LIAM BILLINGTON dodges seabirds, rams and military no-go zones to look at the history and state of football on Britain’s most northerly outpost.
The British Navy’s role in bringing football to the wide world is well chronicled; Brazil to Borneo benefitting from an officer’s decision to bring a few spare balls with him. What’s often overlooked is the role of the armed forces in spreading the game to more remote regions closer to home. Shetland is as beholden to passing ships as Sao Paulo, the crew forming the opposition in a large number of early recorded games as Britain’s most northerly islands welcomed the round ball.
Yet, even with the game fast overtaking rugby on what is loosely termed the Mainland – Shetland’s main island - the outlying islands risked being left behind. Unst is the most northerly inhabited part of Britain, and nowadays is two ferries and a couple of hours drive from Mainland. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this comparatively simple journey was but a dream. Three visits per week from the Earl of Zetland, Shetland’s one internal ferry, were the only dependable (weather permitting) occasions for getting on and off Unst if you didn’t have access to a fishing boat.
Whilst records of football on Mainland date back to 1887, the first attempt to organise the sport with any formality in Unst was in 1922, when the Unst Football Association was formed. To put this into perspective, by this point Shetland’s matches against neighbouring Orkney were becoming an annual tradition, having started as far back as 1906. According to The History of Shetland Football 1887-1987, Jim Peterson’s authoritative chronicle of the sport, it took the influence of Reverend Brown, Unst’s Methodist missionary, to drum up enough interest so that, when the meeting to form the Football Association took place, three teams were immediately established to form a local league. Thus began the unlikely story of the most isolated football league in Britain.
Unst is an island of just over 600 inhabitants, though that number is swelled significantly if you choose to include the vast number of seabirds found at Hermaness nature reserve, a haven for puffins, gannets and great skuas. Separated from Mainland by its neighbour Yell, it’s impossible to discuss Unst without frequently using the phrase “Britain’s most northerly”. On Britain’s most northerly island, you can find Britain’s most northerly restaurant, bar, chocolatier and brewery, as well as Muckle Flugga lighthouse, an island lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father and, along with the little full stop of land next to it, marking the end of Britain.
For a while, the settlement of Haroldswick could lay claim to the most northerly football team. Northern Rangers were one of the three founding clubs in the Unst league, and the first winners of the Hamilton Cup – Britain’s most northerly cup competition, of course. Uyeasound Thistle in the island’s south, and Baltasound United in the middle (Baltasound being the closest Unst gets to having a town), completed the trio.
Whilst we know that Uyeasound won the first league in 1923 (with poor Baltasound only managing one draw and one win in twelve matches), the records of trophies and leagues is sporadic at best. Yet we know football thrived for a while, interest strong enough in the 20s for each team to also have a reserve side attached to it. But after five years of activity, the records die out completely in 1927 – what happened over the next couple of decades is uncertain.
What is absolutely certain is that, as with the rest of Europe, football in Unst was heavily affected by the Second World War. As the men of Unst departed in their droves to the frontline and to patrol ships around Britain’s coastline, the amount of people left to play football on an island of then just over 700 total inhabitants in peacetime was negligible. Football was not a priority, and the fledgling club game took a backseat. This being said, the footballers of Unst weren’t to be separated from the game entirely. There is at least one record of an Unst man, Peter Mouat, lining up for a forces side from the Blackpool barracks against Blackpool FC. Playing for the local league side that day was one Stanley Matthews – so there was some meaningful practice, at least.
The war might have taken its toll on football in Unst, but it wasn’t to be the end of it. If anything, one of the after-effects of the war was to bring a whole new dimension to the football scene on the island, and provide the spark for the league returning, bigger and brighter than before.
If you want a good view of Muckle Flugga lighthouse but don’t fancy the couple of hours walk through Hermaness to see it, you can take a turning onto a quiet road in Haroldswick. Along the road you’ll see plenty of signs warning you to turn around and go back or else face arrest. You can safely ignore these. When you reach the end of the road, the only resistance you might face is from a stubborn ram. Here, at the highest point in Unst, you’ve reached a huge geodesic dome that once operated as a RAF radar tower. This dome, visible across most of Unst, is the most obvious of a number of reminders of the vast influence and effect the RAF’s presence had on Unst for nearly fifty years, starting with the opening of RAF Saxa Vord in 1957, until the last troops left the island in 2006 – so now you can drive that road without fear of detention.
As well as the old barracks now operating as a hostel, and the number of identical houses across Unst, the RAF had a significant impact on the local football scene – raising it from dormancy to become a competitive field once more.
Football in Unst after the war was initially rekindled by young players, inspired by teacher Magnus Stove, arriving from Shetland’s capital Lerwick and bringing a great passion for the game. The enthusiasm of those youngsters would be important for the Unst football scene when they got older, but also encouraged the returning adults to get back into the game – though it would be some time before it reached and surpassed the level of the 1920s.
In a local football scene with a small population, it’s possible for things to become staid. The same old faces, the same old teams leading to an effective stasis in standard of competition. In Unst after the war, it became difficult to even put on competitive matches – Uyeasound were the only active local team in the 1950s, scraping together piecemeal friendlies against whoever they could find with Baltasound and Haroldswick’s sides inactive. But new faces can act as a shot in the arm for stagnant competition. Whilst it would be unfair to call the Shetland league of today stagnant, the recent introduction of a works team from energy giant Petrofac, active in Shetland’s busy Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal, has added an invigorating new element to the league, a team with a revolving cast of visiting players, unknown to the familiar locals and adding intrigue, controversy and competition. The RAF’s effect on Unst, and indeed Shetland football as a whole, was much greater still. Introducing a team staffed with fit young players, qualified referees of a high enough standard to have refereed English league games, and coaches with a depth of experience and freshness, the RAF’s arrival dragged the football scene up from the mire.
Whilst the pool of local players was not deep, there was talent there. For the first decade after entering a team in the local leagues, the RAF were dominant, at one point only losing once in three years. Yet the talented players of Uyeasound and the rejuvenated Northern Rangers of Haroldswick took the opportunity to raise their standards. Although neither side could knock the Air Force off their rather lofty perch, games became increasingly competitive, until in the 1970s they both found occasion to surpass the RAF – only every now and then, of course. The league at this point had started to gain some order and competitiveness, with two of the old three local sides (Uyeasound having merged with Baltasound due to lack of players) pitted against two RAF teams. There were also years with an even greater level of competition as Irish contractors building the new council housing developments formed a team, Knockbreda United, adding yet another level of challenge and novelty to the scene.
Perhaps the key indicator as to how surprisingly strong football in Unst became is the performance of Unst in the Parish Cup. This novel competition pits teams from all the regions and islands of Shetland against each other, eligibility decided by residence or birthplace, rather than the greater freedom of club ties. In 1964, Unst won the cup, having beaten Dunrossness 13-1 along the way. Considering it was a team full of local players, without calling on RAF ringers, this achievement goes to show the strength the local league had, against all odds, engendered in the local players. In 1965, they won the cup again, and repeated the feat in 1967.
They say all good things must come to an end. For decades after the arrival of the RAF, Unst’s football scene thrived, surviving fluctuating numbers of teams as eligible players inevitably left the island. But as the population aged, it became impossible to maintain the standards that had been set. As the 90’s came about, the league became a cup, the RAF still competing but perhaps caring more for the Shetland wide competitions such as the County Shield that they continued to be involved in. Eventually, local competition was to cease, and with the RAF base dwindling and eventually closing, the possibility of a league beyond 5-a-side football in Unst looks increasingly unlikely. And yet…
These days it’s easier to get to and from Unst. Whilst a local league might not be feasible, Unst football has not died. Over the past decade or so, discussions have taken place about possibly merging with Yell to form a team for the Shetland league. Whilst this has not happened, Unst did field their own team in the league for a couple of years, performing credibly, before eventually dropping into the reserve league. The biggest success has come in the Parish Cup – in 2000, amidst all the flux in local football, Unst came from nowhere to win the cup. Just as that was beginning to look like an outlier, in the last few years there has been another resurgence. Unst claimed their fifth Parish Cup in 2012 and reached the final a year later, falling agonisingly short in extra time. That the most successful team in Parish Cup history, Whalsay, are another island team, tells a story – the isolation of these regions can lead to a greater community spirit than in many more populated yet disparate communities. The football league in Unst was bolstered and rejuvenated by an outside presence, but the structure for the league was established through a local determination, a refusal to believe that, just because they were far away, they were outsiders.
Whilst the Unst league may be a thing of the past, we can still hope for the best for football in these regions. Football’s universal popularity is not random – it is the easiest activity in the world for a group of people to get together and enjoy. Sometimes, when we’re in the middle of a transfer window and football seems to be all about which multi-millionaires will earn their millions where, it takes a metaphorical trip to Unst to remind ourselves what football is really all about.
LIAM BILLINGTON - @ytseliam