Gibraltar’s football factory produces a blend of British and Mediterranean styles that, under the right guidance, could potentially allow local players to compete at a decent level. The Rock has been crying out for a youth development structure that could nurture this raw talent and create a Gibraltarian identity within international football. Small nations such as Belgium and Iceland have captured the imagination with sterling performances against the giants of world football. Their success is attributed to large investments into formidable youth development philosophies, which the Gibraltar FA will aim to follow.
Desi Curry, the new GFA Technical Director since January with an impressive CV under his belt, has big plans to restructure football on the Rock. The national association has been searching for a number of years for the right man and Desi’s pedigree in development football signals quite a coup for the UEFA and FIFA newcomers.
As a young lad in Northern Ireland, Desi played at schoolboy level and tried out for the national teams before moving on to club football. However, his plans to head to university to study Physical Education put an end to that, although he did turn out for the Stranmillis College team, which was in the national second division at that time. His career took off when he graduated and became the head of PE at Laurelhill Community College, one of largest schools in Northern Ireland. Desi began working part-time with the Northern Irish FA, taking care of the development squads from U12s to U16s. He could have become Principal at the College, but decided to move into full-time football when the position of Technical Director at the IFA became available. The position had been held by the same person for 32 years before he retired. Desi was given the job in 2009 because of his vision as well as his academic and football background, having worked part-time for the association for a couple of decades. He had also completed all his coaching badges in the 80s. In a period of restructure at the IFA, Desi left his position in 2014, but wanted to remain in the high end of football, so he jumped at the opportunity to join FIFA and UEFA as a consultant. Since then, he has conducted numerous missions on their behalf, working in challenging but rewarding environments. He mentioned as one example the poverty he witnessed in Pune, Northern India when he was sent over to deliver a course, but maintained that they held an intense love for football, “I don’t think people realise the passion around the world for football. You can get over 100,000 people watching a cup final in Western Africa and another 20,000 trying to climb the fence. Sometimes we underestimate the power of sport,” Desi told me following his morning visit to the stadium as he familiarised himself with his new stomping ground.
It was three years ago when the new technical director first met with officials from Gibraltar in the form of the U16s youth coaching staff. The team was taking part in Gibraltar’s first UEFA Under 16s development tournament, which took place in Lichtenstein. Desi was the Technical Observer for the tournament. Four teams competed, including San Marino and Malta and part of Desi’s role was to give advice to the teams and coaching staff, “I thought it was all done and dusted when I received a call from the guys from Gibraltar asking me for some tips.” The team was preparing for their first European Qualification match and Desi advised them that the players needed to experience a higher standard of football outside of Gibraltar, “I’d worked with clubs like Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Leiceter City and Swansea and I used to take my IFA youth teams from Northern Ireland to play against their academies. I had a close friend working at Swansea’s academy, so I rang him and asked if they could host the Gibraltar side and allow them to play a couple of games and use the facilities. Football is a world of opposites. It can be the cruelest game in the world, but also the most caring. I organised the hotel, training schedule and diet, just to give the coaching team an idea of how to prepare a team for a seven day tournament. The results weren’t great but you can’t buy that sort of experience. They were at a full-time Premier League club with an academy facility worth over £20 million. I said to them ‘Here it is. This is your aspiration. Now, if this doesn’t motivate you, nothing else will. This could be yours if you work hard at your game’.”
There was no real contact with Gibraltar since then for Desi, until now. He had just returned from Mozambique where he was part of a coaching team delivering A and B coaching badges when the advert for the job popped up on his Linkedin account. He rang the GFA headquarters to enquire about it and took some time before making the decision to join Team 54, “I missed the day to day life of football to be honest. Working on UEFA or FIFA missions can last from a few weeks to several months. You jump on a plane, stay in a hotel and then begin the cycle again. You don’t stay in one place to get a chance to follow through some of your ideas. However, a technical director job usually runs for a least two terms, particularly in a small nation, you are talking about ten year plans. We are not going to change things overnight. I’m Northern Irish. I used to say that if you cut my veins, I will bleed green and white, but now I’m in Gibraltar and I’m going to commit 100% to the place. I need that to be reciprocated by the clubs, parents and all the stakeholders involved in local football.”
He drew many parallels with the infrastructure currently in place at the GFA and that of the IFA when he first joined. He said that, although it has taken the IFA over ten years to get to where it is, his influence, and that of FIFA/UEFA, will push the GFA to progress at a faster rate, “We are also starting from scratch here in Gibraltar. I’ve already told the players that youngsters will increase their performance by 20% within the next six months. The climb will be very steep but they will get there very quickly.”
Desi feels that the coaching of core strength for youngsters is practically non-existent in Gibraltar. He gave the example that, even though Iniesta and Messi are small in stature, they don’t get knocked off the ball because they have core strength, “Our young players don’t have that because that haven’t worked on it. If I’ve left any legacy at the Northern Ireland FA, it would be the strength and conditioning of youngsters. I was the first person to introduce a full-time strength and conditioning coach. Gibraltar is absolutely ripe for that kind of development and some of the boys will become men very quickly.”
Desi was keen to stress the importance of having extensive contact with local schools, citing that they have a ‘fantastic structure’ and teachers are well-organised as well as being vetted. A school environment is fun, inclusive and safe and he says that these are all role-model characteristics that the GFA should be looking at. The new technical director has already hosted first aid and safeguarding courses for coaches in order to build a foundation in grassroots football as well as meeting with school teachers and the Minister for Education, “You need to produce a product where parents and children can benefit from these traits. If we haven’t got safeguarding, vetting or qualified coaches, then we have a problem, but a school environment already has this in place. One of the areas I would like to focus on is the primary end of education, that’s from ages six to sixteen, and assemble a team of qualified coaches from the GFA to deliver an educational programme through the medium of football education, working together with and with the blessing of the schools and the Department of Education.
“Back in Northern Ireland, we introduced a programme into the primary sector in relation to literacy and numeracy. They didn’t just play five-a-side football, or kick a ball around and have a bit of fun. They used a twinned approach. We can obviously attract kids to the game, but we can also combine that with an educational message.”
Desi is also concerned about the research conducted by several universities showing a drop-off point in participation in sport at 14-years-of-age. There are many reasons for them leaving, from social to employment matters, but the bottom line is that they leave sport, “Given my background in education, if I was the Education or Sports minister, I would want to know why [there is that dropout rate] and try to fix that. One of the efforts we could make is to encourage these youngsters to remain in sport. I was fortunate enough to introduce Vauxhaul sponsored school programmes to 14 to 16-year-olds. These were extra-curricular activities from 3pm to 5pm. Many wanted to take part because it was structured and fun. Hopefully, we will come to some sort of an arrangement with the schools over the next year.”
Desi has noticed the good work and commitment shown at volunteer level, but he believes it could be more structured and professional. He said that many children are playing as a form of recreation, but as a technical director he wants to see some reward in terms of skill, technique and psychological development, “It doesn’t seem as though there are enough coaches really working on individual technique and there is not really an academy structure in Gibraltar. There is no curriculum, syllabus or long-term player development plan, nor does the GFA have one. That is something that I want to implement and what I think is missing, apart from limited facilities and infrastructure. However, there is a solid base of volunteers who are willing to learn and are very committed.”
Part of reworking the structure would be to increase club development by incorporating youth policies into club licensing. All the established nations in Europe have a very strong club licensing programme, which dictates teams to have a youth structure, qualified coaches and deliver a youth development programme, ”We can take best practice from the larger nations, but the bottom line is that any plan we introduce here has to be Gibraltarian. You cannot lose your passion and identity. There is a unique heritage and culture on the Rock, so we need to extract that and implement it into the football development plan. That is the basis I will be working on. What successful small nations like Iceland and Belgium have done, and something that we need to adopt here, is a unified approach. These nations created a structure that was inclusive to all clubs, right down to grassroots level. I can see that everyone in Gibraltar wants to get better and become part of this bigger European family of football. That makes my job a hell of a lot easier. Everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. People want to move forward and if I can help, then great. That’s why I’m here.”
words | Mark Viales photos | GFA