Friday 26 April 2019

Gibraltar's part-timers aiming for another famous day to lift national spirits

Gibraltar manager Julio Cesar Ribar. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Gibraltar manager Julio Cesar Ribar. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Their captain, Roy Chipolina, is a customs officer on the border. Veteran striker Lee Casciaro is a policeman with the Ministry of Defence. Goalkeeper Kyle Goldwin is a labourer. Several teenage members of the wider squad are still in school.

The Gibraltar team plotting to take Ireland down this evening don't have the average profile for an international football side.

Full-time professionals are in the minority. Central defender Louie Annesley is on the books of Blackburn; midfielder Anthony Bardon plays in America's USL; playmaker Liam Walker is back playing at home after a stint with Notts County; his Europa team-mate Tjay De Barr has agreed to join Real Oviedo this summer.

They share the dressing-room with players who have day jobs to consume them.

The unusual profile is in keeping with the quirks of the stage for the first match of Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory that is home to just over 30,000 citizens. The working population is swelled by around 10,000 people who live in Spain and cross the border every day.

Tjay Debarr. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tjay Debarr. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

While the Rock of Gibraltar provides a stunning backdrop to day-to-day life, the city itself feels extremely British.

There's a Debenhams, a Morrisons and a Marks & Spencer, rRed postboxes, British terrestrial channels on the TV, restaurants advertising 'British Fish & Chips' and fry-ups.

Walk down the main street and it feels like you could be anywhere in England.

That said, if the Brexit vote was left to the people of Gibraltar, there would be no confusion as 96pc voted 'Remain' and there are serious concerns about what the future holds given that border crossings are so vital for business.

In that context, the locals are looking to this evening's game as a distraction, although communications manager Steven Gonzalez politely batted away a press conference query to manager Julio Cesar Ribar related to Brexit fears.

The 62-year-old Uruguayan is a Spanish speaker and he explained that the language of the dressing-room is "a mixture of English and Spanish and the Gibraltarian local dialect which most people speak".

His point - and it was backed up by the manager and De Barr - is that this football team have their own identity.

There is pride in their ability to stage this game, although problems with the Victoria Stadium made that a challenge.

Resourceful Irish fans and expats might have gotten hold of a good chunk of the home allocation, but there's still expected to be a lively atmosphere around this match because of its significance.

In this small place, the players are a big deal. Goalkeeper Goldwin has spoken of people stopping to hug him on his way to work after the famous UEFA Nations League win in Armenia in October.

The maiden version of that competition gave the minnows a chance to shed their whipping-boys tag and play for points.

That success in Yerevan has already gone down in local folklore. Before the match, the players were fired up by the fact that their hosts played the national anthem of Liechtenstein instead.

Chipolina had ammunition for the pre-match huddle. It roused a group that had been struck down by a bug during the build-up.

The captain's younger brother, Joseph, an admin clerk, was particularly affected but he still summoned up the strength to deliver the game's only goal and then defend manfully against an Armenian side that included Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The win was followed by a home success over Liechtenstein - experiences which have helped the group to develop their self-belief.

"I firmly believe the performances made the whole country proud," said Ribas. "During the Nations League, the national team was at the forefront of what was going on in Gibraltar.

"The important thing is that the team keeps growing and developing and gives everything they can for the shirt and the flag when they go out on the pitch."

He turned to striker De Barr and asked him what was on his mind every time he went out to represent his country.

"Every single Gibraltarian," replied the 19-year-old, who flipped between languages from answer to answer.

The players clearly believe that home advantage gives them a squeak of posing an upset, whereas they felt completely exposed when they had to move their matches to Faro - the setting for the Euro 2016 qualifier with Martin O'Neill's Ireland which resulted in a comfortable 'away' win.

In saying that, Ribas was keen to play down the importance of the artificial pitch, a subject that was the primary Irish concern in the uncertainty around where this match would be played - UEFA were worried about the off-the-pith facilities.

"The level the Irish players are at, they will be accustomed to any surface they are playing on," shrugged the manager.

"It won't be a leveller in that sense. But there's no doubt that when we are playing at home, the crowd can be our 12th man.

"It's up to us to write our history now. We have to keep going as a team and always work hard with the passion and humility that befits a Gibraltar team.

"The passion and humility that we showed in the Nations League is what we want to show in the long term."

While that press conference was going on, officials were outside pasting entrance signs on to the walls around the stadium as part of the checks and balances to meet UEFA criteria.

It's already taken a hell of an effort for this match to take place.

The job for the players is to deliver an unlikely bonus.

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