Isles of Scilly: Runaway cows and Beckham visits – life in the world’s smallest league

When Anthony Gibbons signed up for a Sunday morning kickabout, he had no idea it would lead to him becoming David Beckham’s body double.

However, it turns out that playing in the world’s smallest league is not as predictable as it appears.

The Woolpack Wanderers and Garrison Gunners are the only two teams in the Isles of Scilly Football League. Not only do the teams compete in 18 league games per season, but they also compete in two annual cup competitions, both of which are two-legged affairs with no away goals rule, and a Charity Shield-style exhibition.

The duopoly makes it the world’s smallest league of its kind. Because both teams are registered to St Mary’s, a club on the eponymous island in the archipelago off the Cornish coast, it is technically an intra-club league.

That hasn’t stopped international attention and a slew of celebrity visitors, including the day Beckham swapped Los Angeles Galaxy for the remoteness of the isles, and Gibbons stepped in to fill the former England captain’s boots.

“That’s my claim to fame,” Gibbons says.

However, being a part of a uniquely familiar rivalry comes close.

Short grey line for presentation
It wasn’t always like this. Prior to the 1950s, there were four teams competing for glory and hardware.

However, an aging and dwindling population has put the league under strain. The population of the Isles of Scilly fell by 6.8% between 2011 and 2021. Over the same time period, the median age of those who remained increased from 46 to 50 years old.

Only the Wanderers and the Gunners remain.
Every Sunday morning between October and Easter, the two teams compete on the same pitch with the same players wearing the same uniforms.

“It’s a bit ridiculous, like the old cliche of ‘can we play you every week?'” says Will Lethbridge, who grew up on the islands and has played in the league for several years.

“People wonder if it gets boring or repetitive, but it’s good to run around and have some fun. Many of us are friends who have known each other since elementary school, so it’s as much about socializing as it is about sporting competition.

“You know which foot certain players prefer, if they like to cut in and turn, what their strengths and weaknesses are, but there have also been a few slightly testy tackles.

“This year, there have been a few more yellow cards and the odd confrontation, so there is some competition and a bit of needle, but there are no long-standing rivalries, punch-ups, or anything like that – it’s all pretty much forgiven by the time the final whistle goes.”

To keep things interesting, no player is assigned to a team at the start of each season. Instead, the two captains for that year select new squads in the same way that schoolchildren do on the playground, taking turns until no players remain. The order of the selections is kept secret to avoid informing the last picks when they were chosen – after all, with only 2,100 residents on the islands, the league can’t afford to irritate any players.

Because the teams switch every year, most players have no special affinity for one of the two, though Lethbridge claims there are some “superstitious” stalwarts who claim to perform better for one or the other.

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