The Guernsey experiment

wsc301 Guerney FC’s decision to leave their domestic league and move to England is leaving opinion divided, writes Simon De La Rue

It had to happen eventually. After seeing their club score 38 goals in eight home league matches while conceding just one, Guernsey FC fans approached Footes Lane on January 21 with confidence. They did not know much about Eversley. But then, the green and white-clad followers of this island club do not really know much about of their Combined Counties League (CCL) Division One opponents.

This is the Guernsey’s first ever season. The visitors from Somewhere In England confounded the matchday bookmaker’s odds of 10/1 and triumphed 3-2 in front of a crowd of 1,310 shocked football innocents. It was the club’s first home defeat. There was booing. “We’ve lost a game of football,” head coach Tony Vance told BBC Guernsey. “So what?”

The fans’ disappointment was shortlived. For many in Guernsey, whether they attend the matches or not, the Green Lions’ adventure into English football is a unique sporting dream. Legends such as Spurs’ Len Duquemin and Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier (the club’s president) have metaphorically flown the flag for the island of 62,000 inhabitants. Now Guernsey’s best footballers, led by one of the island’s most revered ex-players, are opening up a world of possibility.

The club that provided the opposition for Guernsey’s first friendly was a suitable choice. AFC Wimbledon’s rebirth, nine seasons earlier, saw them compete in the very same league. Minutes after Guernsey’s first home match, AFC Wimbledon were kicking off at Kingsmeadow against Bristol Rovers in League Two.

Guernsey fans want some of that. How far can the club go? “I’ll keep my thoughts a secret on that one,” says Vance. Club chairman Steve Dewsnip gives a little more away: “We are ambitious to reach the level our talents and club structure, both on and off the pitch, deserve. At this stage, it is impossible to say precisely where that is, but we are certainly looking forward to finding out.”

The consensus among fans seems to be that the Blue Square South would be the limit. That would involve a minimum of four promotions – and possibly more depending on the results of a proposed shake-up of the league structure in the south. It would also depend on continued support (average gates are just below 1,400) and sponsorship to cover the travel costs. In addition to their own, Guernsey have agreed to stump up for the cost of travel for visiting teams. Without that pledge, it is unlikely they could have persuaded enough CCL clubs to vote them into the league. Fans want progress but they also hope to see individual players make good. When there were rumours of Bournemouth taking an interest in Ross Allen (47 goals this season), the supporters were proud rather than possessive.

Not everybody on the island wishes the Guernsey experiment well, however. Letters to the island’s only daily paper, the Guernsey Press, spell out the damage being done to Guernsey’s domestic league. The season began with all of the Guernsey players also turning out for local clubs. One by one they committed full-time to the Green Lions, enraging some of those who had put years into developing them as young players.

The club’s first-team line-up is almost identical to that which represented the domestic league in the National League System Cup, winning the final in 2010, under Vance. This took them to Croatia to represent England in the UEFA Regions Cup. Now that team is threatened by a club v country row. Players refusing to turn out against Alderney in the annual Muratti Vase semi-final in March could be barred from selection for the final against Jersey – the most important game in Channel Island football. The semi-final clashes with a Guernsey match. Vance, who was at one time in line to pick teams for both matches, quit the Guernsey FA over the rule.

For some, it is a schism. Heated arguments are heard in pubs and on airwaves. For others, there is room for everyone. Nic Legg supports the local side St Martin’s and is still ecstatic about winning all but one trophy available to them in 2010-11. He is also an Arsenal fan and now a fan of Guernsey. “This season, whether it has been due to Arsenal’s woeful performances or Guernsey’s creation, I’ve found myself switched off to Premier League football. Guernsey is meaningful and true to me. I feel a real sense of pride in the club – a pride and a sense of belonging.”

From WSC 301 March 2012