A new club has started this season, playing in the Combined Counties League in front of four-figure crowds. Andy Ollerenshaw and David Bauckham found themselves on the mother of all away trips, to see Guernsey FC’s first ever league match.

Saturday 6th August 2011 is a date that will forever grace the history books and non-league football records. At the Garenne Stadium on Footes Lane in Guernsey, newly formed Guernsey FC played their inaugural competitive league match, the first time a team from the Channel Islands has played in the English football league pyramid. Guernsey’s opponents for their opening Combined Counties League Division One fixture were Knaphill. The match drew much attention from local press and even some national interest. The majority of the coverage, however, concentrated primarily on Guernsey’s historic day and their ‘comfortable’ 5-0 victory, but the story is more than that alone.

A Guernsey FA representative ‘national’ team has competed for the Muratti Vase, a tri-team competition alongside Alderney and Jersey, since 1905 and also enters the biennial Island Games. With little more than irregular knockout matches on offer, Guernsey Football Club was founded in 2011 to provide the island’s best footballers with an opportunity to play regular competitive football outside the Channel Islands. In November 2010 Guernsey first approached the Combined Counties League (CCL) with a proposal to join their Division One which operates at Step 6 in the pyramid. Guernsey’s logic for wanting to join the CCL – which has clubs based in Berkshire, Hampshire, London, Middlesex and Surrey – was that Gatwick Airport would provide a convenient travel hub for teams. In June 2011, with the Football Association backing the proposal, CCL clubs voted in favour of Guernsey joining their constitution. Alan Constable, CCL secretary, described the decision as “a very exciting development for the League. We were pioneers a little bit when we took on AFC Wimbledon and this is a similar situation with Guernsey, we can see the potential. This cannot be anything other than an exciting prospect.”

This sentiment has certainly been echoed by the people and businesses of Guernsey who have bought in completely to the idea of a Guernsey football club playing league football. Off the field Guernsey has the involvement of a famous footballing name; Matt Le Tissier is the club president and his brother, Mark, the secretary. The club has worked hard with the local community to ensure they have a raft of sponsors backing them, with Sportingbet providing the main financial injection. It is not going to be cheap for Guernsey; central to their proposal for CCL membership was that they will fund all travel costs for every club visiting the island, this on top of expenses incurred for their own away games. Visiting clubs are allowed to bring a party of twenty-two from the mainland; flights, one night’s hotel accommodation, transfers on the island and even car parking at the Hilton Hotel at Gatwick Airport, all paid for by Guernsey. Knaphill testified that the travel arrangements had been “exceptional” with Guernsey taking full control of all bookings. Mark Le Tissier told me “we’ve employed a professional travel agent; they do all the liaising with visiting clubs. What we [Guernsey FC] didn’t want to become was a travel agent”.

Guernsey’s first few fixtures were released early by the CCL to allow time for travel plans to be made and Knaphill were ‘chosen’ as the first opponents. Constable explained that Knaphill were in an ideal position to represent the League on this historic occasion, being a well run and well organised club with a sizeable committee. Knaphill are based on the outskirts of Woking in Surrey and I visited the smart and compact Redding Way, home of the Knappers, a few days prior to the CCL opener. Knaphill have an impressive set up and exude an air of professionalism in everything that they do, which is a credit to the hard work put in by the numerous volunteers at the club. Talking about the occasion, the Knaphill chairman Terry Chapman said “I’d like to think we were chosen for the fixture, I think we are a good advert for the League”.

Also refreshing was that the CCL took a pragmatic approach in compiling the fixture list to help mitigate any potential travel issues. All of Guernsey’s home league games are scheduled for a Saturday. Away teams will be given a choice of Friday or Saturday for their overnight stay on the island and the kick-off time can be altered accordingly. For clubs flying back on the Saturday, an earlier kick-off of 1pm can arranged; the more traditional 3pm start option is available for teams flying over Saturday morning and staying overnight after the game. The League will also allow a degree of flexibility for games to be called off early; with Guernsey’s’ renowned fog a potential factor, Constable stressed that “a bit of common sense” will be applied.

Before the game, Knaphill were understandably pleased to be involved in this red-letter game but equally keen to ensure that the welcome attention for the club didn’t adversely affect the players. Club secretary Bryan Freeman said “it’s great for the League and we are very pleased to be the first club to play them. We are effectively carrying the banner for the other CCL clubs”. But their press and communications officer, Nick Croshaw, although equally excited by the game, also stressed that their approach will be totally professional saying “this is just another game of football at the end of the day. This is not a jolly”. Knaphill have a proud history, in stark contrast to the embryonic Channel Islands’ outfit, and in talking to both Knaphill and Guernsey the difference in scale of operations was the thing that struck me most. For example, Knaphill’s record attendance is 134 and gates average around the 50 mark, normal for this division. The opening fixture at Footes Lane was watched by 1,475 fans. Guernsey has already sold 350 season tickets for 2011-12. As if to demonstrate the intense PR campaign promoting the new club, Guernsey printed an extra 17,000 programmes for their pre-season friendly with AFC Wimbledon to be given away free with The Guernsey Press. At most, Knaphill would print 75 programmes for a game. The venture is a huge commitment from Guernsey, something that simply would not be feasible without significant financial support from the Guernsey business community, a level of investment that other CCL clubs can only dream of.

Although Guernsey FC has significant financial backing, it does not mean any large sums of money will be spent on players. Their philosophy is to use only home grown talent with Le Tissier pointing out that “this is a community football club for the island of Guernsey, we’re being supported by the local football clubs, and it’s right that we only use people who are playing football in Guernsey at the present time”. On the evidence of the performance against Knaphill, it is an approach that could well work at this level, but one questions how sustainable this would be in years to come should Guernsey climb the pyramid.

As for the match itself, the hosts sprinted into a 5-0 half-time lead against a Knaphill team that many consider will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, with a hat-trick from the impressive Ross Allen and a goal each for Glyn Dyer and Dominic Heaume. In the goalless second half, the home side allowed Knaphill back into the game but never looked like surrendering their considerable advantage. Guernsey finished the afternoon delighted with all three points, whereas Knaphill were left to feel somewhat embarrassed by the scoreline and the manner in which two goals were gifted to Guernsey with horrible defensive blunders.

The result for Guernsey and will afford ammunition to those who made pre-season predictions that Guernsey will comfortably win promotion from the league. But Colin Fallaize, Guernsey’s assistant head coach, was quick to stress after the game that “one hot day doesn’t make a summer. Knaphill are a very good side and we caught them on the hop” adding “we have been given a chance to learn, each and every game will be something new for us. There will be an awful lot of ups and downs this season in what will be a difficult league”. This is only the start of a long season, and playing league games, week in week out, will be an experience quite alien for Guernsey. The real test will come with mid-winter Tuesday night trips to the likes of Staines Lammas and Feltham in front of a handful of locals.

The last word should really go to Adie Wilson, joint first team manager at Knaphill. On the Tuesday prior to the game at Guernsey, he had quite prophetically stated “if the result doesn’t go our way, is that the end of our season? No, not at all. If I had to pick a game to lose, I’d rather lose the first game”. I’m sure that Guernsey and Knaphill won’t be far apart come the end of the campaign, but whatever happens in the months ahead, it is going to be very difficult to take your eyes off events in Division One of the Combined Counties League.

There are photos from Andy and David’s trip to Guernsey here.

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