words | Mark Viales
The Grammarians Hockey Club is Gibraltar’s longest standing and most successful local hockey team with accolades extending abroad, giving the Rock European recognition as a top hockey nation. With over thirty league titles to their name and two nine-year title streaks, the renowned side boasts an unmatched dominance on the Rock. Gibraltar became full members of the European Hockey Federation in 1969 and competed in the European Championships that year. When it comes to Grammarians competing on foreign soil, they have also had the greatest success with four championships to call their own.
The Grammarians Association was formed in 1951 by a group of teenage hockey players who had just completed their studies at the former Grammar School and were no longer eligible to turn out for the school team. In conjunction with other sports, these boys formed the multi-sport Grammarians Association. As the years went by, the other sports slowly gave way to the remaining and strongest sport, hockey, which was a
lways regarded as the spearhead of the association. However, it disbanded in under a decade before the conversion to the Grammarians Hockey Club with the help of one of the Christian Brothers at the local Grammar School, Brother Doherty.
This year is the club’s 65th anniversary so there is a real buzz surrounding hockey.
From the beginning
Grammarians competed in the 1951/1952 season, but the record shows that they struggled a little and, in fact, were on the brink of breaking up. But they pulled through in the end and came back the following year with a vengeance, going on to win nine consecutive league titles.
It was quite a change and it was due to the fact that they were boys playing against men the previous year, but that season hardened them and it was now a collective unit of men with skill and passion in abundance.
Carl Ramagge, President of the Gibraltar Hockey Association and a third generation Grammarian, bleeds the club’s colours and gave his rendition of his hockey club’s scintillating history. “It must be considered that Grammarians also had a smaller pool of players to choose from at that time,” he said. “The credentials to play for the team required any potential addition to have attended the Grammar School. That policy stayed for a good few years.”
An unbelievable record of dominance between 1957 and 1962 saw the team concede only three or four goals in five seasons. This was a real period of ascendancy and it would not stop there.
In the Spring of 1958, Grammarians made history as the first Gibraltarian hockey club to play a friendly match on foreign soil. The battleground was Portugal and two matches would take place, one against Benfica and the other against a Portuguese select side.
“They played in front of a crowd of 4,000 people which was unreal at the time,” Ramagge said. “They lost their first match to Benfica 3-2 and beat the Portuguese selection 1-0. It must have been incredible. Former players involved in those matches told me that the pitch used against Benfica was on a surface they had never played on before, grass. In Gibraltar, hockey was played on concrete or gravel.” Playing on grass is completely different to the aforementioned surface, affecting the traction and speed of the ball greatly and creating a slippery surface for those lacking studs on their boots.
“They had never played on grass before and it made it a completely different game. But they did very well considering the conditions and it must have been amazing to have played in front of that crowd.”
This side is referred to within the club as the ‘First Generation Team’, although many of these local legends played well into the eighties, but eventually, had to retire from the game.
The sons of the talismanic first generation eventually came through, Carl’s father’s team, and many of the surnames were repeated as they continued the ever-growing hockey tradition. “Funnily enough, they came in, played a few seasons and also won nine titles on the trot from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, replicating the glory from former years.”
In 1992, the European Cup B Division was played in Gibraltar and all the matches were played in front of a packed Victoria Stadium. “I remember being absorbed by the ambiance as a young eight-year-old boy. We lost in the final against the Scottish champions on penalties and many from that team retired from disappointment after having prepared so well for that tournament.”
Shortly after that fateful match, the third generation came along in the late nineties with the familiar names of Casciaro, Coitiño and Ramagge dominating the team-sheet once again. The pattern continued.
“I was 15-years-old when I played my first game for the men’s team alongside Mark Casciaro, one of my generation’s best players,” he said. “That team won the 2002 European Cup C Division Cup in Wrexham, Wales, securing Grammarians’ first gold medal in the history.”
With several other European Cup victories, on paper, this was the most successful side to have competed abroad, but they have not yet won nine consecutive league titles. It is a feat that may escape them due to the sands of time catching up to the more senior players approaching their mid-thirties. Nevertheless, the team is extremely proud of its achievements and is well respected within the club.
Ramagge said that Douglas Casciaro Jr is widely regarded as the best player to have ever donned the shirt with a visiting Great Britain coach asserting that he had incredible talent. Good enough to become a top professional. “I played briefly with him when I was fifteen and he was approaching the end of his career. Although he was not very mobile by the time I saw him, his vision and skills had never been seen before. His hit could take down a concrete wall. I never saw him in his prime, but I am told that the Great Britain coach visited Gibraltar to do some work with Grammarians and he said that Casciaro would have easily made it into his GB squad. This was the same coach who guided Team GB to an Olympic medal. That is how good he was.”
Mark Casciaro is another player who sticks out and is another role model for the up and coming youngsters who are eager to make a name for themselves. “He has been unbelievable and I always try to get him down when I am coaching the kids to show them what level they themselves could achieve if they work as hard as he did. They go nuts with him.”
M. Casciaro is the first Grammarian to receive a contract to play abroad, turning out in the Canary Islands and Dutch leagues with some success. “He is a fiery character who leaves his skin on the pitch and this really inspires young players to pick up a hockey stick.”
For some reason, Gibraltarians have natural ability in different sports and often produce skillful players across the board. In hockey, the Rock adopts a Spanish or Italian style of hockey where flair-type players with resounding technique are churned out year in year out.
Hockey has also remained, by and large, an amateur sport around the world, which is why teams from Gibraltar and the national team itself have done so well over the years. “However, hockey is becoming more professional and, whereas in the past we could compete in the A Division, nowadays the gap is too wide. It is quite unrealistic that we could get a result in the top division because they are all professional at that level. We would have some way to go.”
When Gibraltar compares to smaller hockey nations, the results and history speak for themselves with the Rock much superior to countries in a similar weight class. “We are very dedicated and my youth team trains three or four times a week. They bleed for the colours of Grammarians when they play locally and abroad. That is the difference. Playing abroad is one of the most fulfilling moments and when you are alongside family and close friends, you fight for one another. It is a beautiful thing that can be found in many sports around the Rock.”
Grammarians used to have a very strong ladies team for many years, but it dissipated until the club resurrected it this year thanks to Diana Soussi. “I think it is great to finally have a ladies team. That was one of my personal projects when I returned from university, to help rekindle the Grammarians ladies hockey team. It is true that there are fewer teams right now in the men’s league, but the women’s league has grown and is probably bigger than the men’s at the moment.”
Mixed hockey events are also very popular in Gibraltar and provide a more social side to the game, a welcomed break from the high-intensity competitiveness that is expressed during league matches.
With numerous youngsters coming through, the future is bright for Grammarians, despite competition from other sports chipping away at their best athletes. The club works with local schools to introduce kids to the sport as well as inter-school competitions in a bid to motivate them to sign up. “Chrissie Caetano has done fantastic work with t
he kids and Peter Pizzaro before her. We cannot complain about our coaches’ dedication and we hope for a bright future as we put things in place to improve our standards.”
With 65 years gone by, history is still being written for Grammarians as the team competes yearly for the local league title and the European Cup. The club will aim to reach new heights despite the incremental rise in standard as European nations continue to professionalise the sport.