As CONIFA members go, Ellan Vannin are already fairly long in the tooth. Approaching their third World Football Cup, having competed at the organisation’s previous tournaments in Östersund in 2014 and Abkhazia in 2015, and seen their efforts rewarded with silver and bronze medals, the Manx team will undoubtedly be keen on completing their trio of awards by gunning for gold in London this summer.
However, as ever for Ellan Vannin, there exists a cause even greater than victory: they’re desperate to earn even the slightest recognition from their own government and in Malcolm Blackburn, the team’s determined CEO, they appear to have a leader hellbent on making his team a source of national pride with or without it.
“I suppose I have always questioned anything I believe could be improved,” Blackburn mused, in conversation with CONIFA. “I am a great believer in fate and I suppose that is why I keep coming up and moving forward with ideas that push the boundaries.”
The first boundary he remembers pushing was as a young boy when he was told that his primary school simply didn’t play football matches against other schools. “I believed that I could organize a team at my school and contact other schools on the island, all without adult help.” And he could.
“I got the first bit right and managed to get a group of lads to stay behind after school for training sessions on the playground. It was probably quite comical; seeing a boy of 10-years-old screaming and shouting as though he was Sir Alex Ferguson. This whole idea came to an abrupt end when a skyward shot hit a bus travelling past the school which resulted in the cane for me and a ban on using the playground after school.”
As Blackburn passed through his childhood days into adolescence and later into adulthood, not without the occasional bumping of heads, in every sense, his determination to bring about change seemed not to waver. What was once the desire to orchestrate inter-school football matches in his local area would mutate into the will to found one of the largest cub packs on the Isle of Man, the progression to scout troops, and eventually the controversial insistence that girls be allowed to join.
Much to Blackburn’s delight, he would have more success with this later venture. “After more than six months and a lot of letter writing I eventually got permission which resulted in a thriving scout group; the first with girl membership in the United Kingdom.”
Eventually, Blackburn turned his hand to football once more, combining his love of the game and of his home, seeking to cultivate a new beginning for the sport on the island. Initially his efforts to found a football association, and later a team to represent the island, saw him “lambasted and called a ‘nutter’ [and told] I had ‘lost the plot.’” But Blackburn refused to relent and, even without the support of his government, went on to found the Manx Independent Football Association as well as the Ellan Vannin team.
As an internally self-governing dependent territory of the British Crown, politically and constitutionally separate from the United Kingdom, Ellan Vannin (or the Isle of Man, to use the island’s English name) are responsible for their own affairs. Sadly, operating under the rule of a government seemingly apathetic to all things football means the Ellan Vannin football team are left to fend for themselves, leaving them at an enormous disadvantage.
“For such a small place in global terms the Isle of Man, throughout its history, has demonstrated its ability to achieve well above its weight,” Blackburn told These Football Times. “But we do not get any support from our government who appear to ignore what we are doing in promoting the island. This obviously creates funding issues for the team.”
When asked why the CONIFA World Football Cup remains so important to Ellan Vannin, Blackburn replied “it is our opportunity to promote our unique identity on the international stage and we sincerely hope that it will create such media attention that our own government simply cannot continue to ignore us. We do not have the technical ability to match the professional players of some teams but, as we have shown on numerous occasions, we are capable of beating anybody on our day with a unity and Moyrn As Bree (pride and passion) that is legendary. Individuals? We don’t have them; but we do have a team.”
Undoubtedly, Ellan Vannin will be hoping that, by the end of this summer’s landmark tournament, people from every isle will know exactly who their team is and the unique region, culture and history from which they proudly hail.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp