B71 Sandoy: the club that won the league unbeaten in their debut season and then got relegated

B71 Sandoy: the club that won the league unbeaten in their debut season and then got relegated

To the south of Streymoy, the largest of the Faroe Islands, and across the narrow strait of Skopunafjordur, lies the quiet islet of Sandoy. Largely bereft of the dramatic cliff lines that characterise this rugged archipelago, Sandoy is a land of glittering lakes, sprawling beaches and windswept basalt dunes. 

Upon this island, clustered about the shore of a blustery inlet, sits the village of Sandur on a narrow peninsula between the lakes of Gróthúsvatn and Sandsvatn. Colourful wooden cottages dot the undulating heath upon which this small settlement perches, safe from the churning spray that gnaws at the rocks below. It is restful, charming, whimsical – home to fewer than 600 inhabitants, most of whom rely on the Faroe Islands’ principal trades: fishing and tourism.     

Though Sandur itself is steeped in history and boasts a number of tourist attractions – a 20-year-old church, an art gallery and museum chief among them – one of its lesser-known curiosities lies two-and-a-half miles to the north along the Heimasandsvegur in the form of a floodlit pitch huddled in the shadows of the rugged escarpments at its rear. Inni í Dal, it is called, now an all-weather football pitch, which has been the home of Sandoy’s one football club, Bóltfelagið 1971, for its entire 50-year existence. 

It is a place that Eli Hentze is as familiar with as any spot on these windswept islands. “I played at senior level from 1986 until I stopped officially in 2007,” he told These Football Times, “but played again in 2008 as player-manager and actually played my last game in 2011 for the senior team. So, I played from 1986 until 2007 and then again until 2011. I suppose you could say I know the club inside out. My position as player, I’ve been coach for various teams, player/coach for the first team, I’ve been a board member for a number of years. It is a small community but I’ve been involved with everything.”

Throughout his long association with B71, Eli Hentze has been an almost ever-present part of their greatest achievements and bitterest tragedies, and has helped nurture the club from its formative years in the lower echelons of the Faroe Islands’ football pyramid. 

Despite its tiny population and remote position in the North Atlantic, football has been ingrained in the Faroe Islands’ unique culture since the introduction of the sport and the founding of the first club, Tvoroyrar Boltfelag, in 1892, and is as integral a facet of each of the nation’s myriad of communities as fishing, tourism and sheep herding. 

Hentze explained, “It is fair to say football has great interest in the Faroe Islands, especially with it being a very small country. Communities are somewhat isolated and people know each other, and so football has become part of the social fabric of every community on the Islands. Particularly Sandoy.”

Though football had been a popular past-time on the island for years, Sandoy was without a substantial club until the formation of Sand in 1970. Until then, locals had to settle for a rudimentary derby of sorts, whereby the two largest villages, Sandur and Skopun, competed in matches where goals were marked with rocks.  

Following the founding of Sand, however, it was not long before the fledgeling club became representative of the entire island, and, in order to reflect this renewed island-wide interest in the sport, its name was switched to B71 Sandoy. Completion of a new school on the island brought with it the possibility of a recognised pitch, and B71 began playing the first of its competitive fixtures.

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Unlike the larger islands of Streymoy and Esturoy in particular, both of which boast multiple football clubs, Sandoy’s entire hopes rest with B71 to this very day, but upon entering into the football league, the club spent nearly two unremarkable decades in the doldrums of the third tier. 

With the harsh subpolar climate not conducive to grass pitches, games were contested almost exclusively on gravel pitches, and the club rattled around in the cellar of Faroese football, vying for a meagre brand of supremacy with the raft of First Division reserve teams that comprised the lowest tier of the Faroese Football League. It was, as Hentze remembers, something of an unfulfilling existence: “From 1970, when the club was formed, until 1986, it was at least 16 years in limbo. We never won anything. In fact, 1986 was the first time we won anything as seniors.”

That year, B71 Sandoy made the tiniest of ripples in the already-small pond of Faroese football. What constituted a significant step for Sandoy in 1986 would barely register on a continental scale, let alone a national one, but what it did do was set in motion a chain of events that would come to alter and define this ambitious little football club. 

At the beginning of the 1980s, supporters of Sandoy had reason to grow excited at the wealth of youth players emerging at the same time; a strong, exciting core of whom special things were beginning to be expected. After years of dormancy, B71 were kindled into life by the effervescent talents of young prodigies like Hentze, Torbjørn Jensen, and brothers Róin and Jóan Petur Clementsen.

They had excelled in the youth divisions and started to filter into the senior team by the 1986 season. The result: B71 captured their first-ever piece of silverware as they clinched the 3. Division title and were promoted, for the first time in their short history, to the 2. Division. 

Unhindered by this step-up, B71’s young, hungry group of players then secured the 2. Division title in 1988. In the space of three seasons, this relatively unknown club from Sandoy had emerged from obscurity. A team that had been in existence for less than 20 years was set to rub shoulders with the recognised big boys of Faroese football: the likes of Havnar Bóltfelag, Bóltfelagið 1936 Tórshavn and GÍ Gøta.

It was a remarkable change in fortunes for a team that had existed in the inconspicuous surrounds of the Faroe Islands’ lower leagues since its founding, and it was one which Eli Hentze believes occurred due to a number of factors aligning at the same time.

“We saw that the club had good players – everything, of course, is relative – learning how to play well together, which led up to us winning the Third Division in 1986. This same core of players then won the Second Division in 1988. It was virtually the same team. I think that the team was, in some ways, lucky, because it had players from different age groups, all of them good players, different characteristics; the mix was kind of perfect.”

However, a change was enacted in 1988 that would have a profound impact on B71’s immediate future. “In winning the second [tier] in 1988, we had a coach from Poland starting and he brought some players with him. We had two players from Poland in 1989, which was almost unheard of in the Faroe Islands at the time.”

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Jan Kaczynski was appointed as B71 Sandoy head coach, and he set about imparting a distinctly Polish influence on his surrounds. In came midfielder Piotr Krakowski and goalkeeper Wieslaw Zakrzewski, both of whom were established professionals back in their homeland.   

Hentze believes the rise of this Polish axis was instrumental. “Those players came straight from top football in Poland, which at that time did not allow players to leave the country before the age of 30 or 31. So these were experienced players that had played in the top league in Poland for a number of years. They are probably still the best foreigners to ever play in the Faroes because they came straight from top-flight football.”

With these foreign nationals supplementing a talented core of footballers native to the island, Sandoy entered their maiden season in the Premier League in high spirits. 

Such a rapid ascent might have been cause for trepidation, but the Sandoy players relished their chance to experience the highest tier of football their country could offer. As Hentze recanted, there were no nerves amongst the Sandoy camp: “Honestly, I can’t remember having any thoughts anything other than playing because this group of players loved to train and loved to play. They lived for football. There was no talk about relegation or winning the championship, other than simply going for it. We just wanted to play.”

Play Sandoy did, unburdened by expectation, unfazed by the might of the teams from the capital Tórshavn against whom they now found themselves competing. Their opening fixture welcomed B68 Toftir, two-time champions as recently as 1984 and 1985 when B71 were still languishing in the third tier, to Inni í Dal. About as stern a test as Faroese football could provide, Sandoy escaped with a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Jensen equaliser. 

Buoyed after this opening-day draw, B71 were expected to come crashing back down to the artificial turf upon which they played when they travelled to 15-time champions Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag in their second fixture. The young upstarts, however, marshalled by their impressive Polish tactician, routed their more illustrious opponents 3-0. 

A 0-0 stalemate against VB followed, before Sandoy saw out the month of May with a brace of 2-0 wins over B36 and LÍF. Five games into their inaugural season in the top flight and, much to everyone’s surprise, B71 Sandoy had picked up three wins and two draws. 

May gave way to June and B71 continued their streak, picking up wins over GÍ and ÍF, as well as a draw with SÍF, and confidence began to blossom. Looming on the horizon, though, was the considerable spectre of the Faroes’ most powerful club at the time, Havnar Bóltfelag. Hailing from the capital, Tórshavn, HB were the reigning champions and had successfully claimed four of the last ten top-flight crowns, as well as six Faroe Islands Cup titles in that time. 

Having already registered a 5-0 win over GÍ, a 4-1 victory over ÍF and a 7-1 thrashing of KÍ, HB were intent on ejecting B71 from their own party. Tear up the banners, turn off the music and put a stop to the booze. HB invited B71 to the Gundadalur and immediately set about assailing their goal in a show of defiance.

For 90 minutes, HB mustered all their might, but Sandoy were resolute. Refusing to be cowed by this display of dominance, they switched the lights back on, cranked up the jukebox and sent HB packing. There was a party on Sandoy and, despite the best efforts of the resident bouncers, it wasn’t stopping any time soon.

The 0-0 draw with HB marked the halfway stage of the Premier League, and in their maiden season, B71 Sandoy were still without a loss to their name. Not that they were getting carried away. Hentze, who had played in every game thus far, recalled: “When the results came our way against the big teams, we saw that we could compete and that was a good thing. I think as time went on and we kept winning or drawing, as we were unbeaten we felt it was possible. Obviously, confidence was very high, but it was so surreal. This tiny club from Sandoy atop the league. We gradually believed we could win.”

The previous two championships had been close affairs, with both victors crowned by a single point, but Sandoy, quickly garnered a reputation for the unexpected, were opening up a sizeable lead at the top of the table. 

After the 0-0 draw with HB, Sandoy recorded three straight victories on the bounce, and against B36 managed to score more than two goals in a single game for only the third time that season. Lacking the firepower of HB, Sandoy were instead impregnable. When opposition forwards slipped past their defensive line, they were regularly thwarted by the imposing figure of Polish goalkeeper Wieslaw Zakrzewski.

At the other end, goalscoring duties were shared evenly between Páll á Reynatúgvu, Torbjørn Jensen and Eli Hentze himself. With goals coming from the midfield, and with a back four marshalled by the experience Nowicki, the improbable was quickly becoming the inevitable. 

From thereon in, B71 were insatiable. Five wins and draw followed, and thus, with a game to go, B71 Sandoy were confirmed champions. It was a season of delirious heights, a feat beyond the wildest expectations of even the most optimistic of supporters, but there was an added bonus, the glittering sheen of perfection, that could still yet be added. The final fixture pitted the club once more against the might of HB, who had surrendered their crown in uncustomary meek fashion and were ravenous for vengeance.

The incentive for both clubs was enormous: with a victory at Inni Í Dal, HB could mar the perfect season for Sandoy; while for B71, a win over the giants from Tórshavn would seal their place in Faroese legend. Immortality would be attained – the first side to win the league unbeaten in their maiden season. 

Thus, on 24 September 1989, B71 Sandoy’s finest achievement was unfurled in all its wonderment on their very own pitch. After an explosive opening 30 minutes, during which both sides exchanged blows back and forth, HB and B71 took to the field for the second half locked at 2-2. It seemed HB had expended their might, but would at least hold B71 to a draw, and could claim that they, and they alone, never lost to the champions incumbent in that mythical 1989 season.

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That was until Sandoy unleashed an onslaught in the final 23 minutes courtesy of their three star players: Hentze, Krakowski and Jensen. Hentze, assuming the mantle of humility for his role in Sandoy’s crowning achievement, plundered a brace as B71 put their rivals to the sword in an exhilarating 6-2 win. 

As a scarcely believable season came to a close, B71 Sandoy were crowned unbeaten champions in their first every season in the top flight. In four short, wild years, they had emerged from the shadows and risen from the bottom to the top of the Faroese Football League. 

And it is an accomplishment that still resonates around the Faroe Islands to this day, as Hentze wistfully recalled. “Without doubt it is still referred to as one of the biggest upsets in history. It was enormous, not only in Sandoy, but I think throughout the entire Faroese footballing landscape. That a small team could come up through the ranks and then in their first year win the league unbeaten. Unbelievable. That was some achievement.” 

With a laugh, he added: “Perhaps not for other teams, but for Sandoy and their supporters it is remembered fondly. Very fondly.”

That would mark a fitting end to the tale of B71 Sandoy, that a club of such stature could prevail against the might, talent and wealth of its far more illustrious contemporaries; a modern-day saga right out of the myths of old. But the story did not finish with the unbeaten season of 1989. 

Unfortunately for B71, they occupy a rare and unique distinction amongst world football in that they became the first club to win their national league unbeaten only to suffer relegation the very next season. It is a predicament as incomprehensible as it is unbelievable. 

Not that it was a case of Sandoy enduring a catastrophic capitulation in the defence of their title. The idiosyncrasies of a league as small and insular as the Faroese Premier League were laid bare in the following season, as Hentze recounted. “The relegation was obviously a huge disappointment, but I have to say it was really strange as well. The 1990 season was very, very close. In 1989 we won the league nine points clear of second-place, and then back then we only had two points for a win.

“But in 1990, at the end of the season, the top and the bottom places in the division were separated by only ten points. Playing the last game away that year, if we had won that we would’ve come second or third, or something like that. Seriously, it was that close. If we lost, we were relegated. The margins were that fine.

“On the other hand, if we’d have won, we would have had a bronze medal. League champions one season and third-place the next season doesn’t sound too bad, but it all came down to the last game and unfortunately we lost.”

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Win and B71 would have finished in third place; lose and their place in footballing infamy was confirmed, a mere year after they had ascended to the realms of football legend. 

As for why Sandoy struggled in that second season when they possessed largely the same squad of players, Hentze identifies the loss of their captain and then their manager. From profiting from continuity for a number of years, Sandoy stumbled over these changes. “We only actually lost one player between 1989 and 1990 because of injury. Our captain broke his leg in the final game in 1989 when we beat Tórshavn and was out for the 1990 season. It was a blow.

“Then, Kaczynski, who was with us from 1987 until about September of 1990, was sacked. When results didn’t go our way, the board didn’t think Kaczynski could turn it around. He was sacked before we were relegated. We didn’t have more than two or three matches left in the 1990 season, so Piotr [Krakowski], one of the Polish players who came in, took over, and he was in charge when we were relegated.”

Following their relegation after a single year in the top flight, B71 made short work of returning, even going so far as to reach consecutive cup finals in 1993 and 1994, winning the former, but the post-1989 years, on the whole, have not been too kind to the plucky outsiders from Sandoy. “We got relegated again in 1997, when I was player-coach. In fact, we won the Second Division in 1998 but since then it has been ups and down. We went down to the third tier and are now back in the second tier where we remain as of 2019.”

Asked whether he believes Sandoy can recapture their halcyon days, Hentze was reticent. “Of course it is possible, but we have to get out of the Second Division first, and the landscape has changed dramatically. Money didn’t used to play such a vital role. It used to be an even playing field, but not so much these days. Obviously, with the amount of money coming in from Europe, a small team like Sandoy winning the league is unlikely to be repeated. It is more difficult. It would easier to see Sunderland winning the Premier League if an Arab owner came in. It was difficult then, but it is more difficult now.”

Despite it all – the implausible unbeaten title win and the tragic relegation, the rapid ascent from the doldrums of Faroese football right up to its loftiest heights and the return journey back down – what matters most to Hentze is the indelible mark Sandoy made on their small corner of world football and the new faces they have attracted from the most unlikely places. 

“I was hugely surprised last year. I was at a match up north and I saw a few spectators and they looked English. The day after, there was a game after in Sandoy and I saw these guys again. I was curious, so I went to speak to them and, oh my god, they came from England! I asked them why they had come from England to watch football. Faroes is such a small league. People constantly travel to England but it is nice when it’s the other way around. 

“It´s just amazing and fascinating that people out there show interest in something that happened 30 years ago in one of the smallest footballing nations in the world. I firmly believe that you do not have to dig for gold only in bigger environments. If you look closely you’ll find it everywhere.”

When it comes to Sandoy and their eclectic, wild ride to the forefront of the maddest footballing records, gold was well and truly found. 

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

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