There’s nothing quite like grassroots football tours. Despite the pandemic making distant travel a tricky business, Westminster Wanderers found their hosts in Belfast to be not just incredibly hospitable, but in possession of some immaculate facilities.
By Tom Overbury
Westminster Wanderers is an established and successful Sunday League club, formed in 1999. The FA Charter Standard club runs four teams in London’s largest Sunday League system, the Southern Sunday Football League, and being based in the capital means the players are from a diverse range of backgrounds, ethnicities and professions. But we all share one common ground: a love of getting up on a Sunday morning for ninety-minute battles followed by a few beers!
Despite playing our matches across South West London, recent grassroots football tours as far as New York City, Iceland and Latvia have become a big part of the club and we were determined to beat the pandemic in 2021. To safely achieve that, a tour a little closer to home was set up with the First and Second Team squads heading to Northern Ireland for an ambitious three matches in four days each.
In brand new Adidas tour merch, thirty-plus Wanderers touched down in Belfast on a Thursday afternoon and got straight into football. The First Team played out an epic 6-3 win against the very welcoming Dunmurry Rec FC on a carpet pitch – the likes of which you struggle to find in London – while the Second Team were left regretting their earlier beers at the airport, suffering an 8-0 loss to St Mary’s FC. The squads reconvened at the team hotel in the Cathedral Quarter and headed out to various pubs and bars, where many differing match reports were shared deep into the night.
The second day started with breakfast, some sightseeing and lots of locals confusing the thirty-strong group in matching tracksuits for “actual footballers”, but when the merch looks that good, who can blame them? The two squads then played out two matches back-to-back at the home of Taughmonagh Young Men FC on another carpet pitch. The Second Team were up first and were unlucky to lose to Taughmonagh’s Second Team 3-2 in a very competitive match. Both club’s First Teams then battled out a 6-5 thriller, with the hosts grabbing a stoppage-time winner. The common theme emanating from both days was how seriously the Northern Irish take their amateur football, with impressive pitches and club set-ups, but also how welcoming everybody was.
The “warm-up” matches were done and it was now a chance to be a pro for a day. Being fortunate enough to share a shirt sponsor with professional side Larne FC, the Wanderers’ whole trip was largely centred around both squads playing Larne Academy XIs at their beautiful Inver Park Stadium on the Sunday afternoon. Larne’s First Team were too busy preparing for a potential Europa Conference League tie against Spurs, but we certainly weren’t complaining about not having to match up against professional athletes on day four of a tour!
Each player would wake up and get back into the tour merch. We travelled on a coach to a 5000-capacity stadium. We set up in an away dressing room. We warmed up in front of a small crowd whilst music blared over the PA system. Our club badge was on a scoreboard. This was a long way from putting our own nets up on a boggy pitch in London and we were buzzing.
Unfortunately, the weary legs and tired brains that you’d expect on day four of tour, combined with the skill and youthful endeavour from several of Larne FC’s Under 18 international footballers, meant both our First and Second Teams would suffer defeats (2-1 and 6-0 respectively). However, the experience and Larne FC’s hospitality were nothing short of incredible for every one of our players and will live long in our memories.
Like any good tour, it was rounded off with “Tour Court”. All-time club top goalscorer (now ageing centre-half), Jimmy McGrory, dished out fines as well as awards, while conversation turned to the season ahead and where we should tour next summer.
We’re all now back in London and preparing for what we hope will be the first uninterrupted season of Sunday League in two years, but touring really does something to teams. It bonds people and forms friendships. Playing for a Sunday League side can mean you spend more time with your teammates than lots of other people in your personal life, but there’s something different about the bonds you form when you tour as a team. We’re all now bouncing into pre-season, off the back of an incredible weekend, with an even tighter group for it. We would recommend touring to any Sunday League clubs out there, even if it’s just a weekend away in a different part of the UK.
Roll on the 2021/22 season and next summer’s tour. Destination: TBC.
You can find a full tour diary video on Westminster Wanderers’ Instagram page: @westminsterwanderers