The Northern Isles: My Initial Delve Into Orkney Islands Football

Introduction

For previous blogs on island football, find the links below:

As I have mentioned in previous blogs on this site, I am fascinated with football clubs and leagues that are played on islands. Having naturally been somewhat isolated from the football scene on the mainland, I am always interested to see what the football culture is like on such islands, and which teams are the strongest in their respective island leagues.

In this edition of the island series, I am venturing up to Scotland’s northern frontier, to a group of islands situated 10 miles off the coast of Caithness, and just north of John O’Groats (one of Britain’s traditional ending or starting points, depending on your point of view). Despite its close proximity to the Scottish mainland, they are islands which have a strong Viking and Norse culture, but also have an abundance of Neolithic sites on the islands. So much so that the collection of neolithic locations have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s time to investigate the historical Orkney Islands…

 

Orkney Islands

Orkney, the Orkney Islands, Orkneyjar in Old Norse, or Arcaibh in Scottish Gaelic are an island chain located off the northern coast of Scotland. There are about 70 islands which form the archipelago, although only 20 of them are inhabited, culminating in a total population of around 22,100 people living on Orkney. The largest and most populous of the islands is Mainland, which is the tenth largest island in the British Isles. The islands’ capital, Kirkwall / Kirkwaa / Bàgh na h-Eaglaise, is located roughly in the middle of Mainland, and is home to around 9,300 people. It is also home to the ‘traditional football game’ called the Ba’ Game!

Along with their northern neighbours, the Shetland Islands, the islands were originally occupied by Mesolithic, Neolithic and Pictish tribes, before the islands were colonised and then annexed to the Norwegian crown in 875. They became part of the Norse vassal Kingdom of the Isles, with the Orkneys and Shetlands being known as the Norðr-eyjar or North Isles of the Kingdom. Extensive Norse settlement can be clearly identified in the place names on the islands, which are typically Viking in origin.

The Orkney Islands became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in 1472 as part of the dowry when Margaret (the daughter of the Norwegian and Danish King Christian I) was betrothed to James III of Scotland. Traditionally, the islands were a prime agricultural location due to its fertile soil, but the islands’ main source of income came from the fishing industry, with access to the North Sea and northern Atlantic fish stocks within reach. It was also the site of the large Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, which was an important natural harbour for the British fleet. Despite the base closing in 1956, the site is now a world-renowned location for underwater diving due to the Imperial German fleet scuttling at the site after the conclusion of World War I.

Orkney Flag
The flag of the Orkney Islands

Even though the islands are considered part of Scotland, and thus under the auspices of the Scottish Football Association (SFA), Orkney does have a representative football team for the islands, which is organised by the Orkney Amateur Football Association (OAFA). The side is not affiliated with FIFA or UEFA, or even CONIFA (although they would surely be an acceptable member should they wish to join CONIFA in the future) but play in the Island Games football tournaments (and have done since 2005). Most players selected in these squads either play for teams in the Orkney Amateur Football League, and/or for Orkney Football Club (who play in the North Caledonian League). The leagues and the football team will be looked at further.

 

Orkney Football League

Brief History & Structure

Orkney AFA v2As with many other northern European football leagues, the Orkney football season is played within the same calendar year, and throughout the spring and summer months. The season starts with the Newlands Cup in April, before the league campaigns start in early May, with the season concluding by mid-September. This is before the rougher Autumnal weather conditions affect the archipelago.

The Orkney Football League structure is divided into two main leagues – the top-tiered “A League” and the second-tier “B League”. There is also an eight team reserve league present. This system has been in effect since 2008, when originally the structure was in three leagues and the reserve teams competed within Division 2 and 3 of the Orkney football pyramid. The football league is organised by the Orkney Amateur Football Association (OAFA).

The A League currently has eight teams competing within the league, who play each other home and away resulting in a fourteen game league campaign for every A League team. Obviously the team with the most points at the end of the year, wins the league trophy, whilst the team who finishes bottom of the league, is relegated to the B League. There is only one relegation spot from the top tier.

The B League currently have just five teams competing within the league, and they play each other three times to finish the league campaign having played twelve games. Because there are so few teams, unsurprisingly there is no relegation. However the B League champion does get promoted to the following year’s A League, to be replaced by the A League’s eighth-placed team for the following year.

Throughout the season, there are a number of cup competitions that are played on the islands which involve Orkney League teams:

  • Cooke Aquaculture Isaac Newlands Cup: One of the first cups of the year, played in April and May.
  • Scottish Sea Farms Craigmyle Cup: The league cup for A League teams.
  • Pipedream Plumbing Oxy Cup: A cup for just B League teams, played in June.
  • Alfred Flett Ltd Thomson Cup: Another league cup for just B League teams, played in July.
  • Highland Industrial Supplies Heddle Cup: The main cup competition played for by all the Orkney League teams.
  • Jolly Cup: Played in late August.
  • Orcadian Parish Cup: Not competed by the clubs, but by the parishes around the islands. Players can only play for the parishes for which they come from or live in.

 

Past Winners of the Orkney A League

Below is the list of the A League winners since 2005:

  • 2005: Thorfinn
  • 2006: Rovers
  • 2007: Hotspurs
  • 2008: Rovers
  • 2009: Thorfinn
  • 2010: Thorfinn
  • 2011: Rovers
  • 2012: Rovers
  • 2013: Rovers
  • 2014: Rovers
  • 2015: Rovers
  • 2016: Thorfinn
  • 2017: Thorfinn
  • 2018: Thorfinn
  • 2019: Hotspurs

Kirkwall RoversSince 2005 (from which the official website only details its history from), only three teams have won the Orkney A League, and all of them are based in the islands’ capital of Kirkwall; Thorfinn, Rovers and Hotspurs. Rovers have been the most successful team since 2005, having won the league seven times, including a dominant period of five league consecutive titles between 2011 and 2015. Thorfinn have won the title on six occasions, including an impressive three-in-a-row after Rovers’ dominant period, from 2016 to 2018. However the current defending champions are Hotspurs, who won only their second title, and first in 12 years, by claiming the 2019 championship title.

 

Current Orkney League Teams

A majority of the Orkney League sides are based in the capital, with six teams playing their home games in Kirkwall. All the teams play on Mainland island, with the exception of Barriers United who play on the southern island of South Ronaldsay. Rendall are the furthest northern team on Mainland, whilst Stromness are the most westernly-based side on the islands.

The eight teams competing in the 2020 Orkney A League are the following:

Orkney Football Map - A League
The locations of the 2020 A League teams on the Orkney Islands. [NOTE: I could not find Rendall’s badge]
  • Dounby Athletic
  • Isles United
  • Kirkwall Accies
  • Kirkwall Hotspurs
  • Kirkwall Thorfinn
  • Kirkwall Rovers
  • Rendall FC
  • Stromness Athletic

 

The five teams competing in the 2020 Orkney B League are the following:

Orkney Football Map - B League
The locations of the 2020 B League teams on the Orkney Islands. [NOTE: I could not find the Harray and Barriers United badges]
  • Barriers United
  • East United
  • Firth FC
  • Harray FC
  • Kirkwall Wanderers

 

2019 Orkney League

2019 Orkney A League Table
The 2019 Orkney A League table. [IMAGE: Orkney AFA Website]

The season started with the league having two fewer teams as South Ronaldsay (who finished bottom of the 2018 A League) and Burray (who finished third in the 2018 B League) failed to reappear to compete in the 2019 editions.

Kirkwall HotspursAs stated previously, Hotspurs won their first A League title in twelve years by claiming the title on the final day of the league season, beating Rovers away from home in a title decider, to win the league by three points. Second half goals from Wayne Monkman and a Callan Jessiman penalty ensured the title went back to the Hotspurs in the final league weekend, and leapfrogging their Kirkwall rivals. Rovers may have had the best attack in the league (with 47 goals) but the league champions had the best defence by only conceding ten goals, and losing just one game!

Kirkwall ThorfinnStromness were the best non-Kirkwall team in the league, finishing just a point behind Rovers in third position, and having the second-best attack of 44 goals. Defending champions, Thorfinn, disappointingly finished in fourth position, finishing five points behind Stromness and nine points from top spot.

Kirkwall AcciesIt would be close at the bottom end of the table, with both Accies and East United finishing the season with just five points, having both won one game and drawn two from their respective league campaigns. Ultimately it was Accies better goalscoring and defence which helped them maintain their A League position for another year, as a superior goal difference of five goals meant that East United were relegated to the B League on goal difference. Their match in mid-August when Accies heavily defeated East United by 5 goals to 2, proved to be ultimately decisive in the future direction of both teams.

2019 Orkney B League Table
The 2019 Orkney B League table. [IMAGE: Orkney AFA Website]

East United were sadly the worst scorers and defence in the league, scoring just thirteen goals and conceding fifty-nine. They would be replaced by Isles United, who stormed to the B League title, dropping just four points in their 12 league games. Isles United won promotion by nine points from Firth in second position, and ten points from Harray in third.

Kirkwall WanderersSadly Wanderers would finish bottom of the table, picking up just one solitary point from their league campaign, scoring just nine goals, but conceding 62 goals in their twelve league games. Their only point surprisingly coming at home to third-placed Harray, with a Rhys Davidson brace ensuring the Wanderers only league point at Bignold Park.

 

Cup Competitions

Kirkwall RoversRovers won the first cup of the season when they won the Newlands Cup in early May, beating Dounby 4-1 in the final at Dounby. A double strike from Zack Singh, and additional goals from Louis Wright and Magnus Flett ensured the cup went to Rovers. Brian Garson replying for the cup finalists.

Rovers would then reach the final of the Craigmyle Cup also, this time facing off against Hotspurs in the final in late June. Hotspurs took the league through Jordan Low, but a second-half equaliser from Zack Singh resulted in the cup final going to a penalty shootout. From the spot-kicks, Hotspurs held their nerve by putting away all four of their penalties to win the final 4-2 on penalties, and stop Rovers picking up a cup double.

Isles UnitedIsles United won the Oxy Cup, beating Harray in the final, playing in mid-June. Goals from Peter Mathieson, Ross McQuillan and Gary Brown gave the eventual B League champions another piece of silverware for the season. They would also subsequently win the Alfred Flett Ltd Thomson Cup when they beat Firth in the final 5-1. A brace from Ross McQuillan, and goals from Calder Grieve, Michael Muir and Gavin Skea, giving Isles the cup, and a treble-winning season. Skea would score an own goal to give Firth a scant consolation.

Stromness AthleticStromness would claim the big prize of the Heddle Cup, beating Rendall in the early September cup final. Stromness found themselves 1-2 down at half time, but five unanswered second half goals from the third-placed teams ensured they would comfortably win the cup final by the impressive goal score of 6-2. Sam Hunter the hero for Stromness, with a Heddle Cup final hat-trick, giving Stromness the perfect way to celebrate their 125th anniversary year.

Thorfinn would finally claim the Jolly Cup towards the end of the season, beating Rendall by four goals to one, to ensure their season didn’t end trophyless.

Finally, the Stromness Parish side beat the Sanday Parish side, by a goalfest scoreline of 5-3 in the Parish Cup final.

 

Orkney FC

 

Orkney FCOrkney Football Club was founded in 2012 by the Orkney Amateur Football Association (OAFA) to allow Orkney-based players a chance of playing further games against teams from the Highlands and Islands outside of the Orkney football season, and ultimately improving the standard of football on the archipelago. They mainly play at the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall, although they often play at other venues around the islands.

Initially the club was formed to compete within the North Caledonian Football Association’s cup competitions. However the team proved to be such a successful venture, that the club gained full membership of the North Caledonian FA ahead of the 2014-15 season, and started to compete within the North Caledonian League itself. Thus becoming the first non-mainland team to play within the league.

North Caledonian FA LogoSince Orkney FC’s acceptance into the North Caledonian League, they have had a large amount of success in the league and cup competitions. They finished runners-up in their first season, as well as winning the 2014-15 Ness Cup, before regaining the Ness Cup again in the following season (although only finishing fourth in the league) before the cup competition was discontinued.

In the 2016-17 season, another runners-up league position was earned, whilst they also picked up their first Jock MacKay Cup victory, by beating Saint Duthus in a penalty shootout after the teams drew 1-1. However it was in the 2017-18 season, which would be Orkney FC’s most successful season to date. They won the Football Times Cup (beating the Lewis & Harris representative team in the final), but also managed to win the North Caledonian League for a league and cup double. The islanders became the first club from the Scottish Islands to win a Scottish FA affiliated senior league. Having the best attack and defence in the league, Orkney won the league by winning 13 of their 16 league games, and claiming the title by three points from the previous season’s league champions, Invergordon.

2017-18 North Caledonian League Table
The 2017-18 North Caledonian League table, with Orkney FC winning the title. [IMAGE: North Caledonian FA Website]

Last season was Orkney’s first trophyless season since their admission into the league, finishing third in the nine-team league, but just three points behind new league champions Golspie Sutherland. However during the 2019-20 season, the islanders managed to win the Jock MacKay Cup by again beating Saint Duthus 3-1 in the final. An own goal, a Liam Delday strike, and a final Callan Jessiman goal ensured Orkney would achieve some silverware this season. They also reached the semi-finals of the North Caledonian Cup after defeating Golspie Sutherland 8-7 on penalties after the two teams drew 2-2 in normal time.

North Cally League Logo

Prior to the season being halted due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Orkney were not doing as well in the North Caledonian League. They were positioned in fifth position and earned 20 points after ten league games, and thirteen points behind the provisional leader, Invergordon. However Orkney do still have games in hand over the teams above them, and an impressive goal difference of +32. In their final match before the halting of the league, they managed a 2-0 away victory to Saint Duthus, with Zack Singh and Jamie Clouston scoring the goals for the Orcadians.

2019-20 North Caledonian League Table - Before Postponement
The 2019-20 North Caledonian League before it had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. [IMAGE: North Caledonian FA Website]

 

Highland Amateur Cup

Brief Description

SAFA LogoThe Highland Amateur Cup is an annual football cup competition run by the Highland Executive branch of the Scottish Amateur Football Association. All teams that are affiliated to Highland Associations are eligible to enter the cup competition. Therefore this competition covers one of the largest geographical areas for any district amateur cup competition in Scotland.

Currently, the affiliated Football Associations to the Highland Amateur Cup are:

  • Caithness AFA
  • North West Sutherland AFA
  • Inverness and District FA
  • Skye & Lochalsh AFA
  • Lewis & Harris FA
  • Uist & Barra AFA
  • Orkney AFA

All Shetland FA clubs are eligible to take part, but due to the travel distances clubs must undertake, they have rarely entered the competition throughout its history.

 

Orkney’s History in the Competition

There have been four Orkney wins in the Highland Amateur Cup in the cup’s history. The first win came in 1979, in the tournament’s second appearance. The now defunct Orkney side of South Ronaldsay beating Caithness AFA side, Halkirk, in the final to claim Orkney’s first cup victory.

Kirkwall ThorfinnThe next Orkney victory came nine years later in 1988 when Kirkwall Thorfinn managed to win the trophy, winning 2-1 in the final. They reached the final again three years later, although they would lose the 1992 final to the defending champions Ness by the only goal of the game.

Kirkwall RoversThe next came nine years later when Kirkwall Rovers won their first Highland Amateur Cup by beating Contin 4-2. Finally Thorfinn claimed their second HAC victory in 2009 (the only Orkney side to have won the cup more than once) by beating Avoch (from the Inverness & District FA) on penalties, after drawing 2-2 in regulation time.

Thorfinn have certainly been the most successful Orkney side in the cup competition as they have reached the HAC final on another two occasions since their last cup win in 2009. They reached the 2013 and 2016 finals, playing Wick Groats both times, and both times they fell at the final hurdle, losing 0-1 in the former final, and following a penalty shootout after a goalless draw in the latter final against the Caithness AFA side.

  • South Ronaldsay: 1979
  • Kirkwall Thorfinn: 1988 & 2009
  • Kirkwall Rovers: 1997

 

2019 Results

From the 2019 Highland Amateur Cup, below are the results of the Orkney clubs who competed in the 2019 edition of the knockout competition. Only Rendall and Kirkwall Thorfinn managed to reach as far as the third round of the northern Scottish cup, before both got knocked out to Maryburgh (2018 Inverness & District FA Premier Division champions) and Staxigoe United (Caithness AFA Division One) respectively. Rendall was knocked out after extra time whilst Thorfinn were on the wrong end of a seven-goal thriller in Caithness.

Third Round

Maryburgh 4 – 2 Rendall (AET)
Staxigoe United 4 – 3 Kirkwall Thorfinn

Second Round

Rendall 5 – 0 Lybster
Lerwick Spurs 7 – 1 Kirkwall Hotspurs
Brora Wanderers 0 – 3 Kirkwall Thorfinn

First Round

Whitedale 9 – 0 Firth
Kirkwall Hotspurs 2 – 1 Stromness Athletic
Rendall 10 – 0 Kirkwall Accies
Barriers United 0 – 6 Kirkwall Thorfinn

Preliminary Round

Stromness Athletic 4 – 0 Dounby Athletic
Kirkwall Thorfinn 1 – 0 Kirkwall Rovers
East United 0 – 6 Kirkwall Hotspurs
Lerwick Spurs 11 – 0 Isles United

 

Milne Cup

The Milne Cup is an annual tournament played between the representative teams of Orkneys and their northern neighbours, the Shetland Islands. First started in 1919, the game was traditionally played on New Year’s Day, however since 1963, it has been played in the better conditions of July. Originally played on the 1st of July, it has now been moved to the last weekend of July since 1993, and the Milne Cup games alternate between the two locations each year.

Shetland FAIn the cup’s illustrious history, Shetland have won the cup twenty more times than Orkney with Shetland having 53 victories in comparison with Orkney’s 33 wins. Shetland are also the current holders of the Milne Cup, having regained the cup on home turf after a tense and closely fought contest.

The Orkney captain, Thorfinn Stout, put the defending Milne Cup holders ahead in the first-half, but Shetland grabbed a leveller deep into added on time as Ryan McFerran agonisingly headed into his own net. With nothing deciding the two sides after regulation time, the tie went into a penalty shootout. Apparently it was the first time the competition would be decided by spot kicks.

In the end, it would prove to be disappointing for Orkney at Gilbertson Park, as the hosts won their 55th Milne Cup by winning 5-4 penalties, after a 1-1 draw being played over 120 minutes.

 

2019 Inter Games Football Tournament

2019 Inter Games LogoThe Orkney Islands normally compete in a combined representative team the bi-annual Island Games multi-sport event, which is competed for by teams from the various islands around the world. Normally the football tournament is an integral part of the Island Games schedule, however due to the 2019 Island Games’ host, Gibraltar, not having enough football pitches to host the football tournament, it was not added to the official Games. Despite this problem, because the football tournaments are one the most popular sports at the games, it was decided to hold the matches elsewhere but with the results not being part of the official Island Games medal tally.

It was decided that the Welsh island of Ynys Môn / Anglesey would host the ‘Inter Games Football Tournament’ in June 2019, and so the Orkney Islands sent across just their male representative team to compete in the tournament.

 

Men’s Team

The Orkney men’s team were placed in the very difficult Group A, alongside the hosts Ynys Môn, the Western Isles and one of the tournament favourites in Jersey. They started their campaign badly by getting hammered 0-5 by Jersey, with Kieran Lester getting all of the goals for the Channel Islanders. In their second game, they took on Ynys Môn and sadly they were unable to defeat the hosts as they lost 1-3 to Anglesey. Liam Delday scored a consolation goal for the Orcadians.

In their final group game, they faced their fellow historical Norse islanders in the Western Isles (who also had suffered two defeats). In this Scottish derby, Orkney would finally get their first victory of the tournament, when they won the tie 2-1 at Cemaes Bay. This ensured that Orkney finished in third position in Group A, but failed to qualify for the semi-finals.

2019 Inter Games - Group A Men
Group A of the 2019 Inter Games Football Tournament [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

Going into the placement round games, they took on another Channel Island team in Alderney, who finished bottom of Group B, to decide which team would finish seventh in the Inter Games Tournament. Despite going into the game with some momentum, and Owen Rendall goal giving them hope to earn themselves their second straight win, the Orcadians would concede a late winner to give Alderney a 2-1 victory. As a result, Orkney finished in eighth position in the tournament.

 

Conclusion

A massive thank you for reading my blog on football on Orkney. It was a little difficult trying to find information on the islands’ league, such as past winners, when the league was created etc. I could only find information on the league from 2005 onwards, although clearly there is evidence of Orkney teams playing football prior to that. If any of your readers spot any errors in the information, or know where I can find such information, please let me know and I’ll update the information above accordingly.

Hopefully by reading this blog, it will encourage you to venture up there either on the aeroplane to Kirkwall Airport, or the ferry from Gills Bay / John O’Groats / Thurso / Aberdeen to the Orkneys, and check out their superb football league system. Not to mention all the amazing neolithic historical sites that are located on the islands also! Certainly, researching and writing this blog has made me want to visit the Orkneys in the near future, and catch some league football on the islands there. Also a perfect opportunity to catch some summer football in the years ahead!

If you have any comments on football on the Western Isles, experiences playing, or watching games there, or even if you follow a specific team from the islands, I would love to read about them. Either mention them below in the comments box, send a tweet on Twitter to @The94thMin or put it on my Facebook Page, it would be great to hear your comments.

Dakk!

One comment

  1. […] This northern outpost has some amazing spots which I hope you enjoyed exploring with me. Orkney also has a thriving football scene. However, instead of trying to fathom this out, can i please draw your attention to Clint’s superb blog on exactly this subject. He has done a far better job than I ever could: https://the94thminute.com/2020/04/11/the-northern-isles-my-initial-delve-into-orkney-islands-footbal… […]

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