On 16 July 2017, at the whim of warehouse manager and proud Yorkshireman Phil Hegarty, the Yorkshire International Football Association (YIFA) was founded. Just six months later, as the new year rolled tentatively into view, YIFA were given the news they’d been hoping to hear: their application to join the Confederation of Independent Football Associations had been unanimously approved, formally allowing them to become the organisation’s 48th representative.
Then, on a historic occasion three weeks later, at the Yorkshire NuBuilds Stadium in Fitzwilliam, Yorkshire played their first official match, scored their first official goal, and earned their first official draw in a friendly against the Manx footballers of Ellan Vannin. To say it has been a whirlwind first year for Hegarty and his International Football Association would be to put their journey mildly.
In the subsequent months, though having been formed a little too late to participate in the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup in London, Yorkshire have welcomed British Indian Ocean Territory dwellers the Chagos Islands to the village of Fitzwilliam, where the home side earned their first international victory with a comfortable 6-0 win, before travelling to the English capital to meet and face off against West Africans Barawa. It was in this latter fixture that the necessity of CONIFA’s matchmaking, and the warmth of the people behind YIFA, soon dovetailed at centre stage.
“In the run-up to our CONIFA international friendly against Barawa, news broke that a terrorist attack on a Barawa stadium had injured many and sadly taken the lives of six football fans,” Matt Thomas, General Manager of YIFA, recalled to These Football Times. “As an organisation, we instantly took the decision to switch publicity of the game onto the attack and sought to give the Barawa people a louder voice to tell their own story. This is the perfect example of how we continue to represent ourselves on the world stage whilst offering support and friendship to our fellow CONIFA members and we will continue to do so.”
YIFA’s endeavours in joining CONIFA have afforded them a platform upon which they can better tackle their own socio-political issues, and rally for support against their own unique injustices, though evidently they feel it is important they also stand up and be counted when the time comes to provide moral support for those with altogether different struggles to their own. “Hopefully people will recognise that rather than looking inwards and cutting ourselves off from the United Kingdom we are in truth very outwards-looking and recognise our position in the world as being very privileged,” Thomas explained.
It is this engaged and earnest ethos, which appears to run throughout YIFA, that makes the frequent antagonism with which Yorkshire’s pursuit of empowerment and recognition has been met with all the more disheartening.
“One of the criticisms levelled at us, by other regions of the United Kingdom particularly, is ‘well, Yorkshire isn’t a country,’” Thomas detailed while describing the ways in which many have derided Yorkshire’s collaboration with CONIFA. “The ironic part of this is that people telling us what we are and are not – dictating to us who we can and can’t join with or play against – are the perfect example of how the people of Yorkshire have been talked down to for decades.”
Thomas evidenced how a significant number of Yorkshiremen and women – who together form a population larger than each of the British Isles bar England – identify with being from Yorkshire more than they do hailing from England. “A 2014 survey by Dr Pete Woodcock, a politics lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, established that 15 percent of respondents identified as being solely Yorkshire and another 40 percent felt more Yorkshire than English when asked about their identity,” Thomas told These Football Times.
Despite this, even today, the opinions of those born and bred in Yorkshire are scarcely given consideration, let alone the deciding say, when it comes to the governing of their vast and famous county. “Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have assemblies/parliaments and devolved powers. You could say that this is because they are nations, yet London is not just home to Westminster but also has an assembly and a powerful mayor. Yorkshire doesn’t.”
“Pressure has grown on Westminster politicians to address this inequality yet the response has been to divide and conquer by carving Yorkshire up into smaller and weaker parcels known as ‘city regions’. When asked if this was wanted, overwhelmingly the councils of Yorkshire stated a preference for a Yorkshire assembly and Yorkshire mayor via ‘One Yorkshire’,” Thomas outlined.
“Furthermore the people of Barnsley and Doncaster, when polled via referendum, responded in no uncertain terms that they objected to being forced into a ‘Sheffield City Region’ and instead preferred to have membership of a Yorkshire-wide body. Despite this clear desire of millions of Yorkshire people, Westminster has forced their vision of what Yorkshire should be onto us and I would argue that this a clear example that the people of Yorkshire are being wilfully and deliberately ignored by the United Kingdom Government.”
Whether or not international football can become the vehicle by which Yorkshire are able to bring about change for their people remains to be seen. But for the county recognised by many as the birthplace of modern football – the home of Sheffield FC; the world’s oldest football club; and Sandygate Lane, the location of the first ever inter-club football match – there seems to be no more fitting a place to start that ambitious journey.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp