A land far, far away: In search of Cornwall’s football identity

Situated on England’s southwest coast, Cornwall has always stood out due to its remote location and distinct Celtic heritage. In his famous 1535 chronicle of Britain Anglica Historia, Polydore Vergil noted, “The whole countrie of Britain is divided into iiii parts; whereof the one is inhabited of Englishmen, the other of Scottes, the third of Wallshemen, [and] the fowerthe of Cornishe people, all which differ emonge themselves, either in toungue, in manners or ells in lawes and ordinaunces.”

On this slab of granite protruding into the Atlantic Ocean, football has enjoyed a rich history. In what was known as the ‘Great Trek’, hundreds of Cornishmen – renowned the world over for their hard-mineral mining expertise – moved to the fertile silver mines of Pachuca, Mexico, establishing the ‘Pachuca Athletic Club’ in 1901. Despite fielding an all-Cornish XI, the club soon attracted a large local following, and were one of the founding members of the Mexican Primera Division in 1907. The three titles won by Cornish manager Alfred C. Crowle between 1917 and 1920 firmly cemented Cornwall’s influence on the early Mexican football movement; the Cornish Compañía Real del Monte y Pachuca mine emblazoned on the club’s crest stands as a testament to their influence.

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Back home, the latter half of the 20th century saw a wave of Cornish pride and nationalism which gripped the region. The long struggle for Cornwall to be afforded similar rights and status as the other home nations was revived by groups such as Mayban Kernow, who became the first fully-fledged Cornish political party in 1970. The strength of Cornish nationalism and identity is still feverishly present today, as demonstrated by the 34,000 people who identified their nationality as ‘Cornish’ in the 2001 census, and a 2003 poll that found 55 per cent of respondents in favour of a Devolved Cornish Assembly akin to those of Scotland and Wales.

The Cornish language – once described as “a barbarous and long-vanished practice, like piracy and smuggling” by the Guardian’s Philip Marsden – today receives state funding and has flourished in schools across the county. The flag of Saint Piran, displayed proudly on every Cornish high street, is a constant reminder of Cornwall’s defiance to English conformity. During the early days of this nationalist revival, one Cornish football club in particular began to make waves in the English game.

The date was 10 November 1969, and Falmouth Town were facing League of Wales representatives Ton Pentre in the fourth preliminary round of the FA Cup. It may sound like a peculiar match-up, but the two sides had grown very much accustomed to one another. The match, played at Weymouth’s Recreation Ground (157 miles from Falmouth, and 145 miles from the Rhondda Valley), was the third attempt to produce a victor for the next round, with 1-1 draws having previously been played out in both Cornwall and south Wales.

On a cold Monday night, just the one goal was enough to send Town into the first round proper. This was the third time they had managed to advance beyond the competition’s preliminary stage, setting up a mouth-watering clash with third division Peterborough for the second time in three years. Despite eventually falling to a 4-1 defeat, Falmouth were quickly establishing themselves as one of the giant-killers of the day.

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Town’s greatest moment had come seven years previously, when a record crowd of 8,000 packed into Bickland Park to welcome Oxford United to the southwest. This fixture had followed a famous 2-1 victory over Bath City of the old Southern League, which placed a Cornish side into the pot for the first round proper for the first time. The match thrust Falmouth into the national media spotlight, with the BBC providing coverage and famous commentator Raymond Glendenning covering the game. The hosts gave a spirited account of themselves, eventually succumbing to a 2-1 defeat.

The impact legendary manager Richard Gray had on the club’s fortunes during this period cannot be understated. “It’s more than a coincidence that the club’s amazing run of success began pretty much at the same time that Richard Gray arrived at the club”, says Dave Deacon of the Cornish Football Podcast.

Gray joined Falmouth in 1961 and went on to amass almost 500 appearances for the club, before taking the reins as player-manager in 1969/70. With a fantastic eye for talent, Gray was instrumental in building a squad made up of the best talent Devon and Cornwall had to offer. The 1969 cup run was followed by four successive South Western League Championships between 1971 and 1974, in which 553 goals were scored in just 130 matches (an average of 4.2 per game).

Further success was to follow. After moving to the Western League in 1974 in search of a bigger challenge, Gray’s charges completed an incredible league and cup double, going the whole season undefeated. It would take an absurd 58 games until the all-encompassing Ambers were eventually beaten in January 1976, a British record at the time – and nine more than Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04. With this feat, Town had written themselves into the history books as Cornwall’s greatest side.

It had been a steep rise for a club established little more than two decades earlier. Falmouth had joined the Cornish Senior League in 1950 with no facilities of note, originally playing on a farmer’s field opposite Budock Hospital.

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However, alongside this period of nationalist revival, Town couldn’t continue their ascent up the English football ladder. Despite serious interest in applying for the old Southern League, the club displayed caution in an age of dwindling crowds and financial restraint, the latter of which was exacerbated by the difficulty posed by long-distance travel to virtually every away game.

“Falmouth is a long way down the county of Cornwall and fairly remote with all that time travelling – not quite so easy as today”, notes Deacon.

Constrained by geography, the club had been stretched to its limits, and escalating travel costs would later take their toll. Following a further three successive league titles, Falmouth finished eighth, 12th and fourth before dropping out of the league in 1981, never to return. The following season they were forced to drop down to the Cornish Senior League after their South Western League application was rejected.

To those who made the long trip to Weymouth on that night in 1969, the result was merely a footnote in the club’s rise up the footballing pyramid during its formative years. Little did they know that despite their regional dominance, this outcome would spark an absence from England’s premier cup competition – both for Falmouth and all other Cornish clubs – for almost 50 years.

The first serious challenge to Falmouth’s dominance came from a small club from the town of St Austell. St Blazey, with a population of just over 4,000, would come to rule Cornish football. Just like Falmouth, the club’s success was largely down to their manager, Trever Mewton. Warmly remembered as ‘Mr St Blazey’, Mewton would lead the Green and Blacks for a decade between 1997 and 2007, winning seven South Western League championships, along with three Cornish Senior Cups, and three Cornish Charity Cups.

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Glynn Hooper was one of Mewton’s star players, and fondly attributes the strong bond that the manager and the club had with the players for St Blazey’s sustained success.

“[They were] phenomenal times. Every year someone would come and ask you to leave, they would come in and make you an offer that far outweighed what was happening at St. Blazey, but it was such an emotional tie to the club but also to Trevor and [wife] Gill. They had become our family.”

The St. Blazey ‘family’ would go one better than the Falmouth Invincibles of 1974/75, smashing the British unbeaten record by going an incredible 75 games without defeat between 2001 and 2003. However, the same financial and geographical constraints that had plagued Falmouth soon bit for St. Blazey too. Travelling hundreds of miles for away game wasn’t an attractive proposition for the club’s band of semi-professionals, who had to juggle football with work commitments. As a result, St. Blazey never rose higher than the 11th tier.

As well as financial issues, football’s traditional 19th-century rival was still proving damaging to football in the area. Cornwall has always been regarded as a ‘rugby county’, with the region united behind the Cornish Pirates, who commanded great crowds while football attendances remained low. Whereas 30,000 would gladly travel to Twickenham to watch Cornwall in a final, St. Blazey striker Andy Waddell once griped that “you’re lucky to get 100 watching you.”

But things would soon change. London-born former electrician Kevin Heaney made his fortune during the Cornish housing boom in the 2000s, which saw the average local property price rise from £90,000 to £235,600. This made Heaney one of the richest men in the country, worth a reported £154m. In 2004, he became chairman of South Western League side Truro City, armed with promises of delivering Cornwall’s first Football League side.

Prior to Heaney’s arrival, Truro had languished in the doldrums of England’s 11th tier for the vast majority of their 115-year history. But bankrolled by the property magnate’s millions, success was just around the corner. The White Tigers won the FA Vase at Wembley in 2007, securing Cornwall’s first ever national football trophy. Over 15,000 fans flocked to the capital to witness this historic accomplishment.

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It was a great ride” says Mark Huckle, the club’s official videographer. “You really got the sense that this was a big step [towards] achieving Heaney’s vision.”

Truro would go on to secure five promotions in Heaney’s first six seasons as chairman. Alongside their FA Vase triumph in 2006/07, the White Tigers won all but four games to scoop the Western League Division One title by a canter. By 2011/12, Truro found themselves just two promotions away from the promised land of the Football League. Alongside the club’s on-field exploits, Heaney revealed plans to build a new £12m, 16,000-seater stadium, accompanied by a 60-bed hotel and £7m training complex.

Then, disaster struck. Allegations of fraud and corruption had followed Heaney since his takeover of the club, with many claiming he owed his fortune to a number of questionable dealings which had greatly damaged the local area. Heaney’s past finally caught up with him, and after several winding-up orders and weeks of unpaid wages, Truro’s benefactor stood down as chairman in August 2012 and was soon declared bankrupt.

“It’s fair to say that Truro City wouldn’t be playing football at the level at which the club finds itself without benefiting from his [Heaney’s] largesse,” wrote Ian King, editor of Two Hundred Percent. In the face of mounting debt, player strikes and 500-mile round trips to complete fixture requirements, liquidation looked a real possibility.

This came to a head on October 13, when Truro’s game against Dover was called off after the club failed to provide the £50,000 bond required to compete in the Conference South. Facing imminent expulsion, the White Tigers were saved from the jaws of extinction by Peter Masters and Philip Perryman, local businessmen who fronted the bill and kept the club afloat.

Dreams of the Football League were placed on hold, but another famous day for Cornish football was on the horizon. In October 2017 Truro defeat Hampton and Richmond to end the 48-year wait for the presence of Cornish side in the draw for the first round proper of the FA Cup. The club were handed an away tie against former Premier League regulars Charlton Athletic, as the media spotlight was once again directed to southwest coast. Despite losing 3-1, the day belonged to the White Tigers and their jubilant fans.

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In Cornwall’s latest act of defiance to the conventions of English football, a group of enthusiastic Cornishmen known as the ‘Kernow Football Alliance’ have seen their application to the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) accepted. Established in 2013, CONIFA is an organisation which gives unaffiliated FIFA nations, regions, and stateless groups the chance to play international football. If a future Cornwall national team can capture just an ounce of the region’s pride and identity, then who knows how far they could go.

At club level, the relatively modest and sporadic successes of Falmouth and Truro suggest that Cornish football has long suffered an identity crisis. The situation, however, isn’t as straightforward as that. Like so many aspects of Cornish life, football here is uniquely insular, taking little notice of developments beyond the Tamar border. Instead of flocking to Falmouth or Truro at the first sign of success, the vast majority of Cornish fans stayed loyal to their local sides, making for a vibrant local scene. Limited by geography, the emphasis on being the ‘best of the rest’ in Cornwall’s regional leagues is far higher than in other counties.

Despite never reaching the first round proper of the FA Cup, Trevor Mewton’s little St. Blazey typified the Cornish mindset of non-conformity, revelling in the unbridled joy of being the county’s greatest side for over a decade even if success on a national level remained elusive. It’s clear, then, that Cornwall has always had a strong football identity. You just have to look a little harder – and travel a little further – to find it.

A land far, far away: In search of Cornwall’s football identity
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