Gibraltar may be one of Europe’s smallest, and newest, football nations, and home to just 33,000 people, but they are doing what they can to achieve as much as possible within their means.
That doesn’t mean chasing trophies or even qualification, but it does mean putting the structures and people in place to make the very best fist of things they can.
When Gibraltar began their first ever qualifying campaign, for Euro 2016, they had local man Allen Bula in charge. He was a charismatic, enthusiastic, and ambitious coach and he successfully steered the newly affiliated national team to some impressive early results – albeit in friendly matches rather than the competitive qualifiers.
But part way through the qualifying campaign he was replaced, after a brief interim period with Bula’s former assistant Scotsman David Wilson in charge, by a 61-year-old Englishman Jeff Wood – a man also with a fair degree of experience of Gibraltarian football. A former goalkeeper with Charlton Athletic, Exeter City, HJK Helsinki and Rabat Ajax, Wood has been tasked with gaining Gibraltar’s first ever competitive point. This at least is a realistic target, and one which would of course see them rise from the foot of the world rankings.
“I know there is a lot of talent in Gibraltarian football,” Wood told the Gibraltar FA’s website. “I hope to be able to oversee the development and nurturing of that talent into the national team, and make the whole of Europe and the world take Gibraltar seriously given the calibre of player we constantly produce.”
“We need to use the experience we have gained from the qualifiers to ensure that we will always be competitive in all matches and move forward with every game.”
“The Gibraltar FA have given me a fantastic opportunity to work as a National team manager and it is something I have always wanted to do, especially after my international experiences with Wales at under 17, 19 and 21 level. I had coached in Gibraltar previously, prior to UEFA inclusion, and knew how committed everyone is to being successful. It is also an opportunity to work with all age groups and put in place a coaching structure for the future development of both teams, and individuals.”
“Everyone has already come a long way since starting qualifiers and we will continue, by our efforts and desire, to progress until we are successful.”
As mentioned above, that “success” is gaining a competitive point, in contrast with the loftier – and rather unrealistic – ambition as stated by Bula ahead of the Euro qualifiers where a British documentary showed him asking his players: “Who’s coming with me to the play-offs?”
His reign has lasted seven matches so far, with the last few games of the Euro qualifiers and the opening of the World Cup campaign. Those seven matches have brought six defeats so far with a lone draw in a friendly against Liechtenstein to show for their efforts, but the spirit and endeavour shown by his side is impressive given the limitations of numbers and talent they work under.
Gibraltar have shown a willingness to commit to attack when the opportunity arises. They scored away in Poland, and more recently in the 4-1 defeat at home to Greece. This ambition is something that Wood is keen to encourage, rather than the negative, risk-averse style that many teams facing up to far larger, star-studded teams may adopt.
“My philosophy is that we play attractive, passing football through the thirds, causing teams problems whilst working from a solid defensive strategy,” he added.
“The players and staff have worked tremendously hard before, during and after every game. We analyse the opposition, though in that group [Euro qualification] it was difficult to find too many weaknesses, then [we] attempt to utilise our strengths and style to best effect in the game. I know as a unit from staff, players and officials we have the motivation and drive to be successful.”
In a refrain familiar to anyone who has followed any of the teams whose tales have featured in this blog, or the accompanying book, Wood went on to add:
“The players here are not driven by financial but by national pride and a desire to do well for everyone involved in Gibraltar football. They cannot be faulted for the time, commitment and effort they put in trying to improve both individually and as a unit. Our motivation is from being the underdog and trying to cause the upset.”