England team from their first tournament in 2015. Top row l-r: Phil Jones (no, not that one), Russ Lewin, Chris Thomas, Richard Plumley, Kenny Diack, Andy Garrett, Alan Adesalu, Daniel Leadley. Bottom row l-r: Gary Christian, Neil Cullington, Adam Hayes, Matthew Bell
It’s the dream of thousands of young boys and girls – standing near the touchline, side-by-side with your team-mates at a major tournament as the national anthem plays with your country’s badge on your chest.
It might not be happening for Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and co in June but one England team is still hoping to take on Europe this summer, if the coronavirus pandemic eases by August.
However, this is not your usual ‘England’ team…
“The whole thing is fairly far-fetched, but it is a great story about how far you can take a long-shot request and push the boundaries until you become an international football team,” Gary Christian, captain of Peel St-Germain, told BBC Sport.
‘PSG’ are a team of office workers, plumbers, cleaners and the like from Peel, on the Isle of Man.
They are scheduled to play as England for the second time in the Mountain Village European Championship – the self-titled “craziest tournament in the Alps”.
It features eight teams representing the mountain areas of their country and takes place under Europe’s highest peaks every four years, and has previously run alongside the professional Uefa European Championship.
The Ottmar Hitzfeld Stadium – the ‘highest’ football stadium in Europe
This year’s tournament is due to take place at Europe’s ‘highest’ football pitch in a remote village in Switzerland. The draw was attended by former Fifa president Sepp Blatter in November.
For ‘PSG’ this “experience of a lifetime” started with a simple email back in 2015.
Having played on the pitches of various English league grounds in previous summers, they wanted something bigger – or higher. FC Gspon, coincidentally the 2020 tournament hosts and whose pitch is perched 2,000m above sea level on the side of one of the mountains in the Alps, seemed like the perfect choice.
“I have an odd sense of humour, and more time on my hands than I’d let my wife know, and I got in touch with them and asked can we play on their pitch, thinking it would never lead to anything,” Christian said.
“A few days later I got a phone call saying ‘yes. of course’.”
From there things snowballed. After a heavy 9-1 defeat at altitude against the local Swiss veterans team, ‘PSG’ were asked to step in as the England representatives at the Mountain Village Euros after organisers struggled to find a team through official channels.
They said yes with little idea of what was to come.
“It has turned out to be the experience of a lifetime and it is still a bit mad we are stringing it out to now,” Christian said. “Many of our team are touching 40 and don’t play football regularly any more.”
The 2016 tournament took place in the French ski resort of Morzine. Crowds lined the streets to welcome teams, France’s 1998 World Cup-winning manager Aime Jacquet spoke at the opening ceremony and all of the matches were streamed on YouTube.
“Everyone was hanging off balconies, waving flags and singing with brass bands playing,” Christian said. “It was a bit crazy. We made the most of the atmosphere and some boys overindulged.”
That overindulging, and another step up in class, cost England. They were drawn in a group with Russia, Sweden and Germany and lost all three games. Not that ‘PSG’ seem to care.
“We walked onto the pitch holding a mascot’s hand, with the anthem playing, shook hands and exchanged pennants,” Christian said. “It was very surreal.
“Wearing the England shirt, with the anthem playing, is a memory that will stay with me forever.
“It has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live your dreams of being an international footballer.
“The beauty of it is most of the guys are completely rubbish at football.”
Former Fifa president Sepp Blatter and ‘England’ players Richard Plumley and Alan Adesalu. Blatter was born close to 2020 host village Gspon and is the tournament’s honorary ambassador
The heaviest defeat came against eventual champions Russia, with England going down 10-0.
“It turned out one player had captained the full Russia team, another guy was top scorer in the Russian second division and two had won the Uefa Cup,” Christian said.
“They were playing against us, who had two currently active footballers in the Isle of Man league and the rest probably hadn’t kicked a ball since the previous match the year before.”
But, despite the defeats, PSG have been invited back to represent England in two smaller Mountain Village tournaments in the years since and will return again to the Euros in 2020.
“We are now the go-to team for people who want to beat a rubbish football team heavily at altitude,” Christian said.
“We are thin on the ground in terms of football talent but make up for it by being the life and soul of the party and we continue to get invited back because we get on with everyone.
“We are the laughing stock – their laughing stock – so everyone loves us.”
As it stands, despite the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Mountain Village Euros is due to take place on 28-30 August, two months later than originally planned.
England, who will be raising money for charity Right to Play, have been drawn alongside Italy, Belgium and Austria.
Christian said England “might have a chance against Austria”.
“They were as average as we were [in previous tournaments],” he said.
“If we were to win a game I am more than happy to hire an open-top bus and drive through the streets on the Isle of Man.
“There is a branch of the England supporters’ club who are going to be going along. It could be a chance to go and support England in the Euros after all.”