Thursday 22 August 2019

Meet the students who will be taking centre stage against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium

Gibraltar manager Julio César Ribas speaking to his players ahead of a training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Gibraltar manager Julio César Ribas speaking to his players ahead of a training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

The is the unlikely tale of the Manchester students who will take to the field at the Aviva Stadium for a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday night.

Meet Jack Sergeant and Jamie Coombes, who have made it as international footballers playing for West Didsbury and Chorlton AFC in the North West Counties Premier Division, a team that operates in the ninth tier of the English football.

Born and bred in Gibraltar, the duo will be part of Julio Cesar Ribas's plans for the game against Ireland in Dublin – with Sergeant a likely starter and Coombes one of the first choice replacements for the ultimate minnows of international football.

Sergeant is in his final year at Manchester Metropolitan University studying business management and his pal Jack is in the final year of a fire and rescue management course at Blackburn College, with their weekend activities in non-league football moving onto a whole new level when a chance to play for their country came their way.

Defender Sergeant had a spell at Spanish side Sevilla as he set his sights on making it big in the professional ranks and while he failed to make the grade with the La Liga side, he still collected his first international cap as he represented Gibraltar against Slovakia back in 2013.

Striker Coombes made his first appearance for Gibraltar two years later as he shared a field with a star-studded Croatian side and embarked on an international journey that has has been little short of a fairy tale.

"We've played against countless world-class players," said Coombes in an interview with his University's website. "We played against Mesut Ozil at his peak and Robert Lewandowski when we played Poland.

"One thing I've learnt is how good their first touches are, it's on another level. Their acceleration and speed are also impressive. They are so conditioned and you have to be on their toes against them.

"Also their knowledge of the game is amazing. They know where to be on the pitch all the time, right place, right time. All their link-up play is on a different level, but it is a great experience."

The presence of Gibraltar in competitive international football has been the subject of much discussion in recent years, with the country that has a population of a little over 30,000 struggling to justify their entry as they became the whipping boys of international football following after playing their first European Championship in 2014.

Yet under the astute guidance of Uruguayan coach Ribas, Gibraltar have started to find their feet on the international stage, despite fielding a side of part-timers against full-time professionals in every qualifier they play.d

Shock wins against Armenia and Lichtenstein in UEFA Nations League matches in October went a long way to justifying their presence in the qualifying ranks, with Sergeant suggesting the victories were moments to savour for Gibraltar.

"I'd have to say it was the biggest achievement and proudest moment of my career so far," said Sergeant, in the same interview with the University of Manchester.

"We've had a few draws and wins in friendlies before, but getting those two international wins, and especially back-to-back was just amazing.

"When we play for West Didsbury, most of the pitches aren't in great condition and the step up to international football is massive.

"Obviously you're playing against quality players who play in top leagues around Europe. You play on top of the range pitches and use great facilities and to be competing against these top player is a fantastic experience."

As they proved in a tight 1-0 defeat against Ireland in March, Gibraltar's wellorganised defence present a solid wall that can be tough to break down, with Georgia relieved to get a 3-0 win against the Group D minnows on Friday night.

Every game may be a damage limitation exercise for Sergeant, Coombes and Gibraltar's unlikely lads, but Ireland know from recent experience that this team can be stubborn rivals unless their defensive wall is breached in double quick time.

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