First season back in the Premier Division since the club’s return and the objective was clear; stay in the top flight. The summer had been a very busy one with plenty of transfers in and out. Though we retained the bulk of the promotion clinching squad the board was well aware that an injection of quality was needed. The first signing was perhaps the most important one, Manuel Sanchez Nuñez as manager.
Manolo is no stranger to Gibraltarian football having had a spell managing College Europa (now Europa FC). He was instrumental in attracting new players into the club and his vast knowledge and experience soon won over new and existing squad players. It was frankly an honour having someone of his experience and with his CV at Gibraltar United and it may be argued that he was crucial in Gib Utd staying in the top flight.
Robert Montovio, ‘Pitu’ Anes, Duane Robba, Jamie Currer and young starlet Byron Espinosa were among the names who signed up in the summer. The #SupportingLocalTalent campaign we had started last year had born its fruit with the club becoming an attractive option to players as we sought the quality needed to stay up.
The opening game way back in September saw us line up against Britannia, who had got promoted the season before as Division 2 champions. A credible 1-1 draw with a debut goal for Montovio gave an indication of the season to come; a tough ask but this team does not know when to lay arms and die! Several incidents in the match however threatened to unhinge our efforts. Mark Casciaro was suspended for 6 games while Lee Buhagiar suffered an injury which subsequently was to indefinitely leave him out of eleven aside football. With the top two next United were in 8th place after 3 games with 1 solitary point on the board. The teams around them (Glacis Utd, Angels FC and Man 62) would be permanent companions for the duration of the season.
The first revelation of the season came in the shape of Brad Power. Locally recognised as a striker the manager saw the potential for a shift of position to the other end of the pitch as a center half. He suffered a very tough baptism of fire vs Lincoln FC but Brad cemented his position in the team through hard work and determination and was rewarded during the season with a call up to the national squad in March and a renewal of his contract with the club. David Gallardo, last year’s flying winger was also reconverted to a centre half and more often than not partnered Brad at the back.
United did not record their first win of the season until late November when Angel’s FC and Man 62 were defeated in back to back games that did wonders for morale. Robert clearly still had an eye for goal and he was constantly netting for the team in defeat after defeat but the goals tasted better in victory and as we entered December United held their heads above water and Glacis and Angels who were floundering at foot of the table.Yet a lean month meant that the January transfer window was to be key.
A total of 12 players left the club and a similar number drafted in. Perhaps Ashley Perez was to have the biggest impact of the January signings. Signed on a 6 month deal from St Joseph’s he quickly asserted himself as a regular in the team either as a left winger or a left center back. Dexter Panzavechia, signed from Glacis United, also quickly became a fixture in the first XI. Loanee Evan Green also pitched in with important goals. An upturn in fortune saw United gather more points against Glacis United FC and Lions FC. As we climbed positions in the table Britannia began a free fall that was to have dire consequences for them.
No matter how gratifying those results were United never made it easy for themselves. Back to back defeats to Angels FC (who turned up with a new team in January) and Man 62 saw us plummet down to 8th. Another victory over Glacis United, a rearranged fixture from November, kept us afloat. However having to face the top 3 one after the other let the clarets and blues claw back points and positions. They had a resurgence of form post January that saw them gather a substantial number of points against the bigger teams in the league, most notably a 1-0 victory over Europa FC. We lost to St Joseph’s the following day meaning Glacis now had the upper hand.
Once again our character showed through. Wins against Lions, again, and most especially Britannia meant that a new contender joined the basement battle. A contender that had not won in 13 games and was in free fall. Before the curtain closed however the was a break for internationals and four of our squad were called up. A just reward for outstanding performances but more importantly for getting minutes on the pitch they would no get elsewhere. Robert, Brad, Chino and Evan were called up by Mr. Wood for the games versus Liechtenstein and Latvia. Chino has been frankly outstanding this season and his call up was extremely well deserved. His saves had been remarkable and there was a series of one on one saves in our first game versus Angels FC that gave us the three points. Chino and Brad got minutes in a match versus San Roque but Robert played as a sub in both UEFA games at the stadium.
As league action returned United approached the last few games of the season knowing it was still in their hands despite a very damaging 2-0 defeat to Glacis United in late April. Angels had already gone but Britannia had joined us at the foot of the table. Suspensions and injuries were also beginning to take their toll. Kaylan Rumbo proved a godsend to Manolo as he filled in practically every position in the pitch. Chino missed a key game versus Lynx and young Ayden Viñales took the gloves. The 17 year old handled himself brilliantly against a strong Lynx side. A crucial Montovio goal gave us 3 unexpected points at a time when Britannia could not get a win. With St Joseph’s, Angels and Man 62 to come in our last 3 games survival was in our hands.
The loss to St Joseph’s meant that Glacis United were safe. The relegation spot would be a fight between us and Britannia. Europa FC annihilated them 16-1 the day before we beat Angels 7-1 to make our league spot practically safe for the following season. Lincoln cemented our place by beating Britannia 10-0. We closed our season with a 2-2 draw versus Manchester 62 FC to finish 8th place with a respectable 29 points.
A very hard season but respect needs to go out to these group of 100% local players who have beaten all the odds to stay in the Division. We only failed to beat Lincoln, Europa and St Joseph’s and we have shown we have the ability to fight it out in Gibraltar’s top division. Work has already started in the 2016-17 squad and we cannot wait!
Vi Et Animo, Ad Victoriam!