It wasn’t the most auspicious lead-in to the Yorkshire International football team’s second match ever, held on 25th March in Fitzwilliam. The referees for the match had dropped out at the last minute, leaving the Yorkshire International Football Association (YIFA), who had organised the match, to scramble to find last minute replacements: they ended up flying in referees from Germany. The blue kit in which Yorkshire play had also been stored poorly after their first match against Ellan Vannin, a team from the Isle of Man, back in late January, and needed to be replaced. Then the coach that YIFA had laid on for their opponents in the spring tie, the Chagos Islands (a nation that was cast from its home in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base decades back, and now largely lives in exile in and around London) was cancelled just before it was due to set off at 8am. The match organisers had to arrange a replacement, frantically calling coach companies in London and Sussex who could lay on transport at the last minute.
‘It always seems to be like that,’ explains Phil Hegarty, Chairman of YIFA. ‘But the game makes up for it.’ In the end, the Chagos Islands team managed to make it to just outside Wakefield; the match went ahead, and Yorkshire won 6–0. The sun even came out. ‘Six goals and a tan,’ says Phil. ‘The best day I can remember for a long time. It was brilliant.’
The World Cup takes place this June in Russia and – politics dependent – England will be fielding their team of Three Lions with pride (before they inevitably crash out at the group stage). But for some in Yorkshire, including Phil Hegarty, there’s a disconnect between national and regional identity. The difference between Phil and the quietly discontent Yorkshiremen and women is that Phil decided to do something about it.
‘I’m just a warehouseman who decided to set up a football team,’ he explains. ‘It’s a bit of a jump, I’ll admit.’
Phil had long thought that Yorkshire – which seems to overachieve in sports, and which would have finished ahead of Canada, South Africa and New Zealand in the 2016 Olympics were it classed as a country – should have its own football team. However, he’d never managed to figure out how to bring it into being. Until, that is, he came across a news story where he discovered ConIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, which bands together football teams from disputed nations or areas that simply don’t want to sign up to FIFA, and gives them a voice. Alongside the Chagos Islands team, there are starting elevens from Darfur, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the disputed territory of Northern Cyprus. Phil was also keen there’d be a team from Yorkshire.
‘ConIFA is about bringing football to everyone,’ explains Phil. ‘They want to give people the chance to play under a badge they identify with. It can be the likes of Tibet or Greenland, or just regions that have strong enough identities to be recognised apart from the nation in which they lie – and Yorkshire fits into that.’
Academic studies conducted by researchers at the University of Huddersfield show people in this part of the world identify as Yorkshire folk first, and English second. There was a captive audience, Phil believed, and now he had a means to attract them.
In July 2017 he sent out a tweet saying he was keen to set up a Yorkshire International football team. Things fell into place very quickly after that. People came forward, offering to help out the fledgling team. ConIFA approved Phil’s meticulously-drawn up application, which included sections on the historical geography of Yorkshire and its cultural divergence from the rest of the country. ‘They must have thought it was a strong argument because they voted unanimously for us to join,’ he says.
The first public meeting at Square Chapel, Halifax, where the founding constitution was signed, was attended by a ‘small handful of people who braved their way through Storm Brian to get there,’ says Phil. Since then, they’ve played two games (won one, drawn one), with a third game – their first away match – planned for mid-April. It’s not always been easy to set up the team, though.
‘It’s been a test, but I feel like that’s part of being Yorkshire,’ explains Phil. ‘We’ve never had it easy in this part of the world. I think there’s a feeling in Yorkshire at the moment – especially the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire – that we’ve been kind of cut adrift really, and are being represented by people who don’t know us, don’t know who we are or what we want. Whereas other parts of Europe are proud of their regions, and promote them as healthy, essential parts of who they are as a nation, that doesn’t seem to happen in England.’
Instead, he believes, ‘England is presented to the world through a London lens. We don’t want to take the trip down to London to meet the rest of the world; we want to go straight across the North Sea and that’s kind of what we’re doing.’
As England fans and the national squad will be making their way to Russia this summer, Phil and his band of merry men will be heading to the Czech Republic to play in a mini-tournament with other teams, including one from Prague, one from Switzerland, and one from the Baltic region. ‘It’ll be a nice two or three days,’ says Phil. ‘It’ll give our lads a chance to experience something completely different – the real world of international football.’