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International Footballing Rivalry - Channel Islands Style

Posted: 14/03/2012 13:00

Being the manager of Guernsey's national football team is more akin to managing an English county representative side than managing messers Terry, Rooney, Gerrard and co. That said, don't for one moment think there is any less passion or feeling involved. Should we win our game on Saturday against Alderney, the third largest of the Channel Islands, we will play Jersey in what is commonly known in the Channel Islands as 'The Muratti.'

The annual footballing competition for the three largest Channel Islands dates back to 1905. The winner receives the Muratti Vase, so named because the winner's trophy was sponsored by the cigarette brand, Muratti. The competition remains one of the oldest in the footballing world.

Over the years, crowds of up to 15,000 have flocked to watch what remains the biggest draw of the Channel Islands' sporting calendar. The touchlines of the Mount Hale arena in Alderney on Saturday will be crowded with partisan home fans baying for Guernsey blood. Not since 1920 have Alderney won a game in the competition - a record I sincerely hope continues for at least one more year!

The rivalry between the two largest Channel Islands is fierce. Frank Cusack's wonderful book 'Muratti Vase - Centenary Celebration' (ISBN 1-869833-53-8) chronicles footballing conflict not just on the pitch but also off it. Stories that add to the legend of the occasion include those of visiting youths from Jersey jumping into the harbour in St Peter Port, Guernsey's main town, to escape confrontation with a swelling crowd of locals and rival punk gangs from the two islands clashing behind one of the goals in the eighties. Thankfully, it is a rare occurrence to see any trouble off the pitch these days, but the rivalry around the occasion remains fierce. The game enjoys a high profile in the local media and speculation about the game is rife in the days and weeks leading up to the match. There is nothing a Guernseyman relishes more than the prospect of beating Jersey.

The Muratti was always the highlight of the footballing year for me when I was growing up in Guernsey. My father was a referee - and actually ran the line in two Muratti finals as well as refereeing in one semi final between Jersey and Alderney. Every other year when the final was held in Jersey, my family would make a trip to Jersey for the May Day bank holiday weekend. After the annual (and no less competitive) game between the two islands' respective referees' teams on the May Day morning, we would all head down to Springfield Stadium in St Helier to watch the big event along with thousands of others. My heroes included Carl and Kevin Le Tissier (Matt's brothers), Neil Hunter and the Guernsey skipper of the time, Chris Dyer. A young Graeme Le Saux played one game for Jersey, a classic in 1987 that Jersey won 4-3 after extra time, before embarking on his pro career in the late '80s.

I vividly remember being sat in the front row of the main stand at Springfield in Jersey in 1988 when Peter Blondel, the talismanic Guernsey centre half kicked the Jersey winger Tony Lawlor fully four or five metres on to the cycling track in front of me. Lawlor landed almost at my feet. The incident happened early on in the game and in those days, the centre half usually assumed he'd get a 'free one', just to let the opposition know he was there. Slightly shocked by the physical assault I'd just witnessed, I turned to the Guernsey bench nearby where someone said to me "that's what Muratti football's all about son". The referee blew for a free kick but didn't have so much as a quiet word in Blondel's ear - these days it would be a straight red for such an offence!

This year's Guernsey squad will include Chris Tardif, a former school team mate of mine who went on to play professional football in the UK for 12 years at clubs like Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Oxford United. We are all proud of his achievements in the pro game and he is now back in Guernsey with his young family. For someone who has experienced so much in the game, you would not believe the motivation levels this guy has for Muratti football. Like me, he grew up watching this fixture and our heroes were not Premier League footballers, they were the men we saw stroll out in front of thousands proudly wearing the green of Guernsey. In Chris's case, his hero was Chris Hamon, the Guernsey goalkeeper. Ironically, Hamon's son James is now a promising young understudy to Tardif in the Guernsey ranks.

I'll never forget returning to the island, after what can probably best be described as a modest career in senior non league football in the UK, and lining up against Jersey in the famous green of Guernsey. It was the realisation of a lifetime's ambition and I could see my family's pride as they sat in the main stand at Foote's Lane.

With just over 60,000 inhabitants, Guernsey's sporting achievements for an island so small are testament to the passion and support local people give to their sporting competitors. Heather Watson, Andy Priaulx, Matt Le Tissier - all famous names in their respective sporting fields were all born and raised in Guernsey. Many other "Guerns" who perhaps don't enjoy national and international recognition have nevertheless forged successful paths in professional or international sport - Chris Tardif is just one of them.

There is something unique about the pride a Guernseyman has in his roots. I doubt whether the current crop of England players feels the pride burning as bright when they pull on the three lions at Wembley as the Guernsey players do when, wearing the green shirt, they are faced with the red shirt of a Jerseyman on Muratti day. These lads play in front of their family, friends and work mates - the ones they return to work with just a day or two later The fact that most of the fans know one or two of the players or at least a member of the player's family means the emotional investment is quite something. This is not just bias from a Guernseyman with rose tinted glasses - today's overpaid England stars don't exactly compare to a blood stained Terry Butcher in terms of evident fire in the belly. Believe me, for Muratti pride, think William Wallace at Bannockburn, hairs on the back of your neck stuff. The proudest sporting Guernseyman I know, former Guernsey player and coach, Colin Fallaize, puts it in perspective - "That shirt on your back is not yours, its Guernsey's." I can't imagine Fabio Capello (or Harry Redknapp for that matter) being capable of creating a dressing room driven by the raw pride the man and that statement simply demands.

Such old fashioned motivation techniques might be scoffed at by some in the modern game but they wouldn't understand the bond between the players and the people they represent. I'll whisper this, but there have been plenty of players in the red shirt of Jersey (and the blue of Alderney) over the years, who have drawn on similar motivation I'm sure.

Try to imagine the emotion of the fiercest rivalries in football and then add the anticipation a nation like England feels in the run up to a World Cup. The sum total of all that sentiment is condensed into one unique occasion, steeped in history and as passionate an encounter as you will find anywhere in the footballing world.