Notes From A Small Island 5 – Isle of Wight

Football came relatively early to the Isle of Wight and, undoubtedly, Cowes were one of the first organised clubs on the island, being formed in 1881. However, the club failed to complete the 1899/1900 Southern League season, disbanding after a home League game against Tottenham Hotspur, which Cowes lost 6-1. The club was resurrected as the existing Cowes White Star club took over the Cowes name in 1903 and bought football back to the Brooklyn Ground in Park Road which boasted a stand to house 700 people. The pitch had a notorious slope but this had been levelled in 1898. Sadly, by 1912 the landlord wanted to build houses at Brooklyn so the club had to look for a new site in the Northwood Park area of the town. The resulting move to their current ground at Westwood Park in 1912 proved hugely beneficial and Cowes saw crowds regularly surpass four figures for Hampshire County Division matches. In 1917 Westwood hosted a match between Cowes and a Portsmouth ladies team, it was agreed the men’s team would play the match with their hands clasped behind their backs!

The current stand at Westwood Park was built in the mid 1920’s, apparently by local shipbuilders who who had been given 24 hours notice to erect it ahead of a match against Newport. Prior to then, a small stand with bench seating had been erected on the opposite side. It is recorded that the 1926 Good Friday match at Westwood against Ryde, attracted 3,400 people. In a smart move Cowes purchased the freehold of Westwood Park in 1945 for £665. In the 1980’s Cowes merged with Whites Sports to become Cowes Sports.

Cowes Sports

Newport were relatively late to the burgeoning growth of football on the island. The first mention of the club comes in January 1888 when they lost a game against Lugley House School. Newport moved to Church Litten, then called Well’s Field, around 1898 and erected a grandstand in 1920. The club bought the ground from Winchester College for £3,000 in 1924. Football was proving so popular the stand had to be extended further in 1928. The ground was big enough to allow 6,000 people to gather for the visit of Watford in the FA Cup in 1956. The pitch was eventually turned around ninety degrees meaning the main stand was behind the goal. By 1988 the club had accepted £2.5 million for the land which became a Morrisons supermarket, and a purpose built ground at St George’s Park. In a remarkable parallel to their Church Litten departure, the St George’s Park ground had only just had it’s 30th birthday, when the club were ousted from it at the end of the 2018/2019 campaign.

St.George’s Park, former home of Newport

The club were promised a new ground by the developers and entered into a temporary groundshare at East Cowes Victoria Athletic. Newport’s new ground, to be called WhiteFibre Park, is to be built near the Racecourse Roundabout between Newport and Wootton Bridge but the start has been delayed due to the global pandemic. The St.George’s Park Stadium lies derelict, a new Asda Superstore has been built next door and McDonald’s and Wickes have stated their intention to open units on the site of the old ground.

East Cowes Victoria Athletic were formed in 1885, and originally played at the Recreation Ground in York Avenue and then at the field near Norris Castle. Similar to Cowes they lost the use of their ground in 1912 and after considering a return to York Avenue they nearly moved to the Tower Road Recreation Ground but objections were raised by the neighbouring hospital. They then secured land at Beatrice Avenue and built a wooden grandstand which was replaced until the current stand in the mid 1990’s.

Newport playing a home game at East Cowes Victoria Athletic’s Beatrice Avenue ground

For clubs that don’t play in mainland leagues, the Isle of Wight league was formed in September 1898 with East Cowes Victoria Athletic being crowned inaugural champions. At that time Cowes, Ryde and Sandown Bay were competing on the mainland as members were of the Southern League. There had been organised football on the island before this with ad hoc leagues operating in both Cowes and Ryde featuring long lost teams such as Osborne Corinthians, Cowes St Mary’s Guild, Newport Excelsiors and St Helen’s Blue Star. It is perhaps also worth noting, as it was reported in the County Press newspaper, that at Christmas 1892 a match had taken place at Appuldurcombe between the Total Abstainers and the Moderate Drinkers!

The Isle of Wight league started with seventeen teams, of which founding members Brading Town, Bembridge and Ventnor still compete in the competition while fellow founders, East Cowes Victoria Athletic and Newport have competed in mainland leagues for many years.

One of the enduring memories of the Isle of Wight League came from Professor Barnes Wallis, inventor of the “Dambuster” bouncing bomb which had such a pivotal impact on World War II. As a young man in the 1920’s he worked for the aircraft manufacturer Saunders-Roe and latter in life he recalled a game involving the works team being played in torrential rain, possibly at Wroxall (his recall wasn’t clear and alas there was no record of whether he played in the game or was a spectator, although island folklore says he definitely played island football in his younger days). During the game the already heavy leather ball had become waterlogged and the pitch so awash with water a hefty clearance saw the ball bounce continuously across the surface of the water. He said the memory stayed with him and recalled how a heavy spherical object had its path controlled by repeatedly striking water was the inspiration for his bouncing bomb.

The league membership has fluctuated greatly over the years with in excess of 500 teams having participated in the competition. Sides like Long Common,Totland Bay, Ryde St John’s, Shanklin Rangers, Royal Ulster Rifles, Saro Sports, Cowes Denmark Road Old Boys and works teams like Plessey (electronics), J.Arthur Dixon (greetings cards), Ratseys (sailmakers) and the British Hovercraft Corporation have come and gone.

Currently the Isle of Wight League consists of two divisions of 23 clubs plus the reserves of Cowes Sports and the “A” team of Newport. Then there are two further Combination Leagues for the reserve and “A” teams of Isle of Wight League teams. Whilst many member clubs play on public parks with spartan facilities in this article I will highlight some of the more interesting grounds from the Isle of Wight League.

Brading Town have played at Vicarage Lane since their formation in 1871 although in the early days they also used a pitch at Beech Grove. Life at Vicarage Lane wasn’t always easy, for season 1938/39 the club had decided to charge admission for the first time, to which the Archdeacon would only give his consent if the club erected a canvas screen to block visibility of the pitch from the graveyard. The club now boast one of the best facilities in the island league mainly due to their lengthy stint in Hampshire/Wessex Leagues between 1973 and 2012. The clubhouse was built in the 1980’s and around the same time the floodlights were acquired from Erith & Belvedere. In more recent years the ramshackle old wooden cover has been replaced with modern modular units on either side of the pitch. In 2008 Vicarage Lane was renamed The Peter Henry Ground following the passing of a club stalwart who had given 62 unbroken years of service to the club.

Brading Town

Ryde Saints are the current incumbents of the Smallbrook Stadium in Ryde, primarily a speedway venue used by the Wight Warriors team. The traditional Ryde team, Ryde Sports, were formed in 1888 and enjoyed lengthy spells in the Hampshire League and a single season, 1898/99, in the Southern League. The club’s demise was precipitated by a move from their traditional home at Partlands which was sold to developers in 1990. The Smallbrook Stadium is somewhat out of town and despite arranging high profile friendlies against the likes of Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, the club struggled financially and failed to complete the 1997/98 season. They were briefly replaced by Ryde ‘98 but they too fell by the wayside. The stadium has one very long shallow stand more suited to watching speedway than football. Ryde Saints also struggle to attract support which must be a concern for of the island’s traditional footballing hotbeds.

Ryde Saints

Whitecroft & Barton Sports play at the Whitecroft Sports Ground and have won the last five completed Division One titles. Their ground, opened in 1904, is situated off Sandy Lane and boasts a sizeable clubhouse with a shallow seated stand attached to it. The ground has fine views of the listed clocktower of the former Whitecroft asylum.

Whitecroft & Barton Sports

Moving to the south of the island and the town of Ventnor provides stunning vistas of the English Channel. Ventnor FC play at the Watcombe Bottom Sports Centre which also provides facilities for Ventnor Rugby Club and Rew Valley Youth Football Club. Although Ventnor was used as a venue in the 1993 Island Games it wasn’t used during the 2011 Games, despite the football pitch having decent cover on the sizeable banking.

Ventnor

The best of the grounds to the east of the island is to be found in Seaview. The club are one of the oldest on the island with a history dating back to 1890 when they played on a field off Seagrove Manor Road before moving to Holgate Farm in 1935. The old wooden pavilion at the current ground, Seaview Park, was destroyed by fire in December 1974 and the current Seagrove Pavilion was opened the following year with the help of a fund-raising match against Portsmouth. It is a quite magnificent and well maintained structure, and the ground is augmented further by a large covered stand which replaced a smaller wooden stand. As if this venue couldn’t be any more perfect the far end provides stunning views of the English Channel.

Seaview

The western town of Freshwater has been represented by a number of clubs in the Isle of Wight League including Royal Garrison Artillery Freshwater and Freshwater Royal Artillery who were champions in 1906/07. However, the best known town team is West Wight who started life at Freshwater Comrades. In 1922 the club were asked by the Freshwater British Legion to drop the Comrades suffix as the Comrades of the Great War Society from where they had taken their name, had amalgamated with other associations to become the Royal British Legion. The club elected to change the name to West Wight Athletic. The Camp Road ground was railed off with a decent stand, largely due to a stint in the Hampshire League from the mid 1980’s. The old stand has since been replaced with a more modest structure, but one that will still keep spectators dry when needed.

West Wight

Other Isle of Wight League venues worthy of mention despite their lack of spectator accommodation are Shanklin’s County Ground, a substantial railed off venue which recently saw upgrading work being carried out to the clubhouse. Oakfield’s Recreation Ground is also a railed off pitch but has the added bonus of a dramatic backdrop of hillside houses. Sandown & Lake now use the Fairway Sports Complex having lost their traditional ground at Fairway Park which boasted a sizeable wooden grandstand.

Oakfield
Shanklin’s County Ground

While most other clubs play in public parks, the Clatterford Recreation Ground, home to Carisbrooke United, is no ordinary public park. While it is bereft of any football furniture of note it affords quite stunning views of the neighbouring castle parts of which date back to the twelfth century.

Carisbrooke United

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Groundtastic Magazine (Issue No.103)

Notes From A Small Island 4 – Anglesey

The Island Games are a biennial multi sport festival held to encourage sporting development among tiny islands, peninsulas and archipelagos. From the initial event in the Isle of Man where 15 islands entered the event has become increasingly popular with the most recent staging being in Gotland in 2017. There were 2,500 athletes representing 23 islands across 14 sports on Sweden’s largest island.

The 18th Island Games were awarded to Gibraltar and it meant a severe logistical problem given that the peninsula’s only major sporting facility, the Victoria Stadium, would be earmarked for track and field athletics. This meant for the first time since 1989 there would be no football tournament at the Island Games, cycling and volleyball would also miss out for the first time.

The decision to omit football was particularly controversial as its one of the major and most popular of the attractions. Into the breach stepped prospective 2025 Island Games hosts, Ynys Môn (Anglesey) who offered to stage a football tournament run on similar lines to the Island Games. In addition to the hosts a further nine islands agreed to send a mans team and six would send womens squads to what was dubbed the Inter-Islands Games. An oddity of this event is Gibraltar sending a womens team to the event but being unable to field a mens team due to their membership of UEFA.

Eleven football grounds of varying sizes and facilities were selected as host venues including some from very small communities like Aberffraw FC from the tiny village of Tŷ Croes and Bro Goronwy FC from the north east coastal village of Moelfre, home to barely 1,000 inhabitants.

Some interesting tweaks on the normal rules were announced for this event. Drawn group games would be settled on penalties as a means to separate teams in the eventuality of two having identical records. Entrants were allowed to make five substitutions but in an attempt to speed up potentially ten changes per game, teams had to make them in batches up to five (eg a triple substitution then two single substitutions).

Having already enjoy games at six of the eleven host grounds I decided to baulk on the crazy early start needed to make the 11am Jersey v Orkney opener at Llangefni Town’s excellent Cae Bob Parry. Instead my first action of this tournament would be a special one as it marked the international debut of a representative team from the south Atlantic island nation of St.Helena. It’s a British Overseas Territory and incorporates the islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha as well. The population of 4,500 people is one of the remotest in the world and only got a commercial airport as recently as 2017!

Cae Cynlas is a fairly basic ground with a railed off pitch and a spare dugout pressed into service as a small area of cover but it’s not needed as pre-match rain drifts off in the opposite direction. With around 50 St Helena fans present there is a good, colourful vibe to the place but the Shetlands, Island Games veterans and winners of the tournament at their own games in 2005, are in no mood to roll over for the far flung debutants. The Shetland side are limited in numbers due to injuries but are no match for St Helena, the Atlantic islanders struggling to deal with the physicality and the strong buffeting wind. The Scots win 6-1 although Ronan Legg has the honour of scoring St. Helena’s first ever international goal from the penalty spot. There are nearly 500 people watching and there is mayhem outside with cars parked everywhere, Tŷ Groes will have never seen the like before!

Sunday June 16th 2019 2pm – Inter-Island Games Group C

Shetland 6 (Leask 12,17, Bradley 25, Arthur 27,85, Smith 45)
St.Helena 1 (Legg pen 36)

Att:462 (at Aberffraw FC)

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The next game is at the main stadium in the island capital of Holyhead. Intriguingly the old Holyhead Hotspur is still in decent condition despite being vacated in 2007 for the New Oval next door. Evidently the old ground is still used for local matches. The place is busy with the hosts, Ynys Môn, making their entry into the tournament with a game against another Scottish entrant, the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides). It’s a much tighter game with the hosts enjoying a larger portion of the possession but it’s the Western Islanders that silence the crowd with the opening goal on the stroke of halftime. The forecast rain duly arrives and it’s standing room only in the main stand and the covered stand, repurposed from a Stena Line gangway, it also full as over a 1,000 people try in vain to stay dry. Ynys Môn come good in the second half and while some speed off to make the tight kick off time at Cemaes Bay, the majority of the crowd at Holyhead go home happy.

Sunday June 16th 2019 5pm – Inter-Island Games Group A

Ynys Mon 2 (McGinness 60, Morris 67)
Western Isles 1 (L.Mackay 45)

Att: 1,025 (at Holyhead Hotspur FC)

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Most of the arrivals from Holyhead just about make kick off thanks to Cemaes Bay prudently opening a field adjacent to the School Lane ground for parking. The rain has now reached monsoon proportions as Channel Islanders take on Hitra, an island archipelago off the west coast of Norway.

Few Welsh clubs can have fallen as far as Cemaes Bay. Although football started in the north coast town in 1870, the current club started life in 1976 and played at a ground on the Wylfa Nuclear Power Station for much of the time, except for a short period in 1980, at a ground next to the Gadlys Hotel. The move to School Lane in 1988 coincided with a period of heavy investment as the club moved from the Anglesey League to winning the Welsh Alliance in 1993 and the Cymru Alliance in 1995. The latter resulted in an historic promotion to the Welsh Premier League. After two seasons the finance was pulled and by 2005 the club had been relegated to the Gwynedd League. After a short period in abeyance the club went full circle and rejoined the Anglesey League for the 2018/19 season.

Despite the appalling weather Alderney and Hitra put on a highly entertaining match in front of a doubtless weather effected crowd of slightly over 200. It’s a fine, if a little soggy end, to an excellent days entertainment.

Sunday June 16th 2019 7.30pm – Inter-Island Games Group B

Alderney 2 (Benfield 26, J. Concanen 67)
Hitra 4 (Kvakland 24, Jorgensen 27, Hansen 45, Johansen 74)

Att:206 (at Cemaes Bay FC)

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With the first game of day two not scheduled to 3.30pm there is plenty of time to see some of the beguiling sights of this stunning little island. From Beaumaris Castle in the east to South Stack lighthouse there really is something for everyone here. Thankfully the rain had relented but it was still very windy.

IMG_0084Cemaes Bay harbour

IMG_5859Cliff side church at Llanbadrig

IMG_5855Headland at Bull Bay

IMG_5856Benllech

IMG_5857Benllech beach

IMG_0115Beaumaris Castle

IMG_0122Menai Bridge

IMG_5860South Stack Lighthouse

The afternoon game is a Bodedern Athletic’s compact Cae Tŷ Cristion ground. This club took over from the old disbanded CPD Bodedern in 2007, initially playing at Cae’r Ysgol until securing a return to Bodedern’s traditional ground at Tŷ Cristion. The new Bodedern club have risen quickly to the Welsh Alliance Division One and finished runners up to Llangefni Town this season.

It’s another tight game as Guernsey take on an injury depleted Shetland team. Guernsey take a 2-0 lead before halftime, bizarrely the fourth game running where a goal was scored in the 45th minute. Shetland pulled one back with a rebound from a saved penalty kick but it wasn’t to be for the North Sea team.

Monday June 17th 2019 3.30 pm – Inter-Island Games Group C

Guernsey 2 (Marsh 21, Hall 45)
Shetland 1 (Leask 52)

Att:208 (at Bodedern Athletic FC)

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So with just a two day taste of the tournament it was a massive thumbs up to the organisers. Everything ran like clockwork and there was enough volunteers to cater for the crowds. The tournament programme was excellent and informative at £3. Only wished I could have stayed a little longer. Roll on Guernsey 2021, Orkneys 2023 and, all being well, Anglesey in 2025, they would deserve it on this showing.

Island Games Programme