Gibraltar’s start to their first ever UEFA European Championship qualifier campaign has been nothing short of abysmal. 14 goals conceded in two games against Poland and the Republic of Ireland, neither of whom could even make the play-offs to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. When you take into consideration Gibraltar’s population, the job on manager Allen Bula’s hands is phenomenal, and he hasn’t made it easy for himself, claiming in February that reaching the play-offs was the team’s goal. After a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of the Irish, Bula faced the media in Dublin’s AVIVA Stadium.
“It’s been a tough evening” he told the Irish and Gibraltarian press. “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the result. But we’ve got to take the positives with us. Yeah we made mistakes, we’re learning, but to be down 5 or 6-0 and start pushing really hard and force Ireland to start defending deep it’s a positive I can take [going] forward.
“We said it from day one; we’re not going to park the bus. And I think that’s not just words. We’ve actually shown it in every single match that it’s just not the way we play. And obviously it’s a learning curve for us and my players. Our first game against Poland, and then we come [to Dublin]. I don’t know probably about two players have played in front of 30-40,000 spectators. Today was another milestone we had to overcome. It’s just a question of getting all these little bits and pieces out of the way, pushing forward and play football. But definitely we’re just not going to park the bus!”
If a 4-0 scoreline only 50 minutes in, including a hat-trick within the first 18 minutes by Robbie Keane, wasn’t enough for goalkeeper Jordan Perez, he scored a comical own goal to make the score 5-0. Manager Bula rubbed salt into the 8-time capped stopper’s wounds when, with the score at 7-0, he replaced him with second choice Jamie Robba. The reasoning for this was questioned by a member of the travelling press contingent. “It was the same as when I do any kind of substitution. A ‘keeper is a player on the field. So if I’ve got to take a defender off I’ll take a defender off. If I’ve got to take a ‘keeper off I’ll take a ‘keeper off. Simple as that.”
However, the decision did seem erratic. Bula seemed baffled when he was asked if it was down to injury. “Why wouldn’t you take a ‘keeper off?” he argued. “If we are a developing nation, we don’t have hundreds of thousands of players to pick from. I’ve got three goalkeepers, and I have to give minutes to my goalkeepers. Period, full stop, that’s all!”
Gibraltar have only three players based outside of the British Overseas Territory; David Artell plays with Welsh Premier League side Bala Town, striker Adam Prisetley plays for non-league English outfit Farsley and midfielder Jake Gosling plays for Bristol Rovers. It’s a far cry from the superstars like Lewandowski and Robbie Keane, who have helped both Poland and Ireland demolish the UEFA debutants. “We’re playing against multi-million pound players that can by themselves change and win games. I think my players have shown character and when they come up against these types of players they still show that character and they’ll grow with it.”
Later in the evening Poland hosted World Cup winners Germany, who are favourites to top the group, and managed to bag a 2-0 win, putting themselves in firm contention for an automatic qualifying place. As the events in Warsaw were unfolding, the Gibraltarian manager, who was once a player for Gilbraltar’s U-21 side, claimed that after both games were over, Ireland had proved a more difficult test than the Poles. “I believe Ireland played better football than Poland. We might have been able to do something about a couple of goals against Ireland, but the rest were very strong. [They had] a good set-up, [in] the way they orchestrated the goals, whereas with Poland most of the goals were our mistake. We felt the pressure put by Ireland was superior to the one by Poland.”
Generally, two 7-0 losses in succession would leave a manager in a fight for his job. Bula’s case, while slightly different in the sense of where Gibraltar are in the wider football world, is quite similar, a point he recognises himself. “Some people might say that [I am out my depth]. But I always refer to every single nation that’s joined UEFA. All of them, at the beginning, have had very heavy defeats as well. So why should we be different? Obviously, we’re a small nation. For me, it’s a question of ‘Are we showing that we can play football, or are we showing that we are just parking the bus?’ And that’s for people to decide. ‘Have we shown character out there? Have we given a game to Ireland?’ Maybe not the full 90 minutes, but part of it. Yes, we’ve given a game to Ireland.
“So defeats? Everyone [has them]. Look at Brazil, they suffered a heavy defeat recently. But not only that, every single nation that has joined UEFA, look back at the history, and [there are] heavy defeats all over the place. We aren’t the first and we’re not the last. We’re showing that we like to play football as well, and given time, it’ll be a different Gibraltar”
Inevitably, his claims about possibly finishing in the group’s top 3 did come up in conversation. However, with a minus 14 goal difference and 0 points after two games, it seems the already heavy claims are bordering on the impossible. Admirably though, with it still mathematically achievable, he has some modicum of belief, refusing to rule out the possibility. “Well, we’ve lost 6 points already, it’s becoming more difficult. But we’ve still got to try and get some points. Yeah, losing 6 points makes it quite difficult but we’ve got keep trying.”
With the results overcoming Gibraltar’s attempts to play attacking, exciting football, it seems plausible that Allen Bula could see himself sacked as manager. As a football man, he understands the very real possibility. “That’s the life of a manager. You always get sacked don’t you?” he laughed. The statement, unfortunately, is depressingly true. “We’ve got a very small life span, as managers in any team. At the end of the day, we look at scores. But we also have to look at the type of football that is played. There’s many big countries that haven’t won anything at all. Have they [their managers] got sacked? No. That’s the other side of it.”
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