There are thousands of football clubs all over the world. The casual fan could perhaps be forgiven for viewing all of them as variations of the same thing – a group players, led by a team of coaches, sometimes financially backed by wealthy owners and watched by the local inhabitants of the area in which the club is located. In some cases, this is hard to argue. More and more, football clubs are run like businesses by people who are more interested in turning a profit and winning accolades than what the club or its people are about. For those hardcore fans, those local people who live and breathe their beloved club and the game itself, the experience of following their team means more, much more. You may follow your club because they are the closest to where you were born or live; because your family has a history and tradition of doing so; or because the club and what it stands for resonates with you, speaks to you. Whatever the reason, it is the identity of the club that matters.
Some clubs have been around for decades, over a century in a lot of cases. Their identities are steeped in history. For newer clubs, it is harder to define what they are about. Usually.
In Canada, however, a series of clubs which are only a few years into their journeys are trying their best to stand out and show the world who they are. The Canadian Premier League (CPL) is still in its infancy and has done remarkably well to navigate extremely tough circumstances in these first few years. The fact that this league is still thriving is a credit to those who produce it and the clubs themselves. Whilst the nearby, franchise-based MLS can sometimes be perceived as producers of bland and similar feeling teams, the club-orientated CPL certainly cannot.
One of the clubs to be offered up to the Canadian soccer fans is Valour FC. Based in the provincial capital of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Valour is dripping in identity. It would have been easy to name the club after its city location; it would be instantly recognisable. However, the club’s name gives us much more of an insight into what Winnipeg and its people are all about.
Manitoba is, by contrast to other provinces, quiet and unassuming. Between the magnitude of the Rocky Mountains far to the west and the bustle of Ontario to the east, the Canadian Prairies are in many ways quite flat. Yet here they stand with their flag firmly planted on the map of Canadian soccer, shouting from the rooftops that they are Valour by name and Valour by nature.
Any supporters of any sports team expect their players to be brave and to battle courageously for the victory. But for Winnipeg, the word valour runs deeper. Valour FC may be a mere fledgling of a football club but the story which they are fuelled by dates back to the lead-up to World War I over a century ago when a local band of brothers all left their quaint street in the West End of Winnipeg and enlisted their services to the Great War. The three men involved – Corporal Leo Clarke, Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall and Lieutenant Robert Shankland – were all honoured for their heroism in front-line battles in the Somme, Ypres & Passchendaele respectively. Tragically, only Shankland returned home but all three were awarded The Victoria Cross – the highest military honour in the British Empire. Their efforts also resulted in the street they were living on being renamed from Pine Street to Valour Road in their honour in 1925. Since then, Manitobans have worn that valour, that V for victory on their hearts like a badge of honour.
Now, over 100 years later, the players endeavour to do the same. The club emblem that adorns their uniforms is reminiscent of a military medal with its V designed to resemble the medal and represent the valour of those brave men all those years ago. Even the major colour of their home shirts is the same maroon shade as the ribbon that held The Victoria Cross medals.
To get a better feel of what this history means we asked none other than the Mayor of Winnipeg, Brian Bowman, how important those three war heroes and their legacy are to the city. Mr Bowman said, “The story of Valour Road is fascinating. As it is now over 100 years since the First World War ended, it is easy to lose touch with those events from our history. Having the club attached to those heroes and their local connection makes entire generations aware of these important stories from the past and it is really encouraging to see how a sports team has the ability to do something like that.”
We also spoke to a Valour superfan to get their view on this aspect to the club. Jeremy Shields, aka ‘scootR’, told us, “I think it’s important for a club to find an identity and to tie our identity to heroes and a well-known landmark makes sense.” He also informed us that the supporters’ section is called ‘The Trench’ in homage to that as well.
Just shy of the centenary of the end of the first world war was when Valour FC was announced to the soccer loving people of Winnipeg. We asked both Jeremy and Brian about that time and how much excitement there was surrounding the inclusion and representation of the city in the new Canadian Premier League. Mayor Bowman shared that, “The Winnipeg Jets (NHL) and our Canadian Football team, the Blue Bombers, are our main events but soccer, at the grassroots, is growing every year. When the Canadian Premier League launched, Winnipeg had to be involved because we are a strong sports city with amazing fans. Soccer is becoming increasingly popular so having our own pro club where supporters can watch live matches was huge for fans who could only previously watch on TV. Valour has a very passionate supporter’s club who really make the matches an event and offer a different kind of experience than our other teams. People new to the game really enjoy coming out to the stadium and seeing that.” Jeremy recalled, “I don’t know if there was enough excitement to be honest; the club was known to those who were into the sport and some existing Bombers (of the Canadian Football League) fans but there were a lot of people who didn’t know (and still don’t) they are here.”
As these fans become more aware of the hometown club, though, they will surely come to embrace the team. Jeremy claims, “The club has been embraced full-heartedly I think by those who love the sport. Soccer has always been a very important sport in Manitoba, we have some fantastic community facilities and clubs who are really pushing us forward. There remains division and politics in the amateur levels of the sport here in Manitoba that I think holds us back from really developing coaches and players.”
As Jeremy alluded to, politics plays a huge part in sport. We asked the mayor if having a CPL club benefitted the city and the province in terms of the economy and putting a spotlight on the location. Brian revealed, “I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential of what the CPL can bring as far as economic benefits. So much of the progress of creating a great event was stalled by the pandemic and it will take some time to get things to their full potential.”
The Coronavirus pandemic certainly caused issues in sport worldwide and Canada was no exception. For a long period of time the football world stopped spinning and that was a major challenge for the CPL. After only a single season in operation, everything was put on hold. When the second season was finally given the go ahead, it was to be held exclusively at a single location with no fans in attendance for the safety of everyone involved. In relation to Valour, Mr Bowman quite rightly suggested, “I think the team was really gaining momentum and then the pandemic struck at the worst time. We’d only had one season where people could come out and enjoy the game and embrace the team just for the next season to be faced with uncertainty. Ultimately, a second season played out thousands of kilometres away, made it hard to keep that momentum going.”
That second isolated season was played on Prince Edward Island, a neutral location which served admirably as a safe space for each of the eight participating clubs to play. Forge FC of Hamilton eventually ended the season as champions for the second year running. The third instalment of CPL wasn’t quite as difficult but still challenging as the country came out of Covid restrictions. With the knowledge that fans would soon be able to attend live football matches once again, the League decided to ‘Kickoff’ the season in a single location bubble in Winnipeg before they returned to the traditional home and away settings. After the success of the Island Games in PEI, hosting The Kickoff at IG Field, home of Valour FC, must have been special. Jeremy told us, “It really was a lot of fun to host it locally even if we couldn’t attend without paying additional costs to our season tickets when they had allowed folks to attend. That being said, our form during the games was awesome and it was a really exciting time for Valour fans.” Mayor Bowman also revealed, “The Kickoff was a very unique opportunity for the city. Being one of the first locations in the entire country to host live sporting events offered a glimmer of hope that we can return to something normal and the sports teams that have been so hurt financially by the pandemic could get back to business. The decision to allow 2000 spectators with distanced seating was an encouraging sign that we could hold these sorts of events safely and was a huge unforeseen bonus to our local supporters who had not been counting on attending any of those games. Now that the season is in full swing with local crowds, I think we’ll see that excitement build again.”
So, now the fans can get back on board and follow their team. We asked Jeremy, as a fan, how the experience of the CPL has been for him. He said, “[It has] been a lot of fun and I feel at home in the supporter’s section with the members of Red River Rising, the local supporters group. I adore seeing the team and being at the ground, there is something special about that connection that is very different than any other sport.”
With being geographically quite central to the clubs in the league, Jeremy also commented on the following of fans from other teams into Winnipeg and Valour fans travelling to away games – “there has been the occasional away fans, but the distance is costly to travel. I know some Valour fans have made away games, especially members of the Red River Rising group. I think we’re looking forward to having a rival located closer.”
A local rival can make all the difference to a fanbase. So many cities or neighbouring towns across the football spectrum have multiple clubs vying for the local bragging rights. Here in Canada, it is no different. Alberta presents its own ‘Al Classico’ between Cavalry FC (Calgary) and FC Edmonton; Ontario offers up three CPL clubs – Atletico Ottawa, Forge & York United. In 2023, the League hopes to present at least one more expansion club and one of the front runners is to be in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and that would potentially provide that rivalry Valour fans crave.
Brian Bowman echoed this sentiment – “The news of an expansion club in Saskatoon will absolutely drive excitement. We have a long running rivalry with our neighbours in Saskatchewan and having a rival club in the CPL will cause more of a stir across the province. It is also veery likely to bring in more travelling fans to attend matches, which will create a buzz and be great for both local economies.”
The 2021 season started superbly for Valour but ended with them missing out on a playoff place by single point. These were encouraging signs, however, and show a progression from finishing sixth out of seven clubs in the inaugural season, sixth out of eight clubs at the Island Games to fifth out of eight in the third season. Jeremy agreed, “Overall, I feel the club is progressing…I look forward to seeing better results next year.” The seasons that follow can be a great chance to show the rest of the league their proud identity and what they’re really made of – honour, integrity, VALOUR!