Celebrating 40 years of football accomplishments could not have come at a better time for Lincoln Red Imps. Heralded as one of the greatest upsets in European club football, their crowning achievement came this July when they defeated former European champions Celtic at the Victoria Stadium. Many would say that the recent success of the 22-time league champions outshines that of their former sponsors, Lincoln City, who now languish in the fifth-tier of English football. The Red Imps flew the flag for Gibraltar in the Champions League and their exploits in Europe have pushed the Rock up the UEFA Club Coefficient above Andorra and San Marino. There is now an extra spot in the Europa League available to local clubs as a result. They push the boundaries and their players dominate the national selection. They are Lincoln Red Imps, the powerhouse club of Gibraltarian football.
Born from the Blue Batons police youth team combined with fringe players of established clubs such as Glacis United and St Jago’s, an adolescent side was introduced into the Gibraltar 4th Division in 1976. Charlie Poulson, a friend and business contact of Lincoln City’s Vice-Chairman at the time, Reg Brealey, agreed to a sponsorship deal that would create the Lincoln Red Imps Football Club, “Before that we had to reach out to local businesses for small deals in order to stay afloat,” said Charlie Head, Lincoln’s first Head Coach (no pun intended, especially as his son, Steven, would become the second Head Coach by name). “Poulson would run half of the youth league from the back of his car where he stored the kits and footballs, but we started to build something special when that deal was made and we changed our name to Lincoln Red Imps.”
The rising stars soon battled their way to the top flight and became joint-league champions with Glacis United in the 1984/1985 season, the first of seven titles in a ten-year spell, “That first league title was the most special one for me. We were a very young side and won it against the odds. People would say ‘don’t worry, we are playing against ‘los niños’ – the kids, but they were shell-shocked by the technical ability and sheer determination that these lads possessed,” he said with blissful reminiscence in his tone before cracking a smile as he explained the ‘quite bizarre’ scenario where the Gibraltar FA was ready to award Lincoln the title outright, unaware that they were level in every aspect with Glacis at the season’s conclusion, “So, they double checked and it was agreed that we would share the title instead. We had come from nowhere to Gibraltar champions in merely four years.”
The list of star names in the first generation squad are impressive and too long to discuss them all, but Charlie described Mick McElwee, who was instrumental in the development of current stars, the Casciaro brothers, Roy Chipolina and many others, as a midfield general for club and country, “He would score goals out of the blue and leave the keeper stranded with his superb free kicks.” Another player, who when fully fit Charlie considered him the top right full back in Gibraltar, was Ian Payas, “He had good common sense and led the team very well, the same could be said about Francis Caruana and Terence Polson, who was a midfield destroyer and could also take a lot of punishment.” Charlie considered Dennis Lopez as the best centre forward around at the time who had two good feet and was influential in the air despite his height, “He could outjump practically anybody and it was very tough to knock him off the ball as he used his strength very well, “Francis [Caruana] was a jack of all trades and had sport in his blood. There were few left sided midfielders with his ability at the time and he also had a wicked banana free-kick held in his locker. My son, Stephen, was a fearless goalkeeper who would throw himself into the action. I encouraged him to find another club to continue his progression and when he returned, he was very much improved, eventually breaking into the national team. He was very brave to dive the way he did on gravel and concrete surfaces.”
Most of the side doubled-up for Gibraltar internationally, a trend found throughout the club’s existence. The above mentioned and many others retain strong links with today’s outfit. The family roots of the seven-time treble winners extend very deep indeed and continue to branch out to this day. The next generation of youngsters would take the baton and achieve even more success under the auspices of former players Mick McElwee, Steven Head as well as Charlie Cumbo, who had left coaching the national team to start a new project at Lincoln.
Cumbo, a Gibraltar United legend as a player, was approached to take over as boss by Lincoln and his former club on the same day he retired after eleven years in the national side coaching setup. He chose the exciting new project instead of familiar territory. It was the new millennium, a new challenge and little did he know that the club would eventually go on a spectacular run of winning fourteen league titles in a row. Gibraltar United was a well-established and successful club whereas Lincoln had fallen slightly from grace and was considered once again as a developing project. The top players were getting on and they needed new blood. Along with Andrew Serra, Cumbo promoted some of the youth players and instilled a ‘you train, you play’ culture, “Obviously the younger players were hungrier and ready to take the reins, and so they did. Lee Casciaro, Ryan Casciaro, Philip Davitt, John Paul Duarte and Jordan Perez, they and many others were knocking on my door and could not be ignored,” said the now under 13s head coach. “The kids won the premier division in their first season. It was a fantastic achievement. We had Danny Bonfiglio, Ernest Galliano and that’s about it in terms of senior players. These youngsters were to become the best in Gibraltar.”
Cumbo believes that only with hard work can you become the best and combining that with natural talent was a match made in heaven. They had all the raw ingredients to succeed. The team played incisive passing football using technique and flair and many local sides took a page from their book as they started adopting the ‘putting faith in youngsters’ philosophy. Although the side missed the chance to win the league in the next campaign, they took the Rock Cup crown and returned to winning ways the following year, achieving the double. Cumbo’s final year saw this generation take its first treble, laying the foundations for the club’s most successful period that is still being lived today as they chase a 15th league title in a row.
The bulk of the locals making up today’s side were brought up on a culture of ‘patio football’ where most training sessions would take place near the team’s clubhouse in Humphries. Having small-sided games in very confined spaces around the estate helped the boys develop quick feet and an elegant touch on the ball. Playing your way through tight situations was the Lincoln way. There was no hoofing the ball up the field and this type of conditioning would encourage a more subtle approach, “I used to have a size three ball that was weighted inside and it would push them to keep the ball down. We worked a lot on transition from defence to attack and you need to know how to pass and move effectively in tight situations to achieve this.” In training sessions, if a player kicked the ball over the wall, all the players would groan out loud. It was considered a substantial lack of technique if this happened and it was your responsibility to run down to the road, jump through the traffic and retrieve the ball. Sometimes, if more than one team would be playing, it would count as a goal against you and the next team would come on in your place.
Cumbo was ready for a break from football but senior figures within the club, including Charlie, persuaded him to get more involved with youth development. The ‘nursery’, as it is known within Lincoln circles, involves kids as young as five-years-old training basic ball skills at Hargraves before stepping up into competition a few years later. Cumbo has nursed the current under 13s team from their first moments in football and is confident that the ‘Lincoln talent factory’ will mass-produce another batch of top players of the standard we see today, which will naturally benefit the national selection, “We have a huge array of talent here who are working hard and progressing year on year. They need even more commitment now with the influx of foreign players, but the progression I have witnessed since I joined has been immense.”
Beating Celtic was the crowning achievement and was beyond Lincoln’s and Gibraltar’s wildest dreams. It is there in the record books and the whole experience was a bit magical to be honest. The atmosphere around the Victoria Stadium was out of this world, “It gives me a deep satisfaction to see these players who I helped blood into the first team to represent the national selection against the best footballers in the world. I have no doubt that, if a scout had seen Lee Casciaro in his younger years, he would have been picked up and become professional. His character before a match is completely different to any other player. He prepares himself in the best way and is fully focussed on achieving his goal. His speed and strength are amazing and he is always hassling defenders, prowling for a goal.”
Current club captain Roy Chipolina, who initially joined the club at five-years-of-age due to family connections, marshalled the defence superbly against the Scottish champions as he helped the club etch its name into the record books, “It’s amazing what races through your mind in just a few seconds,” he said, reflecting on what went through his head when L. Casciaro poked home the winner. “I was ecstatic for about 30 seconds but at the same time, I also thought to myself, ‘right now, for this moment to go down in history, we have to keep a clean sheet’. It was all very surreal. We had beaten the mighty Celtic. No-one could actually believe what we had achieved. Media attention was crazy and everyone wanted photos and interviews with the players who had created such a historic moment. We all went back to the clubhouse for some food and drinks and just talked of the amazing achievement we had all contributed to.”
Chipolina cites strong mental toughness and defensive solidity as the most important aspect of their game, especially when considering that Celtic would have most of the possession. The team knew that they had to work hard off the ball in order to achieve something special, “Our manager had constantly stated that we would defeat Celtic at home and I believe that he had tactically prepared us perfectly on the night. We knew if we could frustrate them enough, we would get our own opportunities and when you have someone like Lee in your ranks, a goal is always possible.”
Although there have been many highlights for Chipolina both in recent history and pre-UEFA, being the first club to represent Gibraltar in the Champions league was very special for him too, “It was achieved with a 100% local team that also had a family bond. This was a special side and managed by lynch-pins in Lincoln’s history, Mick Mcelwee and Stephen Head. It has taken a lot of work, not only from our current players and management, but ex-players such as Ernest Galliano, ‘Bonfy’, Graham Alvarez, Christian Sanchez, Daniel Duarte, Charlie Cumbo and Andrew Serra to name but a few. If people saw how much hard work and dedication has been put into our achievements throughout the years, it would make it easier to understand the reason why we have been so successful.”