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The 13th NatWest Island Games took place in the Åland Islands from 27th June to 4th July 2009.
Åland is a group of Swedish speaking islands in the Baltic Sea that are politically part of Finland with a considerable degree of autonomy. Despite lying roughly as far north as Shetland, the weather throughout the games week saw prolonged sunshine and temperatures in the mid 20'sºC.
With the ten entrants in the women's football competition divided into two groups of five, the teams faced a schedule of four group games in the space of five games which was always going to be demanding and the top two teams in each group then faced a further two games in successive days to decide the medals.
Women's football on Åland is on a real high at the moment - not only did the island team win the Island Games gold medal in Rhodes in 2007, but club side Åland United led the Finnish Women's League as the Games began with a 100% record and the very real prospect of qualifying for European football. A good number of the Åland United squad are from either the Finnish or Swedish mainland and therefore ineligible for the Island Games squad, but Åland were still able to include a full Finnish international in Annica Sjölund as well as three players recently capped at youth level by Finland in Julia Andersson, Rebecca Björkvall and Mathilda Mörn. Not surprisingly, Åland were strong favourites with the Swedish island of Gotland, silver medallists in 2003, expected to offer a stern challenge.
Even before the competition began there was an honour for women's football at a thoroughly enjoyable opening ceremony. Traditionally two athletes from the host island read the oath on behalf of all competitors, who this year numbered over 3,000. Janne Holmén is something of a sporting hero on Åland, winner of a European Championship gold medal in the marathon event in 2002 and, as he was retiring from competitive running at the end of these games, he was a natural choice to take the oath and did so in English. He was joined on the podium by Ing-Marie 'Mimmi' Holmberg, a member of the Åland team in each of the four games at which they have competed since the introduction of women's football in 2001, she read the oath in Swedish.
Group A contained both Åland and Gotland and so represented something of a nightmare draw for the only island from the British Isles in this section, Jersey. They started against Gotland and could consider themselves extremely hard done by to lose 5-1 but did have the consolation of skipper Jodie Botterill scoring the goal of the game with a strike from fully 30 yards and she went on to score six more goals in victories over Greenland and Saaremaa to finish just one goal away from the leading goalscorer position, as Jersey claimed a third place in the group which was the best they could have realistically hoped for.
Åland only really had one scare in the group when they trailed to Greenland, but they brought Annica Sjölund off the bench to score a quick fire hat-trick and secure their win. However, that cameo appearance was to be Sjölund's only involvement as she was recalled to Stockholm by her club side AIK to prepare for their weekend Damallsvenskan fixture. Even so, Åland were able to beat Gotland to finish above their rivals in the group whilst Greenland's win over Games debutants Saaramaa settled the order of the last two positions.
Group B saw Isle of Man hoping to better their fourth place finish in 2007 and they began with what was always likely to be a pivotal game against the Isle of Wight. The match was delicately poised at 2-1 in the Manx team's favour before two stunning long range strikes from Gill Christian and Sarah O'Reilly saw them romp to a 4-1 victory. Isle of Man went on from this victory to record an impressive 100% group record, with Donna Shimmin recording an amazing seven goal personal tally in a thrashing of Games debutants from the tiny Norwegian island of Hitra that saw her finish the tournament as leading goalscorer with a final tally of eight. Meanwhile, hat-tricks from Eleanor Gawne and Donna Harrison brought victories against Western Isles and Guernsey respectively.
Isle of Wight bounced back well from that opening defeat to win their other three games without conceding a goal and secure a spot in the semi finals. Western Isles, after defeats to the top two, ended with two big wins and they too had a hat-trick hero in their game against Hitra in the shape of Sinéad MacLeod. It was another good Games performance by the Scottish team after an encouraging debut in 2007, especially considering that they still do not have a competitive women's league structure in place in their islands. It is fair to say that the Guernsey team did not enjoy the best of luck, with three of their squad ending the competition on crutches, but even their injured players were out and about at the end of the week supporting their men's team as they won a bronze medal. Two goals in the last ten minutes of their game with Hitra from Rochelle Vaudin at least earned them a point that kept them off the foot of the group on goal difference.
Isle of Wight faced the unenviable task of a semi final meeting with Åland, but they shocked their hosts by taking a sixth minute lead through Danielle Merryfield. They held on to that lead until the half hour mark and didn't go behind until ten minutes into the second half, so a final scoreline of 7-1 would have seemed very harsh indeed. Both semis were staged in idyllic locations, with so many of the rural grounds on Åland seemingly sited in clearings cut from the vast swathes of forest.
Given their group form, Isle of Man were in confident mood ahead of their meeting with Gotland, especially as they got the better of their opponents in Rhodes two years ago. They must have been even more hopeful as they took the lead through an Eleanor Gawne penalty, but then had the misfortune to run into the performance of the tournament from Camilla Ronström. The teenager plays her club football in Sweden's A-lag for Östers IF and had celebrated her 18th birthday on the day of Gotland's group match with Åland, when she looked suitably embarrassed as both the Gotland men's and women's football squads had serenaded her on the pitch with the Swedish version of Happy Birthday. Ronström scored the equaliser before half time and then picked off the Manx defence with her exquisite touch and control as a second half Sahra Karlsson hat-trick saw Gotland through to the final.
The Isle of Wight and Isle of Man squads then had a mere fourteen hours to recover before their play-off for the bronze medal. It was level at 1-1 at the interval with Gill Christian's goal being cancelled out by Susan Cullen. However, the Isle of Man got on top in the second half, with Eleanor Gawne hitting the woodwork either side of restoring their lead and Jade Burden sealing the result in stoppage time. The Isle of Man received tremendous vocal backing from their men's team, as they had in their semi final and, after being so cruelly denied bronze two years ago, their celebrations at full time were long and loud. But it had also been a fine week for the Isle of Wight and they can look ahead to making a challenge on home soil in 2011.
So to the final played in Mariehamn's impressive Wiklöf Holding Arena in front of a record Island Games crowd for women's football of 2,000. It was the very last event of the Games to be decided and Åland were always in control, denying any sort of service to the dangerous Gotland forwards, with goals in each half from Evelina Kohvakka and Rebecca Björkvall securing a 2-0 win. Such is the polite and reserved nature of the Ålanders that at times the loudest noise in the stadium was being made by the Manx squad as they anticipated the receipt of the medals. But finally, in the closing minutes, the entire stand rose to their feet to give their marvellous team the ovation they deserved.
The medal ceremony saw the Isle of Man squad, again backed by their men's team on the touchline, in celebratory mood as they collected their bronze medals and they even burst into an impromptu rendition of 'O Land of Our Birth'. Gotland then received their silver medals before an emotional climax. Åland had been magnificent hosts of the Games and had suffered defeats in two major team finals the previous day - men's football and men's volleyball. You would have had to have had a very hard heart indeed not to be moved by their celebrations as the strains of 'Ålänningens sång' filled the Mariehamn air. In the words of the Island Games Anthem, heard at every venue as we travelled around these beautiful islands, 'Memories of this time will fill us all with pride'. Tack Åland - thank you Åland.
(Report by Andrew Gilman)
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