This mattered. There is always a slight suspicion at annual showpiece sporting occasions that the important thing is less the result than the enacting of the ritual, but as Guernsey’s players cavorted on the pitch with hundreds of fans after their 2-1 victory over Jersey on Saturday, the depth of the emotion was clear. The Muratti Vase is not merely ceremonial: there is a desperate desire to win it, particularly if you are from Guernsey.
“When you come onto the pitch in this sort of parochial island mentality, Guernsey feels very local, very much Guernsey people,” said the Guernsey manager, Steve Sharman, his voice hoarse from a second half spent urging his players to get higher up the pitch. “All of our players would have been born on Guernsey, whereas Jersey players, it’s probably half maybe. So it’s in the blood. There’s people have been coming for 60, 70, 80 years and they might not watch another football match in the whole season but they’ll come to this because it’s more than football: it’s about community, about this island.”
Since the second world war, the final of the Muratti – named after the tobacco company that originally sponsored the competition – is staged alternately by Jersey and Guernsey, with the hosts playing the winner of a semi-final between the other side and Alderney.
Alderney football is improving and the last two years they have lost the semi-final, played on their small, sloping pitch, by a single goal.
Given they have won the competition only once, in 1920, and haven’t been in the final since 1938 when they were hosts, in practice the Muratti remains a one-off game between Guernsey and Jersey. After 101 editions, Jersey lead 53-46, with the Vase shared in 1937.
The highest-profile player to have appeared in a Muratti was probably Graeme Le Saux who was 18 when he helped Jersey to a 4-3 victory in 1987. Matt Le Tissier moved to Southampton before he could play for Guernsey, but all three of his brothers were regulars in the 80s.
The great cricket broadcaster John Arlott, who lived on Alderney, commentated on the game for several years from 1951, while Mike Dean refereed the game in 2002. Never one to shy from a big decision, he sent off Jersey’s Peter Edwards in the final minute.
The lore of the game, the sense of the history being passed from generation to generation, is part of the event but the Muratti now embodies a very modern debate. Six years ago, Guernsey joined the English football pyramid and, after two promotions, they now play in the Ryman South, seven levels below the Premier League. Although the Guernsey Football Association (GFA) have to contribute towards the travel costs of teams from the mainland, the manager of the club side, Tony Vance, who was serving half-time coffee on Saturday, is certain that has been hugely beneficial. “Playing 50 games a season,” he said, “has toughened us up. It’s made us stronger, especially in terms of match management.”
Jersey, meanwhile, applied for Uefa membership in December 2015 and, although their claim was rejected, an appeal will be heard by the court for arbitration in sport next month. The core issue is regular competitive football, but the two associations have gone about securing that in very different ways.
Few doubt that Guernsey have benefited from playing in the league. When they won the Muratti 4-1 in 2014, the sense was, as James Falla, a GFA director put it, “it was easy. We thought that’s the way it was going to be.” Two subsequent defeats – last year’s to a Jersey side under the former Aston Villa manager Brian Little – have obliterated that delusion, but the polarity has tipped.
Jersey is the larger island, with roughly double the population, and their players tend to be bigger than Guernsey’s, something that was obvious on Saturday. “The influx and the migration they have over there, they are physically bigger,” said Sharman. “It’s the same with the children. It’s well-known. They’re just bigger and stronger than we are.”
Guernsey were used to being underdogs, but league football has changed that. “We always are the smaller island,” said Sharman, “so we always feel we punch above our weight. It’s intrinsic. From when you are born over here, you are taken to the Murrati. You understand what green and white is. When we go over to Jersey, we take 600 to 700 fans. They bring 20 or 30. That’s nothing against them, but for us it’s at the core of our island mentality, which is really, really important.”
On Saturday, certainly, Guernsey began like the better side. Dominic Heaume nodded in a third-minute opener after Dave Rihoy’s shot had been saved and Ross Allen added a second after 20 minutes after seizing on a quick Rihoy throw. But then Guernsey fell back deeper and deeper, meaning that the final hour or so consisted almost entirely of Jersey launching balls into the box looking to exploit their height advantage, which they finally did with 14 minutes remaining as the substitute Karl Hinds bundled in a loose ball following a long throw.
So much for that match management. “Although we defended far too deep in the second half, we were together as a group,” Sharman said. “If you look at how many chances they bad, it was hardly any. We said to stay together, we’d worked really hard on that, our distances, but we needed to be 10 yards higher up the pitch.”
The technical details, or the debate over the best way for the islands to develop the game, you suspect meant little amid the explosion of relief at the final whistle. “This block of granite is very small,” Sharman said, “but it’s incredibly important to a lot of people.”