Thursday 01 October 2020, 06:03

Isle of Wight’s golden football heritage

  • Football has been played on the Isle of Wight for over 120 years

  • Island based off England’s south coast is famed for its rock festivals

  • Several men’s and women’s teams compete on the mainland

Play a bit of word association with ‘Isle of Wight’ and chances are most people will immediately reference the groundbreaking music festivals of five decades ago.

The milestone 1970 event was headlined by the likes of revered guitar deity Jimi Hendrix just a few short weeks before his untimely death, The Who in their turn-it-up-to-11, guitar-smashing, drum kit-demolishing pomp, and many more in a stellar line-up that arguably eclipsed the more iconic Woodstock held the previous year.

More than that, with an estimated attendance of 600,000, the 1970 iteration of the event is among the biggest human gatherings in history.

Located a few kilometres off England’s Hampshire coast, the Isle of Wight experiences a steady tourist invasion every summer, but it is a far more genteel swarm than that experienced half a century ago. With no searing guitars or thumping bass to be heard, one is more likely to hear a blast of referee’s whistle across the island’s fields.

Football has long played a role in the island’s sporting and cultural landscape. The Isle of Wight Football Association dates all the way back to 1898, there are semi-professionally teams who compete on the mainland and the island even boasts England’s most valuable trophy.

Brading Town, Isle of Wight

The island’s 140,000-odd population supports three teams who regularly travel across the English Channel to compete in the Wessex League, with local football coming under the auspices of the Hampshire FA. The trio being are comprised of Cowes Sports, East Cowes Victoria Athletic and Newport.

Then there are clubs such as Brading Town, who formerly crossed the channel, but now limit themselves to the local competition. In many ways, The Romans represent the local game in its purest form, with their sloping pitch hemmed in on one side by a railway line, which is quirkily serviced by former London Underground trains.

“A number of (our fields) could not be described as billiard table flat but they do have character,” Andrew Justice, secretary of the Isle of Wight Football Association, told “Most of our teams represent the towns and villages around the Island, many of the grounds being in very picturesque settings.”

Brading Town, Isle of Wight

Few notable football names have been produced but the island does boast one peculiar claim to fame via The Isle of Wight Senior Cup. Known locally as the Gold Cup, it is the most valued cup in England.

The cup spends its year safely tucked away in a local bank vault. The winning team is only allowed to retain it for 30 minutes or so to allow photographs with the players before it is locked away again for another 12 months.

The Isle of Wight enters the biannual Inter Island Games and are twice proud gold medallists, firstly in 1995 in Gibraltar, and then on home turf in 2011 when the home side saw off the challenge of Guernsey.

While the male playing population has stagnated in recent years – a Sunday competition folded in 2018 – female participation is flourishing. There are even three women's teams playing across the channel in the Hampshire League.

“It (Sunday men’s league) was an inevitable decline as society changed, along with a number of other sports for players to play and interests mainly around the PC,” Justice says. “The one area of potential growth would be in girl’s and women’s football, which mirrors the rest of the UK.”

Images supplied by Laurence Reade

This article is part of the 'Global Game' series, which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to Gibraltar.

John Sebastian performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival