Mention football to most people in Gibraltar and you’ll probably be greeted with more mumblings of their continued struggles on the international scene than anything else. Despite being one of the oldest football federations in the world, they remain firm outsiders on the European circuit and are as far removed from the tag of a “power player” in today’s beautiful game than pretty much anyone else.
It’s not easy being a tiny island.
Taking the fact their principal city has flourished and developed to become a vibrant, multi-faceted place under the spectacularly domineering presence of The Rock, however, and it’s tempting for the typical Gibraltarian football fan to fantasize about one day emerging from the large shadow cast by their more powerful peers.
Indeed, these hopeful imaginings seem all the more plausible with level-headed national team manager Jeff Wood at the helm.
Taking charge of a national side not even considered as part of FIFA’s World Rankings system is not an easy post for anybody to successfully man, and while climbing the ladder of global football is an objective every side wants to persist with as often as possible, it becomes a distinct impossibility when you’re given the cold shoulder by the powers that be for as long as they have.
For years, the team have unsuccessfully wrestled and wrangled against their exclusion despite the fact that they were allowed to enter into UEFA as a recognisable body back in 2013, a watershed date that offered hope of further, more widespread, progress. Alas, despite visits to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Gibraltar remain very much on the fringes of global football.
Impressively, none of this has perturbed current head coach Wood in the least, and the heart and focus the Islington-born coach has brought to the team since mid-2015 has really been a superb addition.
Speaking exclusively with These Football Times, the 61-year-old English manager began by opening up about precisely why they would love to get the green light to join the World Cup qualifying party.
“Obviously we want to compete at the highest level and World Cup qualifiers would be another challenge for us. We need to play, competitively if possible, as often as we can. We have a tremendously gifted group of players who only lack high level of competition week in week out which is reflected in the fact that the majority of our squad come from Lincoln Red Imps and have won the local league 12 times on the spin.”
Wood’s enthusiasm is palpable. Unafraid to lead his troops into battle against the most skilled of opponents on the world stage, it’s hard to disagree with the fledgling international boss that this is the best way to make sustainable progress. Although there is a lot of work and investment needed in tandem with guiding the senior men’s team towards FIFA inclusion, such as improving the domestic game on the tiny overseas British territory, it makes sense that more regular football is a clear objective.
The Gibraltar head honcho isn’t getting ahead of himself, though, and when I ask him about how the team plan on reaching the next level, his response shows that while he is obviously concerned about the future he’s also focused on their present battles and remains satisfied with what he has seen to date.
“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. Everyone is looking forward to our upcoming friendlies to put this into practice.”
“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.”
Theirs is an intricate situation and the varying strands of complexity are manifold (something which was closely examined by TFT’s Tryggvi Kristjánsson), but the innate simplicity of football begs for a speedy resolution, despite the many questions and concerns harboured by various bodies.
Understandably, these aren’t easy queries to satisfy, and there is little about the nomadic football team’s current predicament that screams “simple”. It’s part of what makes their appeal so intriguing, and it’s also what made the decision of Wood to grab the reins back in 2015 equally eye-catching.
It wasn’t a selection he made lightly, nor indeed was it one he pursued blindly. Sliding into the hot seat of one of European football’s most recognisable minnows during the middle of a very difficult European Championships qualification period might well have been considered career suicide by so many (especially with the likes of seasoned professionals Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland all in the mix) but the challenge has sat very comfortably with Wood.
The experienced Gibraltar manager took time to explain why he was attracted to the role and exactly why he felt it was the right move for him to make.
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Read | Gibraltar: a question of admittance
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“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.”
His familiarity with the country’s culture of football prior to his appointment (with Lions FC) has certainly benefitted him greatly and there can be little doubt about how it has helped him put his own stamp on proceedings so far. Things move pretty quickly in modern-day football, but I get the impression that Wood wants to instigate long-term change with the Gibraltar FA. His years of experience which has seen him enjoy time managing and coaching at the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion, Exeter City, Leeds and Luton Town all lends itself to the notion that Europe’s small fish are in pretty safe hands.
This comes across not only in our discussion about his philosophy and approach but in the way he’s presented himself throughout his short time at the helm. After all, he might not command the same prestige of some of his opposite match day numbers, but one quick look at his resume and it’s perfectly clear why Gibraltarians should feel confident under his watch.
Incidentally, the idea that Gibraltar would play attractive football might have been scoffed at a few years back, but, as Wood tells me, it’s now a burgeoning mindset and seems to have grown legs thanks to a coach who has intuitively inspired an industrious orchestra of ever-willing players.
Collectively, they have given their all and more to battling hard for pride. Moreover, Wood has ensured they are not afraid to dream big about taking important scalps and of shocking the big guns, as if in an effort to back-bite against whatever critics continue to question their involvement in the glamorous continental match-nights.
“My philosophy is that we play attractive, passing football through the thirds, causing teams problems whilst working from a solid defensive strategy.
“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.”
His efforts to try and make Gibraltar a more formidable opponent for the elite outfits has not simply been a case of abstract dreaming either and, as is to be expected from a top-level coach, he has cultivated a sense of optimism that has, even against a strong current, remained grounded in sound logic and tactical awareness.
“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.”
His belief has already seen some real improvement on the pitch, something he tells me has already earned him and his players high praise from his managerial peers.
“Obviously I was not involved until the Germany game but having observed the previous matches I think the players can take great credit in their progression from the first game to the last. They have adjusted to playing the top nations in Europe who contain some of the best players in the world very quickly and now we need to take this on match by match. Since my involvement we have tried to cause teams problems, which is reflected in our match statistics and we have received many positive comments from opposing coaches and players, no more so than Martin O’ Neill who came in to our dressing room after the game in Faro to congratulate our players on their performance. A fantastic gesture.”
That impressive account of themselves took place in the Estadio Algarve in September of last year, at the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat to the Irish, but Wood’s charges really performed a whole lot better than the final score-line suggested. Even though the Green Army deserved the victory, it served as yet another fresh reminder that Gibraltar have always been very much up against it. More revealing than this, however, it underlined just how hard this core group continue to push for the little victories time and again.
After all, their domestic league is semi-professional and the road to becoming satisfyingly competitive is a long and bumpy one that will continue to be filled with treacherous obstacles. It’s easy to imagine how the task at hand could dispirit even the most optimistic of fans and just why it would ordinarily be difficult to find much to be happy about.
Eventually I ask Wood about his highlight to date. His response is measured and makes due reference to the deserved goal they netted against Poland, and although many might like to forget about heavy defeats like that, I can’t help but feel a sense of some valuable football romanticism.
“That’s a difficult one because of the final score in Poland, although again the players never gave up and continued right to the final whistle to give everything they had and the goal was a fitting reward for those efforts. I think from the Germany game, where we created many goal-scoring opportunities, there have been many highlights and I know we are capable of creating more for our fans.”
The affable coach strikes me as a forward-thinking role model for youngsters everywhere and so I’m eager to discover where he has learned from the most throughout a career that has spanned 40 years in the beautiful game.
“I have taken something from every club, manager and coach at many different levels from Academy to Premier League to international football and believe that you can never stop learning, and as long as you combine that with a style that players understand and respond to, you have a good chance of moving forward.”
Every football fan deserves the right to dream of their team making it big and Gibraltar supporters are certainly no different. With the go-getting Wood manning the ship, there’s every reason to believe that over time this crop can put an end to their spell as a capsized team cast adrift in the vicious, swelling sea that is world football.
He has the right mentality to not only continue making them easier on the eye but to also help them score more goals, increase their level of comfort with the ball at their feet and generally become a more competitive outfit. Picking up the torch passed on by David Wilson, Wood has fused a hunger to reach the next level of coaching with an absence of fear at facing a challenge. That’s a pretty dynamic combination and should ensure he gives his players a fighting chance of becoming a combative force.
Because while the general consensus is fixated on the fact that they are fire-fighters and shopkeepers who moonlight as footballers, Wood clearly has a different vision in his head and it promises to be exciting watching it gain flesh.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90