Fighting for football’s future on bumpy, beautiful Eriskay
Football is a big part of life on the Scottish island of Eriskay
Its pitch rose to prominence after being featured in the FIFA Museum
Eriskay FC’s player-manager tells us about the challenges of keeping the team going
We’re often told that flawlessness equates to beauty. Think about scientists declaring that symmetrical faces are the most attractive, or even the smooth, carefully manicured playing surfaces that have become a staple of modern-day football.
Yet imperfections can be beautiful too, and an uneven pitch on a tiny Scottish island offers the ultimate proof.
Until recently, Eriskay – with a population of less than 150 – was best known for its role in a celebrated 1940s film. ‘Whisky Galore’ depicted the true story of the islanders salvaging thousands of cases of Scotland’s national drink from a cargo ship that ran aground – and the entertaining battle with customs officials that ensued.
Eriskay’s solitary pub is named after that ill-fated vessel, the SS Politician, and its name also adorns the shirts of the island’s football club. That team, and the ground on which they play, have in recent years become the island’s second claim to fame. And as picturesque as the pitch’s setting may be, it is not – as Eriskay FC’s player-manager readily admits – a paragon of perfection.
“Opposition teams always complain about it,” Shaun MacKinnon told FIFA.com. “And it's true to say that it’s hardly a bowling green. It’s bumpy and there’s a wee hill in one corner, and one half is higher than the other.
"There are also sheep, horses and cows wandering about, often using the pitch as a toilet, so that means a fair bit of mess to be cleared up. You wouldn’t want to see the state it’s in at the moment.
“Plus, it’s right at the side of the water, open to all the elements, so it gets very windy and hard to play football on at times. You need to adapt the way you play – there’s no chance of any tiki-taka on it, that’s for sure!
“Our season here runs from the end of March until September, so the whole thing was cancelled this year because of the COVID restrictions. Playing on that pitch through winter is just a non-starter – the lower half of it is completely waterlogged, and there’s not enough daylight or sunshine to dry it out.
“But it’s become a bit of a tourist attraction now. We’ve had a lot of folk over taking photos of the pitch and filming, and we were featured on TV and a few newspapers. That’s been really positive exposure for an island as small as this one.”
FIFA – or, more specifically, the FIFA World Football Museum – played an important and unlikely role in Eriskay FC’s rise to prominence. The call from Zurich came in 2015, when the museum selected the island for its ‘Planet Football’ showcase, displaying footage of the team and their bumpy pitch alongside shots of football in various, vastly different locations – from a Moroccan desert to a Brazilian beach.
“It’s been a nice boost to the profile of the place,” said MacKinnon. “Has it given the island pride in the team? No, because that’s always been there – it’s ingrained from when you can kick a ball.
“The thing about football in a place like this is that it matters more than it does on the mainland. I lived in Glasgow for a few years and played amateur football there, and it was just a hobby. Here, you’re representing your island and the team’s a big part of the community.”
Sadly, despite Eriskay FC having been in existence since the late 1950s, and holding that special place in island life, its future is by no means assured.
The challenges of a minuscule population and an ageing playing squad have long put the team at a disadvantage in competition against teams from larger nearby islands. Now, however, the most pressing challenge for MacKinnon is simply finding enough players to preserve football on Eriskay for future generations.
“It’s not easy pulling together 11 at times,” he admitted. “If I can get 13 for a game, I’m very happy.
"When I’m finished as manager, I won’t be judged on how successful the team has been, but how many years I’ve kept it going for. That’s the big challenge, and it’s only getting harder because there are so few youngsters coming through.
“Unfortunately, if things don’t change, I could actually see the team folding in the next few years. And that would be a big loss to the island. We’ll be doing all we can to stop that happening.”
Anyone who loves the beautiful game, or admires imperfect beauty, will wish MacKinnon every success. With football having helped put Eriskay on the map, it would be a crying shame to see the sport itself – not to mention that eye-catching pitch – disappear from view.