The Many Flights of the Ravens (1/2) - Feature Article

Sat 30th March 2024 | FC Isle of Man
By Jay Cooper

Yes, you read that title correctly – this is a part one. In over 2 years writing feature articles for the NWCFL, I have never, not once, done a two-part article covering the same club. However, this past weekend, I fulfilled a personal promise that I’d made to myself when I first knew that a certain Island club were going to become a part of this wonderful league system – that I would travel halfway across the Irish Sea to watch an NWCFL game hosted at The Bowl, home of FC Isle of Man. And, throughout a weekend in Douglas and several conversations with players, managers, board members and fans, I learned far more about this club than what could be summarized in a single article.

This piece will focus on the administrative side of the club – how is it that FC Isle of Man, a club whose nearest away journey in the league during 2023/24 has been a near-175 mile round trip to AFC Liverpool – are able to feature week in and week out playing in Step 5 of the English Non-League System? Well, to figure that out, there’s another team that we must mention, and they aren’t northern in the slightest.

Guernsey FC. Ahead of the 2011/12 season in the Combined Counties Football League Division One, Guernsey FC made history by being accepted into that division, which is at the equivalent level in the overarching English Football Pyramid as the NWCFL First Divisions North and South. In doing so, they became the first team not from mainland England to compete in the English Football League system, and they’ve done pretty well for themselves. They were promoted twice in their first 2 seasons, and have since settled into the Isthmian League South Central Division – step 4 of the non-league system – where they remain today.

So, to do this sort of thing was possible, then? It was rare, but possible. That was what seemed to be on the mind of the man who would go onto become the first Director of Football at FC Isle of Man and current First Team Manager, Paul Jones, who approached local footballing hero Lee Dixon with what Lee himself will admit seemed like a very unrealistic idea.

“When Paul came up with the idea and said, “I'm going to try and do it, are you interested in being involved?” Obviously, you start that journey and then every time it gets mentioned, people say “that'll never happen, that'll never happen”. But then when Paul started having official conversations with the people at the North West Counties League, and then bringing in a few cleverer people than what we were in certain aspects of the setting up of it all, it very quickly became apparent that we could probably do it.

“Obviously, it took a lot of hard work and there were a lot of bumps in the road along the way, but Paul managed to put together the kind of team that were experts in certain areas, and everyone dealt with their own areas. I was just getting dragged along with him by the shirt collar! But I'd been involved in the football side of the Isle of Man for a long time, and I'd been away off the island with Paul and playing in the professional game. So, obviously football was driving us, whereas in the background other people were managing different areas of what their expertise were away from the football. And Paul put that together like a little jigsaw and thankfully, here we are now, coming up to the end of our third season of actually playing, but the fourth season of existing.”

Minor spoiler alert at the end there, but if you somehow managed to read this far and were predicting that FC Isle of Man had never actually come into existence, then I’m not sure how you did that. Indeed, going into the 2020/21 season of NWCFL Football, the league was logistically ready to welcome FC Isle of Man as an official club in the competition after about 18 months that saw the club be born as a concept, take plenty of inspiration from the successes of Guernsey FC, and have many, many meetings with League and FA committee members. It was all green lit and ready to go, but there was one small problem. This was late 2020, and as much as we’d all very much like to forget this factor, the world had been essentially put on hold months earlier by a deadly pandemic.

“We'd obviously gotten to that point where we ready to play, and then we had to pull out of that first season. Then you get worried about “will this ever happen?” And we'd obviously started training, too. We were in the process of putting together a squad, and so we thought we were ready to go and then we weren't going.” This is a sentiment echoed by many, many lower league football clubs throughout the country during this awful time, and it almost completely stopped the Ravens before they even got off the ground – figuratively and, in this unique case, literally.

Thankfully, Lee then continued on to say, “you know what, you sort of have faith, I suppose, and put your trust in the powers that be. With the FA, with the North West Counties - and to be honest, the North West Counties have been nothing but brilliant with us. The support they gave us in trying to guide us through the project themselves has been absolutely brilliant. And I think the relationship we have, the good relationship we managed to build at the start is still there today with them.”

Just a nice little full-circle side note – in lieu of the club’s first season competing in England, FC Isle of Man’s inaugural match as a recognised team was a friendly, hosted at The Bowl, against none other than Guernsey FC, and it was a match that they won 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Jack McVey, who is still on the club’s books to this day.

So, that’s the “who”, “what”, “where” and “when” established, but we’re not done – nowhere near, because “how” could genuinely be a 10,000-word dissertation all on its own. Don’t worry, it won’t be, but it could be.

Easily the biggest concern for the club is money. By following in Guernsey’s footsteps, FC Isle of Man are also burdened with the financial constraints of having to not only fly themselves to the mainland every other week for an away game, but also to fly their opponents over to Douglas for their home matches. Russ Kent is the man who holds the tasking title of club treasurer, and he had plenty to tell me about the costs that the club regularly incurs.

“The average costs for hosting a home game here, it has cost us, this season, around £7,500 per game, on average. The ground isn't actually ours. it's owned by the Isle of Man government, effectively. It's a National Stadium, and we only lease it for the four hours that we need it every Saturday evening. But yeah, having to pay for the referees, for their accommodation - also, in the agreement that we have with the league, we're obliged to provide a pre-match meal to the opposing team, we're obliged to provide one night's accommodation in a three star hotel, and then pay for their flights - and that packaged together, it costs us around 6 and a bit thousand pounds.

“And then the extra money that we have to spend is basically the hire of this place (The Bowl), the hire of this FA building, the hire of the pitch, and then the security guys and the St. John's Ambulance guys. And of course, you also have to remember that we have to pay ourselves to get away to play in those games, which is another around £4,000 per away game. Now that obviously has an effect on ticket prices. I'm totally aware that we are in the top two in terms of charging to get into the ground and the general admission. But with our cost base, we don't really have much of an option to change that in any way. Over the course of last season, the overall travel and accommodation costs that we had for both our team and the away teams coming over, was about a Quarter of a Million Pounds. And we're definitely not getting that money in gate receipts. So, we have to say a big thank you to our main sponsors, who help to cover that.”

That is silly money. That is silly, stupid money. You don’t need to be the club’s treasurer, like Russ is, to figure out that attendances alone wouldn’t be enough to cover that kind of fee. It’s the brilliant work of the sponsors that the club has, as well as a few other interesting, cost-effective agreements, that are instrumental in helping to keep the club running as effectively as possible.

“This season, we've formed a partnership with Visit Isle of Man, which is a government body to try and encourage tourism over here. They've recognised the excellent work that we've done because they want to attract bed nights onto the island - that's part of their overall tourism strategy. So, Visit Isle of Man have given us some very good support and provided some underwrite to it, to make sure that we're able to continue sustainably, and to help to try and meet these extraordinary costs.

“Of course, the other thing where we are different to every other team in the league is that our players are completely unpaid. With the cost base that we have, we can't afford to pay the players as well. So basically, they all give up their time for the midweek travelling, and we have to say a big thanks to all of them, and to all of their respective employers, who are very flexible in allowing them to travel sometimes, for the midweek games that we have to play. And it's not just the players as well. It's all of the coaching staff on top of that, that also have to travel with the team, and your photographers, media people, etc.”

It's truly amazing that, despite the lack of financial incentives on offer, that hundreds of people not only help to put together what goes on during a matchday for this club, but that even more hundreds of people pay their money to watch the match and support them. Both Lee and Russ went on to shed more light on just how much time and effort goes into each and every Saturday that sees an FC Isle of Man game take place at The Bowl.

“We get access to the pitch at about four o'clock, once the local football here is finished. That’s when the stewards will start turning up, and then Craig (Cowin, secretary and kitman) will turn up to actually put the kit out into the changing rooms. Then, because the area is leased, we have to remove all of the additional goals that are around. So, some of the supporters’ club and the stewards help us do that. They move out all of the goals, so we only have two goals in here. And there are advertising banners around the ground - because we lease The Bowl, we're not allowed to put permanent advertising banners up. The stewards have to then put up all of our advertising banners, and then we set up the pre-match reserved seating – the requirement is that we also have to set that up.

“And then the media guys start arriving and they set up their equipment. Because we have a good connection with the local radio station, they come along and provide match commentary for all the matches at 6pm. And then the players start turning up about half past four-ish, get changed and then they go out and do their pre-match warm-ups at five. The away squads usually arrive between quarter to five and five o'clock, and they’ll warm up, do their training. And then the doors open at five o'clock. The spectators are allowed in from then, just in time for kick-off at six.”

To summarise, the club will only gain access to the facilities where they play their home matches a mere 2 hours before kick-off on a regular Saturday – at 4pm, when most other NWCFL fixtures on the same day would be ready for the second half to get underway. It’s easy to assume that the reason for the Ravens kicking off so late every week is to allow time for their opponents to make the journey on the day of the game itself. Whilst this is an added benefit of the delayed start times that the club adheres to, the deeper reason plays more into the “why” aspect of FC Isle of Man, which we will address first.

According to Russ, “one of the main reasons that the club was set up, was to be community-owned. To be community focused, to give opportunities to local players to be able to showcase their talents in the North West Counties League. To give them opportunities that they would never have had if they just stayed over here, stayed local, because you're not going to get many scouts, I don't think, coming over specifically to the Island. But if you go across, it's easier for the scouts to get there and have a look. It was always going to be a community-based project for that reason - to give opportunities to local players that they wouldn't otherwise get.”

Building on that, Lee also said that the aim of the club was to “enhance Manx football, by giving it something else. Me and Paul Jones, we've been lucky enough to go away to professional clubs and be signed as apprentices. Because we, at that time, we seemed to have the talent; but there's a lot of kids that don't quite get there - they don't quite get there but it doesn't mean they're not good enough. So, by setting this up, it was almost like a scaffolding for the lads that don't quite make it at 16. That doesn’t mean at 18 or 19, they won’t be good enough.

“For instance, since the club started, we've had Jack Camarda, who now plays at Dunston FC, up in Northumberland, and they’re a league higher than we are. Only two weeks ago, Dean Pinnington has left and gone to Bury FC, who are, ultimately, a bigger club in terms of their history and where they are, and probably what their aims are and where they believe they can get to. So, we feel like he's made a step that he feels will better his career. We’ve had other clubs come in and want to take our players on loan or sign some of our players mid-season. So, we're starting to see little shoots of what we set the club up for, they’re happening. And, as well as that, we’re involved in our community, we're playing a big part in the community and providing opportunities. There's probably four or five little facets, really.”

The club was set up experimentally, and at great financial cost, but players such as Camarda and Pinnington are proof of success. Lee would go on to compare the club further to Guernsey in terms of what they hope to achieve, highlighting Matt Le Tissier, Graeme Le Saux, and, more recently, AFC Bournemouth’s Alex Scott, who’s been labelled by most media outlets as a future England star, as Island-based success stories. Whilst no players from FC Isle of Man have been able to make quite the same impact as the players listed above yet, we are only 5 years into this experiment at the time of writing, and a handful of players establishing themselves as mainstays in the non-league system is absolutely a great place to start.

The reason for discussing all this came from a simple question – why do the club kick-off at 6pm on Saturdays, if not to allow for travel time? As Russ would point out, local football has existed on the island for decades, and local football is still being very much played around FC Isle of Man. There were worries that the idea of playing on the mainland, in front of potential scouts and against historic clubs like Bury or Glossop North End in league action, as well as the undeniable appeal of playing FA Cup football, may have been one that most of the Isle of Man’s best would be unable to resist.

“At the start, when it was set up, there was a bit of apprehension behind how it would actually operate in real time from the local leagues. Because local leagues have been very long established, and they were very nervous about us taking their best players. So, a lot of work we've done behind the scenes was to try and placate them, or talk and communicate with them to make sure that they were buying into what the philosophy and concept of FC Isle of Man was.” It was at this point that Lee chimed in to say, “we tried to reassure the fans of what the aims of the project were. So, part of that was that, we'd said in our constitution, we couldn't kick off at 3pm on a Saturday, so as not to affect local football, and to not take fans away from the local game.

“That's why we kick off at 6pm on a Saturday, when we play at home, and why we wouldn't start our own academy - so that it didn't impact the academy that the FA already run over here. And so that we wouldn't and take local facilities away from clubs for training – hence the fact we train at 6:30am in the morning, when no one else would use it. Also, we would never have a team in the local league. We have a lot of fans saying, “why don't you have an under 18s team, or an under 21s team that would play in the local league, etc? Like a feeding system, to give that experience to the younger players?” But we've already guaranteed to them that we would never do that. And all these factors that we put into our presentation to the FA, as a constitution, was why we got voted in. I don't think if we'd have done those things, that we would exist as we do now.”

It’s truly rare that a football club has to sacrifice so much of what you would traditionally expect a club to have in order to function in the way that they want - their own ground, their own training facilities, their own youth academy, player and staff payments. In 99% of cases where this happens at a football club, it spells disaster and death, but for the Ravens, these are the founding fundamentals of their vision and aspirations.

However, that doesn’t mean that the club is unable to promote their message to the aspirational kids and teens of the Island. Despite the lack of academy, there is still plenty that FC Isle of Man offer to the Manx youth. Russ told me that, “another big aspect of what we do is that we hold junior football camps during school holidays – Lee has been instrumental in setting those up. Basically, these give junior school kids, from 11 years old and down, a week's worth of football coaching here at The Bowl. We put them on in Easter, at half term in February, half term in October, and we have 4 that run during the summer.

“But, we also try to put those around the Island, and not just have it centrally located in Douglas. So, we have had one at Colby, which is in the South, and then we've had one at St. John's, which is in the West of the Island. As part of the community aspect of the club, we give coaching to the youngsters and, to be fair, some of the players actually attend these camps and it really engages the youngsters, because they can come down and play with the people that they're watching on a Saturday evening. It’s a really good, really important community aspect that we fulfil as well.”

Community, community, community. It’s a word that has appeared again and again throughout this article, and for a very good reason. Like most clubs at this step of English Football, without that community input, FC Isle of Man would not be able to exist in the way that they do. However, it goes deeper for the Ravens. Unlike most clubs at this step of English Football, FC Isle of Man have an undisputed ownership group that currently holds 100% of any power at the club – Sporting Club Isle of Man Limited (a registered charity), which allows the local community to participate in the club's high-level decision-making processes.

It's a symbiotic relationship that the club holds with its local community. One helps the other, just as much as the other helps one. Much like the way football clubs generally operate in Germany, even at the highest level, it would be impossible for any outside benefactor to purchase more than 49% of the club’s shares. Thus, the majority of the club will always be owned by the community that surrounds them. And this even goes beyond fundraising, admin and attendances, as Lee went on to point out.

“One of the other assurances we gave was that we're not allowed to bring players from England. We can't just go and say, if our centre forward gets injured this week, “let's go and take Wythenshawe’s for £300 for the day, or go and get someone from the league above”, because we gave that up as part of our constitution - in the first 10 years, at least. But I don't think we'll ever do it, because once you bring players in and we're not the Isle of Man anymore, I just don't see how the community buys into you. If you flooded it with English players, then actually, you've lost that whole sense of what we're trying to achieve.”

This is a club identity similar to one forged over in Spain by Athletic Bilbao, who, by their own unbreakable rules, do not recruit any players from outside of the Basque Region in their homeland. Russ added to this by suggesting that “the money that we could offer them, as well, isn't enough for them to make a living over here. Because if you ask players to relocate to the Island, and try and find somewhere to live - either that, or to fly themselves over every single time."

It really does all come down to the input of the Manx locals, and the list of examples of local people or organisations that help to make the club what it is today is seemingly endless. Whether it’s the of the players, the weekly volunteers, local clubs forming positive relationships with the Ravens; or even Russ and Lee themselves, who not only constantly busy themselves in the maintenance of FC Isle of Man, but also take time out of those schedules to help me write extensive articles like this, and spread the messages that the club operates by, for which I cannot thank them enough.


That is all, for now. Come back next week for Part Two of this deep dive into FC Isle of Man, where I will take a closer look at the short but successful on-pitch and in-the-dressing-room history of the club, including some words from Player Secretary Craig Cowin, First-Team Manager Paul Jones, and two of the players who pull on the Ravens’ strip every week.

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