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

Sun 7th April 2024 | FC Isle of Man
By Jay Cooper

If you need to catch up on Part One before you carry on reading, please do! This is a Part Two. 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, two weeks ago, 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.


The last article was a deep dive into the administrative side of the club – their finances, their community, and how it is that they can manage themselves in the NWCFL. For this article, we’re going to look more at what they have achieved on the pitch in their short history, and measure up their footballing achievements, as well as look to the future and the progress that they want to make.

So, where better to start than where they started? As I have already laid out in Part One, FC Isle of Man – a club based halfway across the Irish Sea from all of their would-be opponents, were ready to make their English Football Pyramid debut ahead of the 2020/21 NWCFL season. They were going to compete in the First Division North. But then, the world stopped.

With grassroots football shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with travel outside of one’s own house being generally limited to a single walk per day, it was unfeasible that a plane or ferry full of lower league footballers, managers, volunteer staff and fans would make a fortnightly trip to the mainland wearing the Ravens’ crest on their shirts. The club would have to hang on for one more season.

However, that didn’t stop sanctioned friendly games being played once the travel restrictions were lifted. In their first official match, the Ravens won 1-0 against fellow Island side and massive inspiration for their cause, Guernsey FC, thanks to a first-half Jack McVey penalty. The ballpark attendance given for this match at The Bowl – the national stadium for the Isle of Man, and one that FC Isle of Man lease for their home games – was 2,700 spectators.

At the time of this first game, and first win, the setup at the club included Director of Football Paul Jones, Vice Chairman Lee Dixon, and Manager Chris Bass. A former manager of Isle of Man local club St George’s AFC, Chris would be the man who also led the club eventually into the NWCFL, one season on from their initially proposed entry date into the English non-league system. This was an eventuality that was also helped by the withdrawal from the NWCFL First Division South by Wem Town. FC Isle of Man would take their place in that division, switching from their original expected home in the North.

Just as Jack McVey’s goal will be one that lives forever in the club’s history books, it would only take 8 minutes of competitive football for the Ravens to bag themselves another historic goal. Frank Jones, who would go on to become club captain, scored their first ever competitive goal in an eventual 1-1 draw with NWCFL mainstays Maine Road, and that would go on to be the first of many that season.

The club were taking to the competitive game like a duck to water, and it seemed as though teams that they faced were not ready for their attacking threat. Perhaps most notably, the club recorded what still stands as their record victory in competitive games during this debut campaign, battering that seasons’ bottom club St Martins 10-2 in an away game during November 2021. Their goalscoring exploits would be the absolute best that the NWCFL First Division South had to offer in 2021/22, and they went on to finish higher in the table than current NWCFL Premier Division title chasers Wythenshawe FC (then called Wythenshawe Amateurs); Cheadle Town, who’ve also since been promoted to the Prem; and Brocton, who were also new to the NWCFL at the time, and have stormed to a league championship win in the South this season.

However, their overall performance and league position would be bettered by just one other team in the end. West Didsbury and Chorlton would take the league title, with 91 points to the Ravens’ 86. This would condemn FC Isle of Man to the play-offs, but they did hold the advantage of the play-off seeding, and were allocated a home match. After doing away with Wythenshawe Amateurs in the semi-finals thanks to goals from Jack Camarda and a Luke Murray brace, they were matched up with New Mills in the final. Again, the Ravens held the home advantage thanks to their play-off seeding, and that would pay serious dividends when 3,230 people came to The Bowl for this match – a club attendance record that is yet to be bettered.

And the majority of those fans would be going home happy, too. In an absolute thriller of a final, FC Isle of Man took the lead thanks to a Chris Bass Jr goal but conceded two goals before the break. They came out swinging for the fences in the second half and smashed 3 goals past the Ammies, scored by Sean Quaye, Luke Murray, and Chris Bass Jr again, all before the 70-minute mark. They would see that 4-2 scoreline right through to full time and clinched promotion in their first ever season in English football.

This wouldn’t even be the Ravens’ only cause for celebration at the tail end of 2021/22. With the league action all wrapped up by mid-April, there were still plenty of things domestically to figure out as Spring progressed – namely, who would win the Edward Case Cup? In the end, it would come down to an all First Division South final between Cammell Laird 1907, and – you guessed it – FC Isle of Man. Just like the play-off final, with FC Isle of Man finishing higher in the league table, they were given the home advantage. In front of another 3,000+ crowd (3,018, to be exact), a sole Jacob Crooks goal in the 79th minute proved to be the difference on the day, and the Ravens added the Edward Case Cup to their trophy cabinet, sitting pretty alongside their play-off trophy.

After the match that secured promotion for the club, manager Chris Bass was quoted as saying, “I believe there’s so much more to come from this team. We’ve only been doing this for one season, and I believe there’s still so much more to come from these players.” Spoken perhaps with one eye on the distant future, but the more immediate one for the club would eventually see these two parties part ways.

In early November, after an inconsistent-at-best start to life in the NWCFL Premier Division, FC Isle of Man began the hunt for a new manager having officially parted ways with Bass. In the words of still-present Chairperson Gill Christian at the time, “It is never easy to make a decision such as this, and it is with a very heavy heart that we have decided to make this change… …[Chris] has committed an incredible amount of time to the club, which is hugely appreciated.” In a mirror of a sentiment echoed many times in my previous article, the voluntary, unpaid contributions that people make to this club is always recognised.

And it would be another voluntary figure that would step into the dugout at The Bowl, initially as a temporary fix to this problem. Director of Football Paul Jones would become First Team Manager Paul Jones for the immediate future, and Vice Chairman Lee Dixon would step into the role of Director of Football. Paul’s is a name that will feature heavily as this article progresses, and another member of the team behind the team at the Ravens spoke to me directly about the impact that Paul’s appointment as manager had on the way the team played. That man was Craig Cowin, club secretary and kitman.

“I think, since the changes have been made – Lee has gone from coach to Director of Football, and he obviously brings a wealth of experience behind the scenes. On that side of things, there was definitely a few changes, but the players have still got the same vision. They want to just keep climbing and progressing and working as hard as they can.

“When the first manager, Chris, left the club, things did change, obviously. But, we’re probably, realistically, not massively better off now than we were when Chris was in charge – our league position speaks for itself. And there hasn’t been a huge amount of change, just the management and a few tweaks here and there. But we’re still the same team.”

Under the direct guidance of Paul Jones, FC Isle of Man would play out the rest of their inaugural NWCFL Premier Division season in mid-table comfort, never dropping too close to the danger zone, but never quite hitting the heady heights of the play-offs like they had the previous year. By season’s end, the club were sat in 13th place, a point ahead of league veterans like Padiham and Longridge Town, and 4 points behind 11th-placed Charnock Richard, who finished smack bang in the middle of this 22-team division. While that may seem a little uninspiring after such a dream debut season on English soil in 2021/22, for the club to be able to find their feet and sit comfortably in a competitive league was still worth all the praise in the world. Especially given that the competition levels were only going to increase in 2023/24, with the division growing from 22 teams to 24.

One thing that would be 100% confirmed by FC Isle of Man ahead of the 2023/24 season was the identity of their new permanent manager. In April, after the club had wedged themselves firmly into mid-table in the NWCFL Prem with Paul Jones at the helm, the announcement was made that the permanent choice for the job going forward would be… Paul Jones! On my recent visit to The Bowl, Paul himself said to me that “the plan was for never to be doing this job, but circumstances dictated that someone needed to take over, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable in this role. It’s a small community, you can’t help but know that there’s ripples out there, and I’ve tried to be as respectful as I can, but I’ve also tried to morph things towards the way I’d like to play, and I feel we’re starting to get there now.”

In this context, the “there” that Paul is talking about has resulted in comfort in the NWCFL Premier Division. Being given the reins on a permanent basis also meant that he was given a direction to take the club, and whilst that direction is obviously up, there’s much more to it than just that, and to put all your eggs in the “climb the leagues immediately” basket is optimistic at best, and, more realistically, destined to be disappointing. Especially when you find that the calibre of football poses more of a challenge than you were ready for, as it did to Paul and his players.

“I think we had a group of players after that first year that we thought could push on again. And when you get some momentum, you think you can just keep going, don't you? But we probably got a little bit of a shock in that first season, about the level that we needed to be at on a more consistent basis. And we felt that we had a really good end to last season, and that we might be in a decent place to challenge again this year. But I think the level has gone up again in the Premier Division. I think there's some really good teams that are vying for those playoffs, and we've not been consistent enough to stay with them over the season.

“I think we've learnt a lot over the last couple of years. We've got an improving player group and we certainly want to do our best to get promoted - whether that's next season or the season after, that's certainly the aim. But, first and foremost, it’s about making sure that the club is stable, that it can carry on for the next 10 years, no matter who's managing, or who's coaching, or who's playing. That's the most important thing. And then the results on the pitch, hopefully, will come.”

As the season continued from those initial hopes of a potential play-off push, it seems that the inconsistencies on the pitch would be enough to sideline the club’s ambitions of promotion for at least another season. “We all felt that we were a playoff-standard team, and I think, in large parts of most games this season, that's probably true. The thing that isn't true, is that consistency over 95-minute game, and we've let some very good two-goal or three-goal leads go this season. We've lost lots of points from winning positions, or from drawing positions.

“And, you know, in football there’s always a bit of an “if only”. But if we had that little bit more ruthlessness that the opposition that we play against seem to have week-in and week-out, then we feel we've got enough about us to be in and around that group of teams pushing for the top five. But, it hasn't happened that way this season. We're frustrated, but we've learned a lot, and hopefully this struggle for form, and this struggle for consistency, will stand us in good stead for next season as something to improve on.”

Exhibit A of this up-and-down nature at the club is right there in black and white in their results list leading up to a late season clash against Ramsbottom United. Whilst I personally hadn’t planned it so that I would attend a Ravens’ match off the back of 6 league games consisting of 3 wins and 3 defeats, that just happened to be how these particular cards fell. In this game against Ramsbottom, the club would make it 4 wins from 7 games, thanks to a crisp finish by Sean Doyle following a lovely move leading to a cross from the right flank; and a glorious solo goal by winger Charlie Higgins, who mirrored the movement of a famous Luis Suarez goal against Norwich from a near-decade ago by flicking the ball beyond his marker and smashing a half volley into the far corner from the edge of the penalty area.

Despite a second-half goal for Rammy, bundled in from very close range by Oscar Ratcliffe following a free-kick routine, and despite a tense ending to the match with the Ravens clutching to a 1-goal lead for over half an hour, they got over the line and got 3 more points in the bag. Jones reacted to this win by stating that “the plan was to lock them into their half of the pitch in the second half, and use the wind a little bit to make sure that we didn't give up any territory. But we didn't quite do that as well as we wanted to. We gave them a little bit of territory and a few chances, and they took one of them, but I thought our game management from after that point - them scoring that goal - was excellent.”

“We showed that we've grown, and learned, and developed as a team today, to see this game out. Ramsbottom was one of those teams we played very early in the season, where we scored in the 89th minute, and they went and beat us in the 94th minute (in the reverse fixture). So, it's good to take a lead all the way through a game this time. because we haven't done that enough this season.”

Inconsistencies aside, one thing that FC Isle of Man have thrived on this season is the support of the home crowd. Like they did with the energy of 3,000+ crowds in their promotion campaign and Edward Case Cup victory, the buzz of The Bowl is a crucial factor in motivating the players to be at their best and remind them what it is that they’re playing for. This was acknowledged in the words of club captain Frank Jones, who was also kind enough to speak with me.

“What we find is, the teams that come, they always bring probably the best squad that they can. It's like a standout fixture for the season, because everyone wants to come to the Isle of Man, to have the little trip and all that. But it's so great to play in front of all our fans because crowds are getting bigger and bigger, and this season, our fans have grown and grown, and they're obviously singing every week as well. We see it massively, and it really does help us on the pitch. 

Since that game took place, FC Isle of Man have made it three wins on the bounce with a home victory over promotion-chasing Chadderton. At the time of writing this, there’s 7 games left in the season for the Ravens to play, and the season is meant to end in 14 days. Seriously. With regards to the fixture cramming that the club will have to endure in order to finish on the expected end date for this campaign, both Paul and Frank Jones, and fellow player Kyle Watson had their comments.

From a player’s perspective, the skipper said that “I see a small amount of people that come here, and they moan about ‘oh, we've travelled and we've got to do this and that’, but we do that 24 times a season, you know? But that's our choice. That’s no one else's choice. We want, we need to be in the league and it's a great league to be in. But, obviously, now it’s come to the point where every mid-week - we can't play midweek at home - so every mid-week game is away. We’re in the run-in to finish the season, we're away every mid-week and then obviously the odd Saturday, we’re away too. So, it'll be tough, but we’ve just got to do it one game at a time.”

Adding to this, Watson suggested that “it’s the only thing we can do at the minute, with two games a week now. Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday. We’ve just got to hope that everyone stays fit and free from injury, and we can deal with the problems as they come, if they do. Obviously, it's a bit different for us - we're travelling, we’ve got to get time off work, and maybe fatigue might set in towards the last few games, but we’ve just got to deal with that as it comes, I guess.”

Should there be any injury, fatigue or general problems, the person who would be tasked with adjusting appropriately is the gaffer. “We’ve got to just make sure that we can get players out every week. Our challenge, like every club with a number of games that are left over the next few weeks, is just to make sure we've got players that are fit and healthy, who can go and represent the club to the best of their ability. And we’ve had three or four carrying knocks from the first minute all the way through to 90th in some games. So we just need to assess. Everyone's probably going to be training very little this month, so we’re just making sure they've got enough in their locker to try and get some points on the board.”

With nearly two full seasons of NWCFL Premier Division, Paul Jones-managed football now passed for the club, and with the initial expectations of pushing for the play-off places having been pushed aside in both of these seasons by the increasing levels of competition in this division, will the 3rd time be the charm for the Ravens? Club secretary Craig Cowin did raise an interesting point about the ability of the club to continue producing players capable of driving up the division, harking back to the fact that the club are only able to sign players born in the Isle of Man, as covered in Part One.

“We might hit a ceiling with the players that are going to be available. I think you have to give a lot of credit to the local coaches as well, who are probably going under the radar a bit because we don't have any junior academies or anything. We have the training camps that we run occasionally, but we don't have them playing together constantly. So, the coaches who do the Junior football, and the under 16s and 18s, they need a lot of credit for the lads we get, because it's them - they're doing all the hard work as such, and then we're almost cherry picking the best ones from all that, and then putting them on our journey as well.”

Paul, Frank and Kyle all know how the club want to finish this season, and Craig knows that the club has local talent a-plenty, so it was left to Vice Chairman Lee Dixon to look further into the future. “I would like to think that, I'd say in five years’ time, if we could be out of this league, and if we can build something to allow us to move on. Then in 10 years’ time, if we could have got anywhere near getting into the Northern Premier League.

“I'm starting to think that might be where we could function well. By then, we'll have a much better understanding of what it takes to run the club month by month. We're becoming more and more aware of how we can save money, how we can bring more money in to support these players and the staff. But in realistic terms, I think we have to say in 10 years’ time, if we could be two leagues higher, I think it would be an enormous success. To still be functioning financially, to be sustainable, and to have helped our local lads move on into maybe higher levels of football.”

To reward the local players and staff members that help the club do the things that they do - including the players who take the field every week, the management team in the dugout, and all the volunteers behind the scenes – that would be the greatest success that the club can have, really. Everyone involved puts their all in to this project to help it succeed, and that even includes taking time to sit and answer questions from interested parties like myself.


Writing these articles and learning so much about this amazing, unique football club has been an absolute joy, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing co-operation of the club as a whole, and, namely, Lee Dixon, Craig Cowin, Paul Jones, Frank Jones, Kyle Watson, and, from part one, Russ Kent. And, another deserved shoutout goes to media man Callum Staley, who was instrumental in allowing me to speak to all these fantastic and insightful people involved at the Ravens. I can only wish them all the success in the world for the future.

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