Cornwall to play international football: Meet the men behind the Kernow FA

Kernow FA

“Will the last one out please shut the door.”

This old adage is often spoken when a Cornish sports team earns themselves a chance to represent their county on the national stage.

Truro City’s 3-1 victory over AFC Totton at Wembley in the 2006/07 FA Vase final set a then record attendance of 27,754, while the 4,240 people that watched the Cornish Pirates lift the 2009/10 British & Irish Cup have only been bettered once in the last eight years.

Now though, the Cornish have a new sporting enterprise to get behind. In 2019, Cornwall will be playing their first international football match. Yes, you read that correctly. Thanks to the vision and work of both Andrew Bragg and Jason Heaton, the Kernow Football Alliance has joined CONIFA — Confederation of Independent Football Associations. Andrew is taking on the role of Director of Football with Jason as Chairman.

Kernow is the Cornish language’s word for Cornwall and for approximately 560,00 people, a unique national identity exists.

The story began in December 2016 when Andrew’s son returned home from playing in Sweden and told of one of his teammates taking part in the 2016 World Cup for Sapmi, a large cultural region in Scandinavia. As Bragg described: “That was a real light-bulb moment — I thought the Cornish are a race, surely we’re eligible to enter.”

It’s from here he began discussions with Jason, who was already working at CONIFA as their Global Business Director. One of the critical factors Kernow stressed to CONIFA was the status of the Cornish people as a race, with their own language and cultural heritage.

In their mission statement CONIFA describe themselves as a non-profit organisation that supports representatives of international teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports’ isolated territories.

The committee were clearly impressed with Kernow’s application and — given the strength of their case — granted them acceptance on November 19th.

Going forward, the vision is to provide a platform for Cornish talent in the region that often gets overlooked. Cornish players often struggle to get noticed given the county’s remoteness and lack of a professional club.

The highest placed is semi-professional Truro City, currently playing in the National League South. Yet the side have been playing 80 miles away in Devon this season — at Torquay’s Plainmoor — following the sale of Treyew Road to invest in a new Stadium for Cornwall.

This is a cause close to Andrew and Jason’s hearts, given they share a background in youth coaching. Andrew explained: “Cornish football has always been in a good place, there are some extremely talented players playing down here and if we were in Birmingham, Manchester, London, then they’d be playing for professional clubs.

“For years, I’ve always thought Cornish football has been overlooked — especially in youth football which has always been my passion — and I just thought we should do this for people that don’t normally get a chance, for people that normally get overlooked.”

Jason added: “I appreciate how hard it is for players to get out of Cornwall and get their heads in at clubs, it’s all a little bit capped. There’s a great footballing infrastructure without there being anywhere to go, which is a crying shame.

“This is about standing for Cornish people and all that they stand for as well as putting something in place people can count on to freshen up the whole football game here, give it a little more vibrancy and offer a way out.”

Cornwall has not had a male player turn out for the England senior side since Nigel Martyn made the last of his 23 caps in a 2-2 draw against Cameroon in a 2002 friendly. Now, a whole new generation of players could be set for international recognition as discussions are ongoing with clubs and the Cornwall County FA; it appears likely there will be an agreement struck to allow the release of players.

Many of them will be drawn from the South West Peninsula League. In time, the aim is to convince some of Cornwall’s professional players to turn out for Kernow. Namely Newport’s Scott Bennett, Cardiff City’s Isaac Vassell and, most notably, Southampton’s Jack Stephens.

The next job will be for Kernow to amass enough ranking points through playing matches to qualify for the 2020 ConIFA World Cup.

This is the job Manager Darren Gilbert and Head Coach Darren Wright will be heading up. Kernow are in a good position to find matches given the amount of existing CONIFA members based in the UK, joining the Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin), Jersey, Panjab, Barawa and Chagos Islands.

The UK hosted the World Football Cup in 2018, with Barawa the nominated hosts. The final was won by Karpatalja at Enfield’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.

Darren believes there is every chance of success in 2020 and he certainly knows what it takes given he guided Panjab to the 2016 final in Abkhazia. Panjab came up short to their hosts on penalties in front of a packed house that day and Darren knows the level of competition will be high.

Darren said: “When you go to the tournaments, we’ve come across lads who play in Serie B, there was one guy who played for Padania and had previously played 50 games for Latvia. The standard of football there is League Two, maybe League One.

“I would never go into something thinking we’re going to be a bit-part player. For me, it’s all about getting this team together and then I’d love to see them in the World Cup Final and there’s no reason why they can’t.

“The sessions are going to be very informative about the philosophy and the style of play. I’d love to see the team getting the ball down and playing from the back, but sometimes you’ve just got to have a little bit more endeavour to go and get in behind teams, it depends who were playing against, I’d like the players to adapt to every situation.

“Phil Lafferty will pick the team, he’ll be on the sides when I’m out there coaching — I can see it being like manager, assistant manager relationship, perhaps me being a bit more hands on.”

Cornwall remains very much at the heart of the project. As part of Jason’s role, he is in discussions with businesses to create partnerships to not only provide funding, but to forge mutually beneficial relationships.

He said: “We would like to be involved in the business community so that we can help promote Cornwall at home and abroad, we want to be good for businesses, not just another charity case. A big part of what we’re doing is to make sure were in line with Cornish business and to take a lead to promote it in any way we can within CONIFA’s system.”

The next step is to create an online shop and there is an ongoing crowdfunding page for anyone who wishes to donate.

The most striking aspect about the project is the focus on the next generations. In his vision, Jason outlines his dream as being: “Not just win to a World Cup, but to win the World Cup with an amazing team of people that have encapsulated the hearts and minds of the Cornish people- businesses, people, kids, mums and dads.

“My son has already come up to me and said: ‘This Cornwall thing is amazing, because we don’t have a professional club and it’s so good to feel that we can play international football for Cornwall.’

“Cornwall has been very good to me and my family, I have been here for 15 years and this is a process of giving back from the position I’m in.”

Neil Slateford has been appointed Youth Development Officer to join the already impressive team of volunteers and there are already plans to expand into women’s, walking and disability football in the future.

Jason added: “I hope what we’re working on will carry on way beyond after I’ve gone off this earth, I would rather die tomorrow knowing we’ve set off on the right philosophy than drag your heels for the next five years doing the same old thing. Youth development is at the heart of me and Andrew.”

The hope is that Kernow will be able to play their first game in January and with a tournament in Frankfurt and the European Football Cup a target for June, it certainly is an exciting time to be involved with Cornish football.

Thanks to Benjamin Jones at the Sports Gazette

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