THE ISLES OF SCILLY IS AN ARCHIPELAGO lying 28 miles south of Cornwall with five inhabited islands – St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher – creating a total population of 2,200. The Scillies are regularly prone to extreme weather and are hit by wild gales in the winter and extreme rainfall at other times of the year. The lack of a sixth-form college means that a large number of young Scillonians tend to leave for the mainland, and this contributes to the isles’ low population. However, despite this, the Isles of Scilly have their very own league, albeit a rather peculiar one.
The Isles of Scilly Football League originally consisted of four teams, two from St Mary’s, one from Tresco, and one from St Martins. But, as the years passed, and an increasing amount of youngsters moved to the mainland in search of employment, the league dwindled, and by the 1950s, just two teams remained, the two from the main island of St Mary. The league was revamped in the 1980s with two new teams emerging, the Garrison Gunners and the Woolpack Wanderers, to replace the St Mary teams.
The Isles of Scilly Football League continues to this day, with just the two teams competing at Garrison Field every Saturday, across an eighteen match season. The teams also compete for Wholesalers Cup, as well as the Foredeck Cup and hold a Charity Shield before the commencement of a season.
With a league featuring just two clubs, it would be easy to assume that it would be a rather boring and forlorn affair, but St Mary’s FC Chairman, Martin Tomkinson, argues that this is not the case.
“I suppose people looking in from the outside could say it was boring, but we don’t see it like that. There are always talking points, fall outs, close games and sometimes thrashings. Competitors and enemies for 90 minutes and then workmates and friends off it. Work hard and play hard. So no, we don’t think it’s boring.”
St Mary’s FC is the island’s representative side, a mixture of the Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers. It is also a governing body of sorts and organises football on the isles. Chairman Tomkinson acknowledges the problems that the league encounters, but believes that although there is a lack of young footballers, the problem is not too severe.
“We still have a mixture of 16 to 60 year olds, our former Chas Wood played regularly until he was 70, so hopefully the league will last for many years to come.”
Tomkinson says that the combined football team have looked into competing in the Island Games, but have not seriously contemplated playing: “The standard of the league is only like Sunday league, so the Island Games may be a bit too high for us but we have looked the idea of playing sides from the Channel Islands whilst on tour sometime.”
The Isles of Scilly Football League is reportedly the smallest in the world but maintains its place as one of the islands’ most prestigious and exciting sporting events. The Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers have been contesting what would appear to be a remarkably boring contest – yet this is not the case. The two teams, slugging it out over the course of a long season, playing every match on the Garrison Field, perched on top of a cliff, manage to make every encounter interesting. Recently, it was said that the league are attempting to get into the Guinness Book of Records, but Tomkinson dismisses this with a laugh.
“If you search for the smallest football league in the world, it comes up with the Isles of Scilly football league. We have not thought of entering the Guinness Book of records,” he says, before adding: “Should I approach the Guiness Book of Records? Why not?”
With just two teams, surely another could potentially join the fray? But, according to Martin Tomkinson, this is all but impossible.
“The seasons change from year to year; one year we can have 18 man squads and then the next struggle to get 11-a- side. People come and people go. Retirements, injuries, family ties, work commitments and so on affect numbers. So at the moment, I cannot see any more teams joining, but would not be against the idea.”
Football on the Isles of Scilly, however, still has a lot to look forward to: the youngsters currently involved with football on the Isles, who play for the Five Island Football Team, occasionally receive training from Plymouth Argyle who, being so near, maintain a healthy relationship with the community. And the league, although miniscule, is continuing to provide an exciting and enjoyable outlet for Scillonian people to enjoy a game of football.
As for the future, it is not clear. The dwindling numbers of young people pose a problem, and a lack of interest is another. Football has come a long way on the Isles of Scilly, but it has to be conceded that there will never be another five-island league, because the population of all five islands is smaller than it used to be. Tomkinson dictates that it is not up to him, as well as other older members of the league, to dream of the future.
“The senior members of the club just want the league to survive and continue,” he states. “Hopes and dreams belong to the youngsters; maybe we could enter the FA Cup?”
So for now, Martin Tomkinson and the Isles of Scilly Football
League have no intention of going down a similar path to the likes of Guernsey FC, who are currently playing in the English football pyramid. They simply wish to continue witnessing growth in enthusiasm for football on the islands.
Whether or not another team will ever join the two-team league, whether or not the Isles of Scilly will produce a Premier League footballer doesn’t really matter. The thing that makes the Isles of Scilly Football League so magical and enchanting is its uniqueness. This is the smallest football league on earth, and it is one like no other.
By Tomos Knox. Follow @TomosKnox