Having previously completed his own scouting mission to the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar, Mick McCarthy had already given us the heads-up on the little ground’s unique location, squeezed in, he said, between the Rock and the airport. And he wasn’t kidding.
When we first got to see it for ourselves yesterday morning, it was immediately clear that — forget the likes of the Tramway End and The Shed — on this pitch you’re either playing into the Runway end or the Rock End. For such an intimate ground, it’s quite the spectacular backdrop. What McCarthy neglected to mention, however, was that flying into the airport itself is a pretty hair-raising experience too. As, for that matter, is driving in its immediate vicinity.
That’s because Winston Churchill Avenue, the busy main road connecting Gibraltar and Spain, literally crosses the airport runway, requiring barriers to come down to stop the traffic — both vehicular and pedestrian — every time a plane lands. So it’s a bit like Merrion Gates except with jets rather than the Dart hurtling past. I’d done my own virtual recce before flying out here on Thursday, learning all I needed to know about Winston Churchill Avenue from a website cheerfully titled ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’. Which was also, as it happened, the site where I learned that Gibraltar Airport has earned itself a reputation of the ‘World’s Fifth Most Dangerous Airport’.
I presume that dubious honour was bestowed by the kind of people who put together these internet traps — complete with footage of planes bucking wildly as they attempt to negotiate crosswinds in the shadow of the Rock — for innocent gobdaws like yours truly to fall into. But before I had a chance to experience it all for myself, there was the flight from Dublin to Gibraltar via Heathrow to be getting on with. Or not as the case might be. In London, the man at the connections desk informed me that inclement weather in Gibraltar meant we would definitely be diverted to Malaga. At the departure gate the word was more like definitely maybe. And by the time we were airborne, the cabin crew were saying that, fingers crossed, it was looking like we’d be able to touch down in Gibraltar after all.
Still, when it came time to begin our final descent, they took the precaution of informing everybody that things might get a little bumpy, while hastening to add that this was “normal” for a landing here. What none of us civilians could have anticipated, as we came in low over the water and banked around the Rock itself, was that some diabolical combination of wind shear and air pocket — sez he, pretending he knows what he is talking about — would, without any warning, cause the plane to drop suddenly with an almighty bang, the violence of the sensation strong enough to lift your stomach into your mouth and shake the fillings out of your teeth.
Of course, unlike most of the people on board, the aircraft took it all in its stride but when, just a few minutes later, we landed without further incident, I couldn’t help but notice the ashen-faced passenger in the seat
beside me blessing herself. An English woman living in southern Spain, she told me: “I fly into here all the time but I never get used to it.”
The pilot, as pilots do, favoured professional euphemism. “A bit breezy today,” he chirped before sending us on our way. You get a sense of just how small and densely packed Gibraltar is as soon as you walk out of the airport and onto Winston Churchill Avenue. Look right, and, hey, there’s the traffic all backed up at the border with Spain. Look left and, hey, there’s the runway with its warning signs on the approach telling pedestrians to cross quickly and not to drop litter — because the consequences could be “fatal”.
Look diagonally across the road and, hey, there’s the Victoria Stadium. And towering over all of this and the compact downtown area packed with English chippies and pubs and department stores is the mighty Rock itself, with cable cars riding up and down for those whose thirst for adventure at giddy heights still hasn’t been sated. (And if the wind don’t get you, the famous mugging monkeys will put it up you anyway).
These things we know about Gibraltar, along with the topical facts that its people voted overwhelmingly against Brexit but also overwhelmingly to retain their status as citizens of a British Overseas Territory.
In the last couple of days, chief minister Fabian Picardo, still a self-described remainer, called for support for Theresa May’s withdrawal deal as the only option to avoid what he called “the catastrophic bump” of a Brexit crash-out.
English and Spanish are obviously the main languages spoken here and while I’d love to be able to tell you that the local dialect is called Gibberish, sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. One thing I didn’t know until arriving here is that this forever England spot on the southern tip of Spain is home to the Gibraltar Gaels, a GAA club who get to play matches home and away every month against Seville and Marbella in the Andalucia League. Which, you have to admit, must make for a pleasant change from travelling to MacCumhail Park in Ballybofey in the depths of winter. All that said, the contest which concerns us here is the one which will take place between the airport and the Rock later today.
I’m genuinely pleased for Gibraltar’s footballers and fans that they are getting to play their home games at home and not in Faro on the Algarve, as was the case the last time the two countries met in these parts. Of course, being that I am also a still traumatised veteran of San Marino and Cyprus in the year of our Stan, I’m trusting our hosts will prove eminently hospitable by choosing not to follow the example of the great silver bird and contrive to bring mighty Ireland down to earth with a bang. I think we’ve already had enough talk of catastrophic bumps for one trip.