From an idea conceived over a decade ago, FC Isle of Man became a reality on 21st July 2020 having fulfilled criteria to be accepted into the North West Counties League Division 1 South, level 11 of the English football pyramid. In doing so, FC Isle of Man, nicknamed The Ravens, became the first ever offshore club to be represented in the NWCFL.
A small island sat on the Irish Sea between the north west coast of England and Ireland, The Ravens join Guernsey FC and Jersey Bulls as one of 3 ‘island’ teams in the English leagues.
Club chairman Carl Pope told BBC Sport, “It is a huge day for the football club. Being placed into a league has been the focus of the last two years of work. We will celebrate this milestone and the efforts required of all involved to date. Thanks also go to the wider Manx community who have already got behind this project.”
Chris Bass was appointed FC Isle of Man’s manager back in February 2020. Chris brought a wealth of experience to the position having managed Isle of Man league amateur side St Georges FC extremely successfully for over 30 years. During this period his record spoke for itself, winning 13 league titles and 9 Isle of Man FA Cups, some say he is the most successful club manager in Manx football history. Chris Bass said, “I am truly honoured to be given this opportunity to be asked to become FC Isle of Man Manager. It is probably the pinnacle of my career. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, so to get this opportunity is very exciting.”
The club has ambitious aims to be playing in EFL League 2 within 10-15 years and wants to produce players from the island good enough to play at that level.
The club announced the 3,000 all-seater facility The Bowl in Douglas would be their home stadium.
Intrigue and interest surrounded the club, their acceptance into the English leagues was reported far and wide. Legends like John Aldridge and Kevin Ratcliffe even offered their best wishes to FC Isle of Man.
Bass used the summer to recruit his inaugural FC Isle of Man squad. A mixture of the best players from the Isle of Man amateur leagues and promising youngsters. In all, 34 players signed the dotted line for the club, all islanders.
Bass chose right midfielder Mikey Keogh to be his captain. At 28, Mikey was the oldest and most experienced player at the club. A high energy vocal player who Bass hoped would inspire his teammates by his work rate alone.
Dutch striker Brian Esperance, was an experienced head at 27. Resident on the island since a child, Esperance had pace and had won the league title previously in the Isle of Man amateur leagues.
Centre-back Matt Furness was another well known figure in the Isle of Man amateur league, a no-nonsense defender standing tall at 6’7”, he had a reputation as one not to mess with.
A lot of the squad was made up of teenagers that many hoped would progress into fine players. The standout being 19 year old striker Nicky Foulkes who manager Chris Bass hoped would learn a lot from Esperance. Bass was encouraged by the quality of his teenagers, with 16 year old’s Lee McNeil (left sided utility player), Paul Main (left midfield), Lindon Nicholls (centre midfield) and Kenneth Mohammed (right midfield) all within a genuine shout for first team contention.
During the clubs opening pre-season friendlies, Bass opted for a pretty standard 4-4-2 formation, keeping things simple and just trying to get the best out of the players at his disposal.
The beginning of the North West Counties League Division 1 South was of course a big moment for FC Isle of Man. In the days leading up to the opening game, all the local papers reported on the upcoming fixture. Manager Chris Bass had been busy fielding phone interviews and for the first time ever the football was getting front page coverage. Bass told the Isle of Man Courier, “It’s great to be finally getting underway – I have been looking forward to this moment.”
The English leagues journey began for The Ravens on the Altrincham Road, Manchester at Wythenshawe Amateurs AFC on Saturday 8th August 2020. Hollyhedge Park was not a glamorous location by any stretch of the imagination. A tiny ground penned in-between a housing estate and garden allotments. Despite it being early August, it was Manchester, so therefore it was raining.
In the hour before kick off, it became clear from the amount of FC Isle of Man replica shirts in this little ground that Ravens fans outnumbered the home fans by at least 2 to 1 (the attendance was later confirmed as 116 with 75 of those FC Isle of Man supporters).
In the absence of club captain Mikey Keogh, cruelly missing out due to injury, it was 27 year old Dutch striker Brian Esperance who had the honour of leading out Isle of Man out onto the pitch for it’s first ever league game. The 75 travelling FC Isle of Man fans, a mini sea of red and black on the grassy bank behind the goals, proudly applauded and cheered the boys from their island. Tickertape, a red smoke flare and a home made banner with the clubs motto ‘Bee ny Sharf’ (Manx Gaelic for ‘Be Better’) made for a colourful scene. Photographers from the Non-League Paper and the Isle of Man Courier positioned themselves for a famous shot of the Ravens players entering the field of play that would no doubt adorn the walls at The Bowl for years to come.
The names of Tepperik, Bensmann, Adams, Furness, Braafheid, Mohammed, Nicholls, Gerrard, Main, Esperance and Foulkes would be forever set in legend as the 1st FC Isle of Man starting XI to ever play in the English leagues. A team made up completely of Manx island residents, a proud day for football on the island. As the referee blew his whistle, into the unknown went FC Isle of Man
After years of build-up and anticipation, it only took 3 minutes for FC Isle of Man to get off the mark. The Ravens had a free-kick 35 yards out from goal and the big lads were sent up to camp in the Wythenshawe box. Lindon Nicholls floated his kick to the far post towards centre-back Matt Furness, the obvious target at 6’7″. His head was not required but his large frame bullied the defender and he volleyed a lot shot just inside the post. What a start! Furness was a history maker, the honour of the first goal in the English leagues by an FC Isle of Man player was forever his. He ran to the fans behind the goal with his arms aloft before being mobbed by his teammates as well as the substitutes and all of the backroom staff who darted off down the touchline to join in. Only manager Chris Bass remained a cool head, now alone in the perspex dugout on the halfway line. It was probably a bit over the top but it was a big moment for the club after all.
Furness was celebrating again just 12 minutes later, a corner from teenage Kenneth Mohammed causing pandemonium in the Wythenshawe box and the big lad had a tap-in from a yard out. He was taking all by surprise, signed to be the rock at the back, here he was showing the rest how to put the ball in the back of the net. Ravens manager Chris Bass must have been delighted to think he had found a goalscoring centre-half.
Young striker Nicky Foulkes showed everyone his potential with a brace of nice finishes before the break. AFC Wythenshawe Amateurs managed to get one back but the game was done at half-time, 4-1 to the Ravens.
The final whistle blew after 4 minutes of stoppage time, the big moment was now complete. FC Isle of Man’s first day was now in the history books, never to be taken away. Most of the fans partied the night in Manchester with their flight home not until the following morning. A few sore heads and many a hangover were later reported.
Three days after the victorious occasion of the Ravens’ first ever league game and win, FC Isle of Man were given a sobering dose of reality when they visited title favourites Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port. A 1-0 defeat (should’ve been 2-0 but for a tight controversial offside call from the assistant referee) showed Bass and his squad of the levels they need to be hitting if they wanted to fulfill their ambition of promotion. The lads had to pick themselves up for another big occasion for the club on the near horizon…
Alsager Town had the honour of being the first visitors to The Bowl in Douglas on Wednesday 20th August 2020. It was an occasion that was highly anticipated. Club Chairman, Carl Pope told Manx Radio, “The club have hit quite a few milestones over the last few weeks and none are bigger than our very first league game at home.”
There were traffic jams along the Pulrose Road and surrounding streets in Douglas as supporters flocked to The Bowl for the first time to see FC Isle of Man. It seemed everybody turned up at the same time to try and get into the ground, of course, the new supporters were yet to work out their matchday routine for watching The Ravens, their new football team. Teething problems as you would expect, programmes sold out very quickly and long delays at the turnstiles but the McDonalds on the nearby Peel Road reported profits were up 150% before and after the game.
An impressive 486 supporters turned out at The Bowl to welcome their new team. The floodlghts were on nice and bright for the 7.45pm kick off with Alsager Town, the 4G synthetic surface glistening and looking pristine.
Despite all of the build up, the first half action was not pretty causing a quiet and subdued atmosphere in The Bowl. Alsager were awarded a penalty in the 36th minute after Ravens centre-back Shaun Adams wrestled Alsager’s striker Riley to the floor. Alsager’s Ryan Hibbert hit a firm low spot kick past Anton Tepperik to give the visitors the lead. The cheers of the Alsager players and staff echoed around The Bowl.
Manager Chris Bass must’ve had stern words during the break and FC Isle of Man came out with a bit of fight in them. A couple of promising attacks early doors in the 2nd period lifted the spirits of the crowd which must have resonated with the players. A switch must have been flicked on the hour mark leading to a crazy 5 minutes of action that will live long in the memory.
A hooked pass from left back Sersino Braafheid found striker Brian Esperance clear mid way in Alsager’s half. The Dutchman ran positively at goal and slid a low shot into the bottom corner for the equaliser. For the first time ever, the spectators were on their feet in The Bowl celebrating an FC Isle of Man goal, what a moment, the volume was unbelievable. The chorus of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ by Black Eyed Peas was played through the PA system as The Ravens players celebrated with Esperance near to the corner flag.
Just 1 minute later The Black Eyed Peas were back as Nicky Foulkes got on the end an inch perfect through ball from teenage left midfielder Paul Main to power home past the Alsager keeper. Isle of Man had turned it around in the blink of an island eye. It had taken The Ravens just 15 seconds to win possession back from Alsager’s kick off. For the Isle of Man fans, it was fitting that Douglas born Nicky Foulkes, truly one of their own, had got on the scoresheet,
It got even better 3 minutes later, Paul Main again supplying Foulkes for a near identical finish as his last goal for 3-1. It was a party like atmosphere in The Bowl and a chant of “We love you Ravens, we do!” was generated from nowhere by just pure emotion from the home fans.
The heads of the Alsager Town players visibly dropped and amazingly, just 1 minute after the 3rd goal FC Isle of Man had a 4th! This time Esperance supplied a cross for substitute Alex Redman to simply sidefoot into the net. People needed time for all of this to sink in and opportunity to allow their heads to process what had just unfolded.
Those 5 minutes had been scintillating, never to be forgotten moments, stuff of legend maybe, certainly historical. Chairman Carl Pope beamed with pride from the stand yards behind the dugouts. Could he promise feelgood action of this ridiculous level every week, of course he couldn’t, but it all helped in selling the dream of FC Isle of Man to the natives.
As the groundstaff swept the now empty stands after the game, the scoreboard in the background read ‘RAVENS 4, ALSAGER 2’. The floodlights were turned off and the darkness of the Douglas night enveloped The Bowl, home of FC Isle of Man proud members of the North West Counties League Division 1 South. It brings a tear to the eye.
The first month in the life of FC Isle of Man was complete and the outlook was certainly positive. After just 5 games, the club sat in 4th position. 4 wins and 1 defeat (to title favourites Vauxhall Motors) and not forgetting, 4 of those games had been played away from home.
The big success story had been 19 year old Douglas born striker Nicky Foulkes who had managed to get his name on the scoresheet 7 times in those 5 games. On 25th August 2020, Nicky had the honour of becoming the first FC Isle of Man player to register a hat-trick against Abbey Hey in a 4-1 win. His family was proud, as well as everybody at the club.
Another big plus for the club’s hierarchy was the fact FC Isle of Man supporters had outnumbered opposition fans in all games so far, home and away. Great credit to the Ravens fans, the effort of following this team involved flights or ferries at great expense.
The FA Vase 1st Qualifying Round on 19th September 2020 took the Ravens to north Devon in the south west corner of mainland England to face Torrington of the South West Peninsula League Premier Division East. Another ‘first’ for the club, it’s debut in an official F.A. competition.
Compared to away days experienced so far in Manchester (twice), Ellesmere and Ellesmere Port, this one in Devon provided a more rural and picturesque setting for the supporters in the village of Torrington. A lovely little place, with a quaint high street complete with bunting and an old church with a lovely steeple, postcard stuff. Just a minibus load of Raven fans made the journey this time but they were in for another momentous day.
Matt Furness was beginning to make a habit of writing his name into the the history books of FC Isle of Man. This time he added the honour of scoring the club’s 1st goal in an F.A. cup competition. Brian Esperance became the 1st player to score 4 goals in 1 game and unfortunately 16 year old left midfielder Paul Main became the 1st Raven to receive a red card. Still, a comfortable 5-1 win and the long journey from Douglas to Torrington via Bristol Airport was all worth it.
Closer to home, progress was made in the North West Counties League Challenge Cup after beating New Mills 2-1 away from home in the 1st Round only to go and lose to the same opposition 3 days later at home in the league.
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That league defeat left FC Isle of Man 7th in the table. If there was any criticism to be labelled at Bass’s side, it’s that they conceded way too many goals. Bass was reportedly looking at improving the situation, but with only small and weak teenagers at his disposal on the island, it looked like he may have to resort to looking at central defenders from the mainland, not the ideal situation and certainly not in line with the club’s long term vision.
An opportunity to really test the mettle of Chris Bass’s squad arose when they visited 1874 Northwich of the North West Counties Premier League, the division above, in the FA Vase 2nd Qualifying Round on 10th October 2020.
The Ravens passed their test with probably the most impressive performance in their short history so far. Once again Matt Furness, with his giant 6’7″ frame proving pivotal with 2 headed goals from pinpoint corner deliveries from 16 year old right midfielder Kenneth Mohammed. Final score 1874 Northwich 0-3 FC Isle of Man. Into the 1st Round proper of the FA Vase at the first attempt.
Opinion was divided on 24th October 2020 when The Ravens travelled to Oswestry, Shropshire to face 2nd placed St.Martins. Chris Bass had made a new signing in central defence with the arrival of 26 year old free agent Alex Morris from mainland England. Born in Wolverhampton, Alex had spent the previous 7 days on trial at FC Isle of Man and impressed sufficiently to be offered a £20 a week contract until the end of the season. At 6’6″ tall, Morris would surely be a great partner for the popular giant Matt Furness at 6’7″. Moriss was also well experienced in a decent standard of English non-league having played previously for the likes of Hednesford Town and Hinckley United.
Morris’ pedigree sounded great, but he wasn’t an ‘islander’ and this caused debate amongst fans. Manager Chris Bass was having none of it, “We’ve conceded 18 goals in 15 games which isn’t going to be good enough for us to succeed. It was always the plan to bring in suitable new players from the mainland if we didn’t have the quality on the Isle of Man. I only want best for the club.”
This was a big game for the club if they wanted to keep pace with the early pacesetters (Vauxhall Motors were 8 points clear at the top by now).
St.Martins played at Park Hall Stadium in Oswestry which they shared with The New Saints of Welsh football fame. It was easily the best stadium The Ravens were to play in during the 2020/21 season (excluding our very own The Bowl of course).
It was going swimmingly for The Ravens, 3-1 up, thanks to 2 goals from Nicky Foulkes, and looking good to take all 3 hard-earned points back home with them across the Irish Sea.
Ravens keeper Edwin Tepperik unfortunately had a 10 minutes to forget, which to the anger of manager Chris Bass, cost FC Isle of Man 2 points.
First of all, a howler of a pass straight to St.Martins’ striker Liam Jarvie lurking on the edge of the box. Jarvie had a simple run on goal, rounded Tepperik and reduced the deficit to 3-2 with just 2 minutes to play. The Ravens had been well in control and just needed to see the final minutes out, perhaps by keeping the ball like they had done so well all game.
However, seconds before the final whistle was due to blow, the Isle of Man keeper had a catastrophic rush of blood to his head. The hopeful cross from out wide was way too high for a header and the outstreched hands of Edwin Tepperik should have caressed the ball with ease. Ideally, with ball safely in hands, Tepperik should have fallen to his chest smothering the ball and wasted a few more seconds before launching the ball high and long for the imminent final whistle. This didn’t happen and instead he fumbled the ball like his gloves were slicked in butter and it fell to the feet of Liam Jarvie. The St.Martins no.9 simply walked the ball into an unguarded goal for the equaliser, it was a gift. Unforgivable. If Bass had doubts about Tepperik’s ability before this game, they were cast in stone now.
Watching on from the bench was 2nd choice keeper Jordan Davidson, 17 years old, yet to see action, but that was soon to change.
Chris Bass lost his top goalscorer Brian Esperance (19 goals in 19 games, all competitions) in the North West Counties League Division 1 Challenge Cup 2nd Round game at Ashton Town on 21st November 2020. Limping off with a swollen ankle, club physio Rob Richards later ruled Esperance out for about 2 months. Now would be the test for Bass’s tactics and it remained to be seen whether they had been too reliant on the 27 year old Dutchman.
Waiting in the wings was 16 year old Douglas born youth teamer Jean-Jacques Foulds, he’d been limited to 5 sub appearances for the Ravens 1st team and had yet to score a goal.
Foulds made his 1st start 3 days later at Bootle in the North West Counties League Challenge Cup 3rd Round. A tough game against a team going well in the NWCL Premier (9th). Captain Keogh put the Ravens in front, but after the exerts of extra time just 3 days before with only 10 men at Ashton, the lads tired and predictably Bootle scored a 90th minute winner.
Foulds scored his 1st goal for the club at The Bowl in the 3-1 win against Eccleshall on 28th November but Bass wasn’t convinced. With 8 games coming up in a busy December, Bass decided to bring in Akeem Smith, 19 years old pacey aggressive striker, another non-islander. He was once a youth team player at Nuneaton Borough but failed to break through. He’d been without a club since 2019 but Bass had him on trial in Douglas back in September and had seen enough then but couldn’t really justify bringing in another striker at that point. Like Esperance, he was quick and physical with it.
He threw Akeem Smith straight into the starting XI for the midweek trip to Cheadle Heath Nomads on 2nd December . It’s a good job he did too, as Nicky Foulkes, scorer of 14 goals himself already, limped off in the first half with a thigh strain adding to the strikers injury list. By half-time, Smith had bagged 2 and it looked like Bass was justified in stretching the already over exceeded wage budget by another £20 per week to bring him in. Foulkes himself was ruled out for 5-7 weeks.
The FA Vase 2nd Round at Stockton Town in the North East of England was always going to be a difficult day. Stockton had pedigree in the competition, runners-up to Chertsey Town on a sunny Wembley day back in 2018. It was always going to be difficult without 3 key players Matt Furness (suspended), Brian Esperance (twisted ankle) and Paul Foulkes (thigh strain).
A 4-1 defeat saw FC Isle of Man suffer the clubs biggest defeat to date. Still, the run to the 2nd Round had earned the club nearly £2,500.
Club captain Mikey Keogh had been the poster boy FC Isle of Man over the past couple of months. His face plastered many a billboard from Douglas to Castletown, Ramsey to Peel, Port Erin to Laxey and everywhere in between as he looked to help drum up interest in the fledgling club.
On the pitch, Keogh had been one of those lads that would put his body on the line during games and run himself into the ground, giving his all for the cause of FC Isle of Man. On one sleeve was his captain’s armband whilst his heart adorned the other. Although not born on the island, (born in Ballinrobe, Ireland), Mikey had lived on the Isle of Man since he was a young child and was proud to say so. With Mikey leading the team out week in week out, captain armband worn proudly and his Irish voice heard bellowing instructions for 90 minutes, the team felt in safe hands. Of course, when main striker and chief penalty taker Brian Esperance went down with injury, it was Mikey that put his hand up to accept responsibility for spot kicks too.
November and December proved to be a ridiculous spell for Keogh who showed almost ‘superhuman’ levels of performance. Playing in the winger role in right midfield, Keogh was up and down the touchline, never shirking his defensive responsibilities but also going the extra yard to get himself into a goalscoring opportunity. His crazy run began in the FA Vase win over Epsom & Ewell on 1st November, scoring a brace to set the boys for up for a 3-0 win. Another 2 goals followed 3 days later against Stockport Town.
Keogh’s really crazy period began on 21st November 2020, scoring in the 4-2 extra time win over Ashton Town in the North West Counties League Challenge Cup. Goals then followed in each of FC Isle of Man’s games against, Bootle, Eccleshall, Cheadle Heath Nomads, Stockton Town and Maine Road. During this time he firmly established himself as the face of FC Isle of Man, a true fan favourite in the early days at The Bowl.
Mikey’s body finally gave way on 14th December 2020 just 2 days after scoring against Cammell Laird 1907 in the 5-1 win in the league. A sports hernia problem reared it’s ugly head and he was forced to sit out the next 2 months on the sidelines.
The Ravens were at home on Boxing Day for a big fixture with title favourites Vauxhall Motors, arguably the biggest club in the division who had a recent history of playing in the Conference North and a famous FA Cup penalty shoot-out win over Queens Park Rangers back in 2002. Although they had ‘downsized’ in recent years after resigning from the Conference due to financial constraints, the ‘Motormen’ had a legacy FC Isle of Man had aspirations for.
With 2 automatic promotion spots up for grabs in the NWCL Division 1 South, this wasn’t quite in the ‘do or die’ bracket just yet, but a key fixture all the same. Dutch striker Brian Esperance was now back in contention after his injury lay-off and there were high hopes of a big result for The Ravens.
Despite going behind to a 10th minute penalty, The Ravens battled back, Akeem Smith scoring twice to give FC Isle of Man the lead just before half-time.
With over 500 fans inside The Bowl for this festive fixture, the atmosphere was one of the best yet experienced by the club. Shouts of ‘We are going up!’ were sung out by the 79th minute following Greg Furlong-Kirkpatrick’s goal to make it 4-1 to The Ravens.
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A big result which sent out a message to the league, certainly opened up the race and got everyone at the club believing promotion was a real possibility in their debut season.
FC Isle of Man hit top spot in the league for the first time on 6th January 2021 after a convincing 5-0 win at home over Abbey Hey. Striker Brian Esperance was now back from his injury and looked sharp after hitting a hat-trick.
A gap of 4 points now separated the top 3 from 4th spot and it was looking like it was going to be a 3 horse race for promotion. FC Isle of Man, Wythenshawe Town and favourites Vauxhall Motors were the contenders.
With all things finally going well in the league, FC Isle of Man had the perhaps not so welcome distraction of a NWCL Division 1 League Cup 3rd Round tie in Huddersfield against Golcar United on 9th January 2021. Once again, marvellous travelling support from the Isle of Man with 44 fans making the journey for what was to be a dramatic afternoon and the club’s last chance of cup glory this season.
After 61 minutes, centre-back Matt Furness made good use of his 6’7” frame to head home a Kenneth Mohammed corner to make it 3-0 to The Ravens. For those following the game on social media back on the island, it looked like game over.
For the 44 fans, the players and the staff present at Longfield Avenue, they knew it had been a hard earned lead. Golcar had been in this game from the off, having more possession and creating more chances, hitting the post twice and not quite having the rub of the synthetic surface.
The home side went on to win 2 penalties and convert them both but the turning point was the sending off of FC Isle of Man’s Paul Main, the hot-headed 17 year old’s 2nd red card of the season.
Down to 10 men and all subs used, the inevitable happened and an 89th minute equaliser materialised for Golcar, a hammer blow for Isle of Man.
Extra time went the same way, with The Ravens having held on until the 118th minute, keeper Jordan Davidson was disappointingly beaten at his near post. He lay faced down on the floor for an eternity after the ball went in, he knew it was a costly mistake. A tough one for the 17 year old keeper to take. Final score, 3-4.
With all cup commitments now over for the season, it was now just a matter of 15 games for FC Isle of Man to finish the job in the league.
Mikey Keogh made his comeback appearance at Barnton Town on 16th January 2021 having missed the previous 7 games due to his hernia injury. It was textbook Keogh, the doctor said he should be out for 2 months yet here he was making his comeback after just half of that time. The 58 Ravens fans at Barnton gave him a warm reception and made it known there was only just the ‘one’ Mikey Keogh.
Typically, Keogh scored, albeit from the penalty spot in the 36th minute, but it made it 8 goals in consecutive games for him, surely a record that will last for a long time in the history of FC Isle of Man. His high energy display meant he could only last just the 1st half, but he inspired a 6-0 win for the Ravens on the road, the clubs biggest win to date.
There had been a number of ‘big’ games at The Bowl over the past season, primarily because it was a season of firsts. First league game, first cup game etc, but the match with 3rd placed Wythenshawe Town on 6th March 2021 had real meaning with promotion truly at stake. Only 1 point seperated FC Isle of Man in 1st place (67 points) with Wythenshawe in 3rd (66 points). Vauxhall Motors were sandwiched in-between, also on 67 points but their goal difference was 10 shy of FC Isle of Man’s.
The Ravens were without young midfielder Lincoln Nicholls due to suspension, a favourite of Bass and of the fans being a Douglas born player. The 17 year old had been a creative spark in the centre of midfield and one of the first names on the teamsheet, how much would the young man be missed?. Questions were also raised over Mikey Keogh, he hadn’t been the same player since his hernia injury, no goals or assists in recent weeks but Bass kept faith with his captain who always tried hard.
Wythenshawe Town’s 32 year old striker Deane Smalley had been singled out as the dangerman for Ravens defenders Matt Furness and Alex Morris to keep an eye on. Smalley was a lad with over 10 years of Football League experience with Oldham, Newport, Chesterfield and Rochdale amongst others on his CV.
The fixture had captured the imagination of the public and a record crowd of 635 supporters attended the Bowl. There was healthy tension in the air coupled with a drop of anticipation and the smell of sizzling burgers at the food stand, this is how a football match should feel.
Francis Gerrard gave The Ravens an early lead after 3 minutes, rifling a shot at the near post. The Bowl was full of feelgood emotion, you had to feel for the 2 travelling Wythenshawe Town supporters who were stood motionless and silent in the corner.
Wythenshawe Town didn’t throw in the towell after conceding early and proved to be capable opponents in an end-to-end even first half.
True to form, Wyhthenshawe’s Dean Smalley, couldn’t be subdued and his quality came to the fore with an excellent headed goal, his 28th of the season in the 52nd minute.
Captain Mikey Keogh was largely disappointing in the 1st half but grew into the game, creating a chance for Smith and going close himself with a header. He was eventually subbed off when he tired though and Kenneth Mohammed’s teenage energy was a welcome addition to the ranks.
The top of the table clash finished 1-1, a missed opportunity for The Ravens but an entertaining afternoon all the same. Suffering the thrills and spills of competitive football action is what the people of Isle of Man wanted after all.
Vauxhall Motors were the true victors of the day with a 3-1 win over Barnton to give themselves a 2 point cushion at the top. Bass hoped Wyhtenshawe Town’s continued involvement in the NWCL League Challenge Cup would be to their detriment in the long term. Vauxhall Motors on the other hand had a clear run-in, including games against 2 of the current bottom 3 sides.
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On 27th March 2021, with just 5 games to go, serious doubts were cast on The Ravens’ promotion hopes as they faced Cheadle Heath Nomads at The Bowl.
Chris Bass had a central defence crisis with all 3 of his 1st team centre backs ruled out due to suspension. This position had become the rock of the team, Alex Morris and Matt Furness both 6’6″ or just over, offered a physical protective barrier to the young FC Isle of Man goalkeeper Jordan Davidson. The backup Shaun Adams got himself sent off in the 2-0 win over Eccleshall the previous week meaning schoolboys Colin Harvey (16) and Walter Whyte (15!) had to step-in as an emergency. Young Walter became the youngest ever player to appear for the club so far, he would have a tale to tell his school chums the following Monday morning.
Thankfully, a 3rd minute goal by Akeem Smith settled any tension at The Bowl early doors and set The Ravens onto a comfortable 4-1 win. Cheadle Heath Nomads were a poor side but enough to test young Harvey and Whyte, who both picked up yellow cards in the game. In fact, Harvey bagged a goal in the 50th minute, heading home from a corner. A big result considering the absentees and it cemented belief that FC Isle of Man looked certain for promotion. News came through that results in the Vauxhall Motors and Wythenshawe Town games had gone favourably for The Ravens too.
The only downside was Mikey Keogh limping off with a groin strain that this time would definitely end his season. Would he ever be the same player again?
On Friday 2nd April 2021, it was released to the press that manager Chris Bass had signed a new 2 year deal at FC Isle of Man. Not really much of a surprise given the way the season had gone and a timely boost just before they travelled to Abbey Hulton. Bass told the Isle of Man Courier, “I’m pleased to have been given the opportunity to continue what I’ve started here.”
It was Easter Bank Holiday weekend and many of the FC Isle of Man supporters decided to stay at home on the pitcuresque island for the holidays rather than travel to the gloomy industrial wastelands of Stoke-on-Trent. For the 36 that did travel, they witnessed goals and a big moment in FC Isle of Man history.
Confidence was running so high in the squad, without a defeat since 9th December 2020, the result was never in question. The Ravens ran out comfortable 4-2 winners at Abbey Hulton. The big focus was on the live Twitter feed coming from Wythenshawe Town who were entertaining Cammel Laird 1907 at home. Anything but a win for Wythenshawe would secure promotion for FC Isle of Man mathematically.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon came at about 4.40pm when Cammel Laird scored an 85th minute goal to make it 2-2. Laird’s Irish striker Noel Donnelan looked to have put the final nail in the coffin on Wythenshawe’s promotion bid.
Minutes later the final whistle was blown at Birches Head Road, Abbey Hulton, Stoke-on-Trent followed shortly by confirmation via Twitter of the final whistle at Kirklands Stadium, Birkenhead, Liverpool home of Cammel Laird 1907. Promotion to the North West Counties Premier League was rubber stamped, job done.
Celebrations were muted, Chris Bass ushered his team away from the travelling Ravens fans before things had opportunity to get out of hand. With 3 games to go, Bass wanted the league title.
Both FC Isle of Man and Vauxhall Motors won their following 2 games which took the chase for the North West Counties League Division 1 South title down to the final day on Saturday 24th April 2021.
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The Ravens had a 1 point lead and a 14 goal advantage in goal difference before even mentioning being 20 games undefeated. FC Isle of Man had the advantage of playing in front of a bumper crowd at home at the Bowl against 10th placed Stone Old Alleynians whilst The Motormen were travelling to 16th placed Sandbach. The odds were certainly stacked against Vauxhall Motors. But this is football, the most unpredictable and greatest game in the world. Headlines are there to be written and drama likes to show it’s face in this beautiful game of ours more often than not.
In the days leading up to the game the management staff at The Bowl had got their calculators out and the working out had been done;
If FC Isle of Man beat Stone OA, FC Isle of Man won the league title, simple.
If Vauxhall Motors lost against Sandbach, FC Isle of Man won the league title, also simple.
If FC Isle of Man drew with Stone OA and Vauxhall Motors beat Sandbach, the title goes to the Motormen.
If Vauxhall Motors drew with Sandbach and FC Isle of Man lost 15-0 to Stone OA, Motors win the league. Never going to happen.
Anticipation for the fixture had been building during the week, helped by coverage in the local media. Bass told the Isle of Man Courier, “I think we can do it. We’ve worked hard all season to be in this position and we’re going to try to finish by lifting the title.”
Meanwhile, Vauxhall Motors manager Chris Marshall spoke of FC Isle of Man in an interview with BBC Radio Manchester, “It’s going to be a tense and nerve wracking day but I think we can do it. They (FC Isle of Man) are a good side and I expect them to do well against Stone Old Alleynians.”
The season ended at The Bowl like it had started on that first evening in August with traffic chaos all around the nearby streets. A record crowd of 685 made their way to the stadium to hopefully be witness to the first league title won by FC Isle of Man.
Akeem Smith put the Ravens in front after 2 minutes, getting on the end of left back Lee McNeil’s long throw into the box. Nerves were now settled, a brass band dressed in FC Isle of Man’s outrageous white and sky blue away shirts played joyous songs. It was a party atmosphere in The Bowl, smiley faces all around.
Half-time and all was good. Sandbach were beating Vauxhall Motors 1-0. Only 45 more minutes to sit through before FC Isle of Man were crowned champions. Everything was running as smooth as a marble worktop.
Football wouldn’t be football if it didn’t offer a little bit of drama. 3 minutes into the second half and Stone Old Alleynians got an unlikely equaliser against the run of play. A free kick was lumped into the Isle of Man box and Stone striker Dean Thexton headed home his 25th goal of the season. 6’7″ defender Matt Furness could only watch on from the bench in his tracksuit having not quite recovered from a recent injury. That wouldn’t have happened if he had been on the pitch.
Suddenly, this game was a contest again, attention turned to the Vauxhall Motors game against Sandbach, this was now an issue. But it was okay, Sandbach were still winning 1-0.
10 minutes later, the brass band went quiet and tension in the crowd became more apparent. The hum of content conversation turned into desperate shouts of encouragement. News spread like wildfire that Vauxhall Motors had been awarded a 58th minute penalty at Sandbach and duly scored. The title was back in the balance. The Isle of Man supporters knew they had become complacent and were required once again to support their team.
In the 69th minute, youngster Paul Main broke down the left flank into the box and laid a square ball right across the 6 yard line to Kenneth Mohammed. The Stone keeper was caught wrong-footed at the near post and Mohammed had a simple tap-in. The party was back on!
In reality, that goal killed off Stone Old Alleynians and their players looked resigned to being the 21st victim of the Ravens’ unbeaten run. To their credit, Stone had battled hard to stay in the game this long but their race was now over.
Akeem Smith finished the game with a goal in the 85th minute with the Stone OA players definitely ‘on the beach’, a low shot into the bottom corner. The brass band stroke up the tune of Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ only for it to be drowned out by the more simplistic chant of “Champ-io-nees. Ole. Ole. Ole!” from the home supporters.
Just shy of 10 minutes later, the referee had his hands in the air and whistle to his mouth. FC Isle of Man were confirmed Champions of the North West Counties League Division 1 South.
Emotional scenes all around The Bowl. Manager Chris Bass embraced all of his backroom staff in a group hug near the halfway line. Chairman Carl Pope was seen wiping away tears as local dignitaries congratulated him in the stand behind the dugouts. The supporters were on the pitch in a good-natured pitch invasion mobbing the players, their local heroes.
Order was restored 15 minutes later. Captain Mikey Keogh, in true John Terry style, was in full-kit including shin-pads as he went to collect the trophy despite not setting foot on the pitch for the last month due to injury. Nobody cared and nobody wanted to take away his moment. The NWCL Div 1 South trophy was thrust into the air, history had been made.
The party went on into the early hours around the bars of Douglas. A great achievement for the squad of local lads. It may have only been the North West Counties League Division 1 South, but the English league journey had begun and every football fan on the island was excited as to where it may go.
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