World Football Cup final, quite literally defying the odds in the process – and a number of Manxmen on the island also profited; with their bets paying off in the form of £250 cheques!
Alas, football has a funny way of bringing one back to earth, and this is exactly what happened in the case of Ellan Vannin. The final, contested against the County of Nice, who the Manx had previously encountered in the group stages, reached full time with the score at 0-0. Somewhat bizarrely, penalties, as oppose to two periods of extra time, immediately followed. Unfortunately for Ellan Vannin, the County of Nice won the shootout 5-3. The Manx dream had ended in the cruellest of ways.
It was, however, an incredible achievement for the Isle of Man, and the Ellan Vannin side were overwhelmed by the support from the islanders who flocked to the pubs to watch the Manxmen compete. It was a special moment for the Manx IFA; in the space of nine months they had gone from oddities in the world of non-FIFA football to becoming one of the powerhouses amongst ConIFA’s membership.
In June 2015, Ellan Vannin will re-emerge; this time to play in the ConIFA European Championships. Originally due to be held on the Isle of Man, the tournament had to be relocated to Budapest in Hungary because of a lack of accommodation available on the island; the famous TT races were to be held at around the same time meaning that hundreds, if not thousands of motorsport enthusiasts would be occupying most of the available hotels and beds. Ellan Vannin have been drawn alongside the Romani People and the County of Nice – a match that Manx IFA Media Liaison Gary Weightman says will be a thrilling encounter.
“The Ellan Vannin lads can’t wait for the match versus the County of Nice; there is the chance for revenge for the World Cup Final defeat!” he says. “As always the players want to play against the very best ConIFA has to offer and Countea De Nissa are up there amongst the best, and we have previously beaten them!”
However, Weightman also appreciates that this tournament is not going to be easy. “In Hungary we will have a track record as World Cup finalists and other teams now know how we play.” He admits. “It’s going to be much more difficult for us.”
As one of the squad’s few members plying their trade abroad, Seamus Sharkey is a vital member of the Ellan Vannin team. A versatile defender, Sharkey played for Rochester Lancers in the USA but joined League of Ireland club side Derry City in December. He played in the World Football Cup, and is relishing the opportunity to represent his island again.
“Representing the Isle of Man is pretty amazing.” He remarks. “When I play I have a beaming smile knowing I am about to do my family, friends and country proud.”
He – like the rest of the Ellan Vannin squad – is also keen on beating the County of Nice in June. “Yes, we definitely want to get some revenge for what happened in Sweden. The games against them have been very tight so hopefully we can come out on top this time.”
Sharkey, who scored against Iraqi Kurdistan in the quarter-finals, plays a higher level of football than the majority of the Ellan Vannin squad, which mostly comprises footballers playing on an amateur basis on the Isle of Man. He says that it is important for more Manx footballers to play abroad – but also concedes that there is a lack of interest on English clubs’ behalf in Manx youngsters.
“I think if the (Manx) players were playing at a better standard of football every week they would be become better footballers.” He comments. “There are some good players over there, who, if they were in England as teenagers, they would have been snapped up by professional teams.”
However, the squad is still strong enough for the Manxmen to target European glory this June according to Sharkey.
“It would be silly of us to go there and not aim to come home as champions.” He says, confidently. “We would like to build upon our sucess last year so winning it would be our next achievement.”
Ellan Vannin’s is an incredible story of determination. Faced with sanctions from the Isle of Man County FA, the team ploughed on, eventually acheiving hero status on the island. Regardless of where the Manxmen end up in the ConIFA European Championships, it’s clear that they are a team heading in the right direction.
It’s an exciting period in the history of Manx football, and the youngsters like Ellan Vannin international Rowan Richardson - who plays for Blackpool Academy - are setting the benchmark for young footballers from the island. A victory in the ConIFA European Championships would be a fantastic way to elaborate on last year’s success for Ellan Vannin and the Manx IFA and would bring immense pride and joy to the Isle of Man. It may not carry the same pedigree as the 1966 FIFA World Cup win for England, but it would be just as prestigous an achievement for the Manx.