2022 looks set to be a pivotal year for the direction of Gibraltarian football

A fresh, and positive refresh is needed both on and off the pitch in 2022, if Gibraltar football is going to reignite the interest of its seemingly dwindling fanbase.

Photo © William Gracia

The World Cup Qualifiers wrapped up on Tuesday night as Gibraltar, starting with seven defenders and a defensive midfielder at home to 5th place Latvia, ended up on the wrong end of a 3-1 defeat, despite going 1-0 up inside the first 10 minutes of the match at the Victoria Stadium. In a game where there should have been no pressure on Gib, and the shackles should have been freed from the team, Julio Ribas instead persisted with the ultra-defensive approach which has yielded zero points and 43 goals conceded in 10 games, with just the four scored (two being from penalties). In fact, Walker’s goal vs Latvia was Gib’s first from open play in the Victoria Stadium for over two years – a stat that sums up the defensive, arguably dour approach Ribas has opted for. There were moments in the game where Gib showed glimmers of what they can do as a more attacking outfit, but they eventually reverted back to type.

More concerningly though, the crowds have got noticeably smaller for Gib’s games in 2021 – even in what was realistically Gib’s best chance of a result last night, there were noticeably empty pockets of seats across the Victoria Stadium. It isn’t even like the game wasn’t advertised – the GFA’s partnership with marketing firm The Bulb has been the visibility of international games increased across Gibraltar. However, fans are clearly turning off from the negative football on display, and this has also seemingly filtered down to Lincoln’s Conference League games, where despite their more positive approach to the game, they have struggled to get crowds in for their home games.

As a result of this, it is clear a number of changes are needed on and off the pitch before the Nations League starts in June 2022. The most obvious of these changes appears to be a change of manager for the national team. Julio Ribas has managed twice as many games as any other Gib manager in the UEFA era, and while he has had his moments in the Nations League, and deserves praise for those moments, a fresh approach is clearly needed for the next Nations League campaign. If he does leave, the Uruguayan will leave his replacement a core of young, talented players to build the national team around for the next 10 to 15 years, but a new manager needs to bring with them a more optimistic and positive approach to ensure we don’t especially waste the attacking talents in the squad. With the likes of De Barr, Graeme Torrilla and Louie Annesley (who has to be moved back to defence to get the most out of him), to name just three, there is a core from which to build the national team for the forseeable future.

It is worth noting too that the women’s game, by comparison to the men’s, seems to be going on a much more upward trajectory on the Rock. The growth of the domestic league to five teams is very welcomed, and performance by the national team on the pitch and on the court have to be applauded. The fact that just last weekend, three of Gibraltar’s women futsal players were on BT in the English FA Women’s Futsal Super Series is also a good sign of progress – they play Liechtenstein later this month and hopefully get the support they deserve – the crowd they got for the recent Futsal internationals was better than anything served up for men’s internationals in 2021.

Another thing that seems clear is that Technical Director Desi Curry needs to be given more of a control over ensuring this young generation of Gibraltarian’s get all the tools they need to succeed. Curry has been here for nearly 5 years now, but it feels that he hasn’t ever been allowed to fully implement his blueprint for Gibraltarian football. In fact, it is believed that the 61-year-old Northern Irishman is frustrated at the blocks that have seemingly been put in front of him – considering his previous experience as Technical Director of Northern Ireland, there is arguably no one more qualified on paper to do the job here than him.

A topic that perhaps not too many want to talk about, is what to do with the oldest members of the current national team. There still seems to be an over-reliance on Roy Chipolina, and to an extent, Lee Casciaro too (Tjay De Barr’s emergence has took that pressure off Casciaro though). Gibraltar needs to accept that a long-term future needs to built without the pair, and the Nations League offers that opportunity in 2022. By all means, keep the pair in the squad for their invaluable experience, and to call upon them as and when needed in matches, but it is probably time to trust the next generation, and build the next Chipolina’s and Casciaro’s for Gibraltar.

Chino has made the sensible move to retire from international duty after yesterday’s game vs Latvia (and Ribas’ decision not to give him minutes in his final game was a crying shame), and that paves the way for Jaylan Hankins, who some rate as Gibraltar’s most promising keeper, to step into the senior side, fighting alongside Dayle Coleing, Bradley Banda, and the more experience Jamie Robba for the three goalkeeping spots. Unsurprisingly, Gibraltar are not struggling in the goalkeeping department, and won’t do for years to come.

The relationship between a new national team manager, and Gibraltar’s club sides, needs to improve and be less one-sided in favour of the manager too. Under Ribas, the league has been heavily disrupted as his demands to have his national squad for a lengthy period before internationals means only three rounds of league fixtures have been played this season (had it not been for Lincoln’s European exploits, 99% of the national team would have come even into November’s internationals woefully short of match fitness). A greater balance needs to be struck between the needs of the national team and the league, in order to ensure we don’t see a repeat of this season where the league didn’t start until the middle of October.

Finally, there needs to be more communication between the GFA and the public, if they want people to start returning to matches and generally showing more interest in local football once again. Eight years after joining UEFA, the novelty of being a part of European football has clearly worn off for Gibraltarians – it isn’t simply enough to say that Gib are playing big or decent nations in order for fans to turn up in numbers. They now need a genuine reason to attend, and that has to start from the top. For Ivan Robba, even just regular written or video interviews, either internally on the GFA’s own platforms or on traditional media such as GBC or the Chronicle, explaining the work the GFA are doing on and off the pitch would be a start – give people a reason to be optimistic and interested in local football again.

Failure to freshen things up in 2022 will likely lead to Gibraltar stagnating further, struggling in the Nations League, and then most likely the Euro 2024 qualifiers as well. If this happens, in two years time we will be sat here writing the same article as today, however the reality is very few people in Gibraltar will either be reading it, or even paying attention to local football by that point. In a country where top class football is freely available both on TV and across the border, Gibraltar needs to fight tooth and nail to regain interest on the action at the Victoria Stadium.