Alderney is one of those wonderful places that remains untouched by the passing of time. The wide open countryside and seascapes are unspoilt and unfettered but for the forts dotted around the coastline (a consequence of the island’s occupation by Germany in World War Two). There is one parish: St. Anne. There are no chain stores, no roundabouts and on its cobbled high street a cinema plays films months after their release on the mainland.
Tucked away between the idyllic beaches of Braye and Soye is The Arsenal at Mount Hale, the home of Alderney Football Club. Founded in 1905, Alderney’s record to date is 108 games played: won 2, drawn 1 and lost 105. The overwhelming majority of those defeats are against neighbouring Jersey and Guernsey whom they compete with annually in the Muratti. The tournament consists of a semi-final and final; Jersey and Guernsey alternate each year to face Alderney at Mount Hale in the semi before inevitably meeting each other in the final.
There is an admirable sense of futility in Alderney’s efforts. Every year the island’s inhabitants gather together to support its team, but with an aging population that has dwindled to just over 1,900, the odds are impossibly stacked against them. It’s a ‘David versus Goliath’ encounter where Goliath wins every time. But moreover, there is worryingly little statistical evidence to suggest any chance of an upturn in the team’s fortunes.
Though the correlation between population size and success of international football teams is hotly disputed, there can be no question that Alderney’s minute talent pool is the most glaring factor in their continued struggles. In Soccernomics: Why England Lose, football analysts Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski propose that in Europe where football is the dominant sport, having twice the population of the opposing country is worth around a quarter of a goal per game. Little wonder then that Alderney continue to lose to Guernsey (with a population around thirty four times that of Alderney), and Jersey (fifty-one times) when they have the equivalent of an eight goal head-start.
Furthermore, match experience, posited to be one of the most pivotal factors in determining winners or losers on the international stage provides another steep obstacle for Alderney to overcome. Kuper and Szymanski calculate that having “twice the experience of your opponent gives you an advantage of about thirty per cent of a goal per game.” This statistic isn’t far from the numerical advantage Jersey and Guernsey enjoy over their less-illustrious neighbour having both played over 193 matches at ‘national’ level.
But perhaps equally detrimental to the progress of Alderney’s team of underdogs is the very thing that makes the island so loved by holidayers and locals alike; the empty beaches, dusty trails and cobbled streets that recall some simpler halcyon days of yore. The locals may deride the island’s ‘ugly sisters’ for their dreary mainland modernity but Guernsey and Jersey’s greater platform for connectivity leaves Alderney’s football team forever chasing shadows. From the airports of Guernsey and Jersey there is a gateway to Liverpool, Amsterdam, Geneva, Paris and beyond. From Alderney airport you can fly to Southampton or you can fly to Guernsey. Saint Helier, Jersey has a shopping centre where high street brands sit happily alongside traditional independent retailers, on Alderney’s high street the baker and the butcher are still king.
In the realm of football, the contrast is epitomised by Alderney’s select XI (The Bavaria Nomads) playing their games (fog permitting) in the Guernsey second division, whilst Guernsey FC, the club manifestation of the ‘national’ side, play in the Isthmian League Division One South in the English lower leagues. Although, Alderney’s captain Andy Lawrence is right to credit Guernsey as the reason Alderney get so much “football exposure”, Guernsey’s mainland experiences give them a tremendous advantage over their rivals. Indeed, it is interesting to note that since Guernsey FC joined the English football league pyramid, the ‘national’ side have won three of the last four Muratti tournaments with their sole defeat courtesy of a penalty shoot-out. It appears even Jersey may soon be left in the shade. As Kuper and Szymanski suggest, modern international football has become a game of connectivity and knowledge networks:
…once Spain’s isolation had been lifted in the last years of Franco’s regime, Barcelona began building a style based on knowledge transfer from Amsterdam. Eventually Spain adopted this made-in-Amsterdam game[…] Spain became a great football nation because it joined European knowledge networks.
Certainly, more opportunities like last year’s non-FIFA Tynwald Hill tournament on the Isle of Man would greatly benefit Alderney. Though they lost narrowly in each of their three games, the chance to face more evenly-matched opposition away from the Channel Islands bubble will help them gain valuable experience and develop their football-ing networks. Unfortunately though, they are constantly hamstrung by funding and the cost and availability of transport. Recently, the Jersey manager Craig Culkin suggested Alderney “step out of their comfort zone” to play an away fixture in the Muratti. But as Lawrence argues, the semi-final at Mount Hale, aside from being a great tradition, has considerable financial import:
“What Mr Culkin fails to see is that the semi-final is crucial for the Alderney football club financially, we have a lot of supporters come to watch us each year and the money they put into the club on that day helps us a lot each year.”
Besides, home advantage is one of the few factors left in Alderney’s favour.
If modernisation and networking are indeed key to Alderney’s long-term aspirations on the pitch, to those who experience the island’s irresistible unique charm – its glorious solitude, its blissful simplicity – it is perhaps better the football team goes on waiting for their first win in the Muratti since 1920. Away from the island, time rushes on much like the surf which endlessly curls and creams on Braye Harbour. But Alderney remains the same. Every year the football team plays and every year it loses.
Huw is on Twitter @agameinthelife.
Picture credit to Neil Howard.