SOMETIMES the thing that always stays the same is ever changing – if that makes any sense. There is no less desire to play football on the Island than there ever was – it remains the most participated sport by quite some distance – but it’s the way it is played that is different.
Once upon a distant time, Sunday was not the only day of rest in Jersey, you had Thursday afternoons too and different football leagues operated for both days, along with the traditional league played on Saturdays. Meanwhile, over the summer when the Island would become a welcoming and thriving holiday destination, the many hotel workers could blow off some steam competing against each other for the Mateus Rosé Bowl Trophy. During the 90s and 00s, Jersey also had a highly competitive indoor five-a-side league made up of multiple divisions played on midweek nights at Fort Regent.
Leisurely Thursday afternoons may have been lost to capitalism’s demand to increase the gains on the profit-and-loss sheet, while the tourism industry has sunk and hotels been repurposed into empty, lifeless vessels for the insatiable demand of the 21st century landlord, but there are still a myriad of options when it comes to kicking a ball. We still have the Saturday league, of course, made up of 38 teams across five divisions (including the Over-35s). Then there is the Business League, a natural evolution from the hotel league parallel with the change in the Island’s leading industry. We have a women’s league too, a walking football league for those past the halfway mark of their lives and replacement of the indoor five-a-side league in the shape of the Soccer 6s, played on the 3G surfaces at Springfield and Haute Vallée. But what we don’t have any more, unlike in the UK where it still prospers, is a Sunday football league.
The Jersey Soccer League was one such league. It started life in 1960 but 20 years ago it met its demise.
The writing was on the wall before the final season began and when Aurora Celtic pulled out of the first division this week 21 years ago, JEP’s Andy Bradshaw investigated the league’s plight.
You may be surprised to learn that, at the time of publication, there are 920 registered players aged 16 and above signed for the 18 different clubs in the JFA Combination’s men’s divisions. A large number but there are times when some teams still struggle to get 11 players on the pitch. Meanwhile, a number of clubs have gone to the wall over the past couple of decades. There are correlations to the variables, of course, which were effective when the JSL was coming to an end. Jersey no longer provides a home for hundreds of young expats from UK and Ireland, either in hospitality or finance. The demand on our leisure time has changed too. We have multiple interests and responsibilities, that means football is no longer the focal point of our weekend. But the greatest threat to Sunday league football at the time was the change to how we watch football too. The JSL football was different to the UK. In England, games kick-off at 10am, was over by lunch, in time to top off the hangover procured from the night before. In Jersey, games steadfastly stuck to a 2pm kick-off, clashing with the broadcasting of live matches on Sky Sports. And so, instead of playing, they watched and consumed instead.
“Aurora cited live television coverage of football as their main reason for pulling out,” wrote Bradshaw, “together with messing other clubs around by trying to change kick-off times to enable their players to watch television football.”
Those who remember the noughties in Jersey will remember how packed out pubs and bars screening the soccer on a Sunday were back then. The All Sports Bar, which is now Wildfire, would heave, with a big screen covering all the angles for every eye line. The irony was that some of the teams that made up the Jersey Sunday League were, essentially, pub and club teams.
With Aurora pulling out, it left just five teams in Division I and five teams in Division II.
But it wasn’t just a lack of teams threatening the JSL’s existence. As what most sports are regularly up against, it was a lack of administrators too that ultimately led to its downfall.
“Celtic’s withdrawal is a sign of the times,’ lamented JSL president and founder member Jack Renault. “Players prefer to watch the games on television rather than go out and play themselves.
“Things are certainly bleak for the league at the moment because we are unable to find enough officials. I’m currently the president, referees’ appointment officer and treasurer. Players don’t realise how much work is involved in running a league and if people don’t come forward and help out then the league may fold at the end of this season.”
It was all a far cry from its heyday before Super Sundays became a thing. During the 1970s and 80s there were as many as 36 clubs. But Aurora pub landlord and team coach, Pat Brennan, who was also part of the Jersey Scottish management team, was even more damning in his appraisal of the situation, particularly of his own team who preferred to watch the Celtic from Glasgow rather than turn out for the Celtic of the Aurora Hotel.
“It’s been a waste of time trying to get teams out for our matches,” bemoaned Brennan. “Celtic have been on television every time and we were forced to scratch one game because we didn’t have enough players.
“We don’t want to continue because we feel we are messing other teams about and that is not fair.”
The league was eventually suspended that summer but not before First Tower Institute had been handed the title because Everton Supporters Club (who played in a knocked off Barcelona kit made in Thailand) had to scratch their final two matches due to many of their players being involved in the Muratti and the replay that year. Nevertheless most of the remaining clubs were hoping the JSL would be revised after a meeting at the Caesarea a year later. But the lack of administrators would sound its death knell and, sadly, it never returned.