Chris NeeComment


Chris NeeComment

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored for England at Rio de Janeiro's famous Estádio do Maracanã, you'd have been forgiven for thinking it would be a while before the British Isles had another goalscorer there, and that Oxlade-Chamberlain's tale - that of a wide-eyed youngster seizing his moment in the sun - would be the most compelling even once the World Cup in Brazil this summer is in the history books.

But the Channel Islands, home of the innovative but not uncontroversial Guernsey FC project that has seen manager Tony Vance and the Green Lions blast their way to success promotions in the middle regions of the English non-league system, have Ryan-Zico Black. His Maracanã miracle, like his hyphenated name, puts Oxlade-Chamberlain's in the shade.

Black, who turned 32 last August, has been around the game for as long as he can remember. He made his name at Morecambe after youth spells on the south coast with Southampton and AFC Bournemouth, natural stomping grounds for an exceptional young player from the relatively remote but very lively football region of Guernsey.

His remarkable football journey has taken him through the north of England, Kettering Town, Australia, Spain and, in 2011, back to Vale Recreation. But returning to his first club on his home island was a mere fraction of what Black's next few years would bring. His return enabled him to play for Guernsey FC, the new club established to improve the prospects of Guernsey footballers and expose them to a higher level of competition in the English pyramid.

Guernsey FC has been a newsworthy creation, questioned because of its significant financial firepower and its supposed effect on island football, but it's a tough challenge for the players too. Life as a Green Lion is a relentless slog of flights to and from Gatwick, time off work and, perhaps unfairly, frequent bickering and criticism from rival clubs on the mainland.

Not that Black is bothered. He's an inventive and intuitive playmaker, the kind of midfielder who makes things happen and seems to have the ability to control a game at his own pace. He passes well, sees opportunities others don't, and scores a few goals to boot. Most importantly, he's loved every second of playing for the new jewel of Guernsey football.

"It's a big commitment. Flying to England week in, week out, making hours up at work, and fitting in family life as well. It's all worth it though. We have such a great fan base and the playing squad are all mates playing and fighting for each other and for our island. That's what keeps us motivated."

That team spirit extends beyond the dressing room and right to the top. Steve Dewsnip, the club's chairman, is very much a part of the team and his generosity, and that of his company, opened a door for Black that he'll never regret waltzing through at the end of 2013.

Black's unique chance emerged because of a combination between his unusual first name and the intellectual dexterity that sets him apart from other long-time footballers. At 25, he wrote 'Zico: An Autobiography of A Non-League Footballer', the result of what he describes as an inate need to tell his story.

"I needed to write about the other side of football. Most kids starting out will go through a lot of the things I did. The highs, the lows, knockbacks and being told you're not good enough but wanting to prove people wrong."

The book was eventually noticed by Brazilian journalist Fernando Trigo. Globo TV Sports, in the UK to shoot Brazilian players at Chelsea, visited Guernsey in March 2012 to meet and film the former Northern Ireland Under-18 and Under-21 international.

The clip brought Black to the attention of a rather more famous Zico and Dewsnip's sponsorship enabled Black to fly to Brazil to play in the legendary player's annual charity match in Rio.

He did just that and he got himself on the scoresheet as well. It could all have happened a year earlier, however. Black was invited in 2012 but during his preparations he broke his leg during an FA Vase match at Erith Town. Tyrus Gordon was dismissed for the offending challenge and the game was delayed for almost an hour. The effect on Black was devastating, not least because he had to wait five hours for a hospital bed on the mainland.

"I believed my chance was gone and I really didn't think I would play again at one stage. The shining light and the godsend for me was that my fiancée was pregnant, which made me stay positive.

"I can see why people can suffer from depression and mental illness through those kind of traumas. I had a really dark couple of weeks coming off strong painkillers. Luckily for me I had a strong family and a good network of friends. I have to say the people of Guernsey and supporters of GFC have been extremely supportive."

His recovery complete, Black finally made the trip to Brazil in December 2013. Zico's match is an invitation few turn down and Black found himself on the field with football icons of the past and the future.

"I always loved watching Romario play and he didn't disappoint. The ball was glued on to his feet. Lucas Piazon was a decent lad. He's not a legend yet but he's an up-and-coming player on Chelsea's books on loan in the Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem. He's a very humble kid and has a nice manner about him. I think he will have a good career."

It's no surprise that Piazon made an impression. The pair combined for Black's Maracanã goal, an achievement he ranks as "Roy of the Rovers stuff". He is, in the grand scheme of things, a genuinely exceptional football player, but scoring in front of 70,000 in Rio tops it all even for him.

Far from coming back to earth with a bump, Black's return to Ryman League Division 1 South action was eased by an 11-0 victory over Crawley Down Gatwick and a goalscoring appearance. But could Brazil be added to his impressive list of footballing homes?

"I loved coming back to score for GFC but it was a nice feeling knowing I was on a pitch in Brazil and didn't feel out of place. I honestly believe if I had gone a couple of years ago I would have got a move out there, but I'm happy and content that I have always gone for my dreams. With that philosophy, I found myself trotting out at the Maracanã."

As the man himself rightly points out, some dreams can live.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast. 

Maracanã picture by Batista SL via Flickr