Unknowns ready to step into the spotlight

It was a telling reminder of how far they’d come, but also of their apparent place in the game. At the end of Gibraltar’s 7-0 defeat to Poland back in September, the tiny territory’s players obviously went to swap shirts with the opposition.

Unknowns ready to step into the spotlight

That may be an international ritual but, to them, it was a rite of passage. Given that this was their first competitive international, such a moment clearly meant much more than usual.

It meant absolutely nothing, however, to a particular Polish player. One of these rituals was rather one-sided. On handing his shirt to Gibraltar defender David Artell, so the story goes, this Polish international said he didn’t want a jersey in return. It didn’t have any value for him, he didn’t know who Artell was. That, to be fair, is not a new feeling for the Gibraltar squad.

You’d struggle to recognise many of the part-time teams they play for, let alone their names. The majority turn out for three of the territory’s eight clubs: Lincoln Red Imps, College Europa or Manchester 62.

For the starting line-up against Poland, Artell and Scott Wiseman were the only overseas-based players, out of a squad total of four. Wiseman plays for Preston North End, and is one of just two professionals along with Bristol Rovers’ Jake Gosling, but Artell’s situation said even more. The 33-year-old is actually an academy director at Crewe Alexandra, and specifically joined Welsh Premier League side Bala Town to make himself eligible for Gibraltar.

The majority of the players just have problems making themselves available for given internationals.

Given that the group is made up of a mix of teachers, policemen, firemen, custom officials and other everyday professions, one constant challenge is actually getting time off work to train and play, which can involve a loss of holiday time or earnings.

After the Polish game, Gibraltar got a coach back from their temporary home ground in Faro. That saw them arrive back in Gibraltar at around 3am, meaning many players had to get up four hours later for work.

Lowly Farsley AFC’s Adam Priestley is an England-based teacher, and this week spoke of how his pupils just ask him about the non-day job. Other players have had to get special letters from the Gibraltar federation, which their jobs are not obliged to accept.

In that sense, some of the Gibraltar squad’s own rituals are reminiscent of Gaelic games players, given that they now have to fit the demands of high-level competition around the routine of normal life.

The territory’s situation poses other problems in that regard. There is only one proper pitch in the 2.3 square miles, meaning games and league fixtures have to be fitted around that too. All of the nation’s league games are played at the Victoria Stadium.

Other adjustments are more complex. Former Stoke City defender Danny Higginbotham was the squad’s only established name, only to retire this year. Watching from the vantage point of a pro, he spotted many little things the squad had to do.

“Up until they were recognised by Uefa,” Higginbotham tells the Irish Examiner, “they didn’t have too much concern over what medicine they took, things like that. Now, they can have a random drug test at any time.

“They have to make the step up now and be professional about it. Otherwise, they could get a long ban for something they didn’t even realise they weren’t supposed to take.”

Higginbotham, however, insists the team’s set-up is close to the very highest standards.

“They leave no stone unturned. They made sure everything was good, from where we stayed to the physios and doctors. It was second to none.”

Gibraltar, at the least, are determined to make themselves known.

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