To the average reader, this headline looks wrong. And you’d be right, but not for the reason you might think. Yorkshire and the Isle of Man did take part in an international football fixture that was recognised by an international football body. The incorrect part of the headline is the Isle of Man don’t play under that name, instead, they compete under the title ‘Ellan Vannin’ which is their Manx moniker.
I imagine this still raises a lot of questions, the main one being: ‘Yorkshire aren’t a country, so how can they play an international football match?’ and this is where an organisation called CONIFA come into play.
CONIFA, or the Confederation of Independent Football Associations are a governing body designed to give non-FIFA affiliated teams an opportunity to play on the international stage. CONIFA was founded in 2013 to take over from N.F.-Board (New Football Federations-Board) and have since hosted two World Football Cups, with the third taking place this summer in London, which will be hosted by the Barawa Football Association which represents the Somali diaspora in England.
The Vikings – the Yorkshire International Football Association’s (or YIFA’s) official nickname – were set up on 16th July 2017 by chairman Phil Hegarty and last October applied for CONIFA membership. He said: “The reason we’ve set this up because, like a lot of people around the region, we’ve been talking about a Yorkshire football team for years.”
“It just got to the point where we said ‘let’s see what happens’ and so far, the reaction has been amazing. It’s also a kind of a reflection of Yorkshire’s strong leaning towards devolution at the moment; a way of bringing the feeling of the debate to the man or woman on the street. Giving them an outlet for their pride in Yorkshire.”
Yorkshire were accepted as members of CONIFA in January at their annual conference in Northern Cyprus at the same time as the draw for this summer’s tournament took place, and although they won’t be taking part, their opponent Ellan Vannin will be. The Douglas-based side have been drawn in a group with the hosts Barawa, Tamil Eelam (a team made up of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Canada, the UK and Switzerland) and Cascadia (drawing their players from Oregon and Washington in the USA and British Columbia in Canada).
Yorkshire’s identity within the United Kingdom is unique, self-titled as ‘God’s Own County’, their sporting influence on the rest of the British Isles can’t be ignored, with the prime example of this coming during the London Olympics in 2012, where if Yorkshire had competed as their own entity, they would have finished twelve in the medal table. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee and boxer Nicola Adams are just a few of Yorkshire’s finest that propelled Great Britain to third place with 29 gold medals, their best haul since hosting the 1908 event. It’s difficult to think of many other British counties that would even consider attempting something as extravagant as setting up their own national football team.
Before the game, speaking to CONIFA Vice-President Kristóf Wenczel, he said “In our constitution, it’s [admission to CONIFA] quite flexible even if you are one of the 5,000 nationalities listed by the UN, or if you are a linguistic minority or an autonomous region then you can be a member of CONIFA.” Anyone aware of Yorkshire’s distinctive dialect will understand that this is one of the main reasons the county were unanimously voted into the organisation.
The game took place at Hemsworth Miners Welfare Football Club in Fitzwilliam, a small village twenty minutes from Doncaster. Fittingly, they play at the Yorkshire NuBuilds stadium which has a capacity of 1,000, however it was just over two-thirds full for this historic occasion. Their modest but modern clubhouse was adorned with signed shirts from many of the heavyweights of club football in the area; Barnsley, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday, Darlington, Doncaster and Middlesbrough to name a few. Spectators wore brand-new Yorkshire football shirts and were draped in blue flags with the famous white rose pinned to the centre.
As expected, it hasn’t been plain sailing to reach this point from YIFA conception. Threats from the FA leading up to the fixture regarding semi-professional players participating in non-affiliated fixtures briefly put the game in doubt before the match was clarified. YIFA Chairman Phil Hegarty said regarding the squad selected: “The squad is better than I thought and that’s a lot to do with our coaches, they’ve got a really good standard of semi-professional on board and they’re really happy with them.
“They’d have been happy with twelve lads in their forties who play Sunday League football if that’s what we could have got but Ryan [Farrell] and Micky [Long] have put a really good squad together.”
The players assembled came from a range of different levels, with goalkeeper and man of the match Ed Hall playing in the National League North with Bradford Park Avenue, while several members of the squad played five steps below him with Beeston St. Anthony and Dinnington Town.
Malcolm Blackburn, the visiting President of Ellan Vannin reiterated that they gave Yorkshire all the help they could when they heard about their application and were honoured to be asked to be The Vikings first opponents. “I’ve been speaking to Phil [Hegarty] for quite a while now and he’s used quite a bit of the information that we used as Ellan Vannin to help him get through it with Yorkshire. When he said ‘Would you like to come and play the first game?’ it was a no-brainer for us, we were straight on the plane, getting organised.”
A blustery 3:30pm kick-off came and went and within five seconds the first football had disappeared over a garden fence (see video above), a miscue from centre back James Hurtley saw his effort fly into a neighbouring garden via the top of the away dugout. The first fifteen minutes were fast-paced, the nervous energy from both teams palpable from the sidelines, and Yorkshire nearly made took advantage of this by winning a penalty which was well saved by Ellan Vannin’s debutant ‘keeper Dean Kearns. Kearns is likely to remember this game not only for his penalty save, but also the chants coming from behind his goal courtesy of the Yorkshire faithful after switching sides for the second-half, which culminated in a pitch invader assisting him by taking the final goal-kick of the match.
It’s unusual for a set of fans to begin supporting a completely new team. There were no familiar songs to be sung, and no traditions to be upheld. Unsurprisingly, chants about Lancashire sporadically started during the warm-up and the early stages of the game, but it wasn’t long before: ‘You’re just a small town in England’ and ‘We’ve only played one game, we’re better than you’ were ringing around the ground.
The goalkeepers on both sides were tested before the break, but neither team was able to open the scoring. Yorkshire were trying to move the ball quickly into the final third aerially, but Ellan Vannin’s height advantage meant this was ineffective, and allowed the visitors to build attacks from the back when winning possession from Yorkshire’s forwards. They worked the ball out to the right hand side well where full-back Sam Caine and winger Alex Holden impressed, and played very much how Malcolm Blackburn said they would before the game, soaking up pressure and then trying to play on the break.
Half-time substitute Furo Davies scored the first goal five minutes into the second half for Ellan Vannin putting the home side behind, however it wasn’t long before they were back on level terms, with Jordan Coduri controlling a pinpoint chip from Pat Maguire and hitting the ball on the turn low to the goalkeepers left. Yorkshire were on the front foot for much of the match after this, and Ellan Vannin’s Mike Williams did well not to turn a dangerous cross into his own net. The visitors burst into life in the final moments however and could have taken a victory back to their home in the Irish Sea if goalkeeper Ed Hall hadn’t been on hand to stop Davies and Joey Quayle’s efforts.
On the balance of play the result was a fair one and earned both sides valuable qualification points for next summer’s European Football Cup. Logistically, it’s not easy to organise scheduled competitions between multiple CONIFA teams, and so any friendly that they take part in usually has qualification points attached to it in order to help determine which sides progress to the next major tournament.
Ellan Vannin will continue their preparation for this summer’s World Football Cup with a ‘secret’ fixture next Sunday, the details of which will be revealed next month. For Yorkshire though, it’s time to reflect on how far they’ve come in the last six months before looking forward to a friendly with Strathclyde in March and then taking their first step on the path to international sporting glory under their own name for the very first time.