The future is bright for Britain’s sunny territory Gibraltar
Sam Barnard, Assistant Sports Editor | March 27, 2016
From the off, ever since gaining UEFA membership in the summer of 2013, Gibraltar were up against it with a population of just over 30k and staunch opposition from neighbours and then-world champions Spain.
No footballing nation in the continent has fewer residents, even micro English county Rutland has more, yet still the oversees British territory has arguably already achieved more than they could have wished for.
In just their first ever official international match, Gibraltar, nicknamed GFA, drew 0-0 with established side Slovakia, thanks to the help of former Manchester United and Stoke City defender Danny Higginbotham, who retired after three caps.
Gibraltar set high early benchmark
Since raising the benchmark so high so soon, they have even claimed their first friendly victory over Malta, a nation who are over 14 times the size in population, and restricted global titans Italy to two 1-0 wins against them in Euro 2016 qualifying.
Gibraltar’s first campaign may have a been a come down back to reality, as they took no points and conceded 56 goals, but they were placed in arguably the group of death that featured Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Georgia.
There are a few moments to look back on and hold their heads high, especially on the road, as they scored against both the Scots and Poles and also lost just 4-0 away in Germany (10/3 chances with Coral to win Euro 2016. On more than one occasion, GFA more than troubled the 2014 World Cup winners too.
Their form at ‘home’ during qualifying suffered slightly more, but that is perhaps largely due to the fact that they were not allowed to host matches on their own territory as their national Victoria Stadium’s capacity didn’t match up to UEFA regulations.
Faro, in Portugal, was therefore their choice of turf, with Spain (11/2 Euros shouts) unwilling to help and Britain being too far away.
However, in a recent friendly with Liechtenstein on the rock with many more home fans to cheer them on, they claimed a respectable 0-0 draw and had many chances to win too.
The issue is still being addressed, with one proposal being to build a new ground in their only remaining open space on the peninsula, and they’ll hope to have a permanent home to play in official matches by the time of the next Euro qualifiers.
Next couple of years crucial to GFA’s development
While that may be a long time in the future, with the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign to come first, it could be a blessing in disguise to really focus on applying for FIFA recognition as well as developing their promising crop of players.
Former and first official boss Allen Bula laid the foundations for Gibraltar, gaining their first and only official win as well as two draws in his nine games in charge, and scouring eligible talent in Britain to assemble the current roster.
It has since been tasked to ex-Brighton and Hove Albion head coach Jeff Wood to push them on and take them to the next stage.
Wood has largely stuck to domestic-based players so far in his tenure, due to differing reasons such as injuries or club commitments back in England, but that has allowed them to grow and gain more confidence.
There is no doubting that Liam Walker is the heartbeat of the team, and quite often looks a cut above the others, but it is to be expected given that he has turned out for the likes of Portsmouth and top-flight Israeli side Bnei Yehuda.
He is now back in his homeland with Gibraltar Premier Division champions Lincoln Red Imps, but is still aged just 27 and has many more years to test himself at a higher level once more.
Walker has certainly been a welcome addition to the league on the rock, as there has been a somewhat unwelcome influx of signings from abroad, which has meant home-grown talent are unable to come through. Similar to the English Premier League, Gibraltar will need to produce a balance to ensure that their players learn from the higher-standard foreign names but also get game-time too.
Gibraltar must nurture young talent carefully
One youngster that has managed to star regularly for top-flight team Lions Gibraltar is 17-year-old Jayce Olivero, who recently earned a maiden senior call-up against Liechtenstein.
The defender has even since had trials with high-flying Premier League outfits West Ham United and Leicester City, and gained interest from others too, so could he be seen playing at a high level in England in the next couple of years?
Another that has caught the eye, in coincidental circumstances, is Ipswich Town academy midfielder Kian Ronan, whose grandmother met Wood by chance in England and alerted the Gib boss about his eligibility. Ronan has since been called up to the nation’s Under-17s squad.
That’s not all, either; Southampton have a promising keeper Will Britt, 21, who has declared himself for Gibraltar and has been involved in senior squads already.
Others that could indeed, and should if given the chance, get snapped up by Football League or top-flight clubs in England include George Wink, Anthony Hernandez (who’ve had trials with Manchester United and Middlesbrough respectively), Erin Barnett, Jack Sergeant and Jamie Coombes.
As well as Walker, Gibraltar can also recall English-born players such as Scott Wiseman (Scunthorpe United), Jake Gosling (Bristol Rovers, on loan to Newport County), David Artell (former Rotherham United) and Reece Styche (Macclesfield Town) to add extra experience.
Current squad members such as Jamie Robba, Joseph Chipolina, captain Roy Chipolina, Cascario brothers Ryan, Kyle and Lee, and Anthony Bardon, meanwhile, have all been and will be instrumental to GFA’s continued rise.
Future is bright
So, what now for the tiny territory? Latvia are the next nation to travel to the Victoria Stadium for a friendly on March 29th, and thereafter the careful development goes on.
The future is certainly bright for Gibraltar, and they undoubtedly have the potential to shake off the tag of whipping boys to leave behind fellow minnows such as Andorra and San Marino.
To be at the standard of the likes of Luxembourg, Malta, Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein, who all gained multiple points in Euro qualifying, is the next aim and well within their reach.