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Saturday 18th January 2014

14.00 Malta Premier League

RABAT AJAX 2 (Allopardi 61 Micallef 72)

TARXIEN RAINBOWS 6 (Barbosa 10 Pulo 29 77 82 Santos Silva 36 71)

Att c350

16.00 Malta Premier League


VALLETTA 4 (Nafti 26 Agius 28 Dos Santos 78 Nyang 84)

Att c350

At Hibernians Stadium, Paola

Entry €6 (both games)

No Programme

Teamsheet FREE

If you want to find out about what makes a country tick, give its public transport a try. With Andy headed to tick a ground on Gozo I decided to tick one of Malta’s most famous grounds Hibernians, very much in the hinterlands of the country’s capital Valletta.

The bus wended its way along the northern coast of the island, passing past the salt pans at the edge of St Paul’s Bay, then through the small villages due east. Hearing the Maltese language fascinated me. The structure is Semetic, or Arabic and its the only language of its type to have a western alphabet albeit with some adapted letters, there’s an H with an extra horizontal bar for example. However with Sicily only 50 miles north, the Italian influence is clear with large chunks of the language thrown into the linguistic melting pot, Grazie and Ciao being perhaps the most obvious.

Away from the tourist areas the architecture is more North African than European, hardly surprising when you’re further south than the Tunisian coast. There’s one massive difference though, and that’s Catholic Churches, roughly one for every 1,000 head of population. It is a deeply religious country, and I remember hearing how when my mother visited in 1991 it was by far the easiest country for her to find a Catholic Church each Sunday!

With public transport it’s always handy to know the major intersections, in Malta there are just the three. There’s the main hospital Mater Dei, the main bus terminus just outside Valletta’s citadel, and Bombi just outside Hamrun. From Bombi I caught the number 1 bus to Paola, passing both the local prison and Hibernians offices and bar in the centre of town before heading out to the edge of town and the stop at Vapur, very much a dockyard settlement. It took 15 minutes to find the ground, and me being me I got there far too early.

I found a nearby café and tried two Maltese specialties Kinnie and Ftira. Kinnie is a bitter orange soft drink with herb extracts, Ftira is a form of bread, rather like ciabatta so a drink and a sandwich was no bad way to contemplate what I was about to take in, and why I was there.

I have a friend, Martin who lives in Taunton. A few years ago he saw that Hibernians were at home in the Intertoto Cup so booked himself a hostel room in Edinburgh and took the train to Waverley. You can imagine his consternation when he arrived at Easter Road and found the place locked and bolted. Of course he’d neglected the vital “S,” Hibernian are Scottish, Hibernians are Maltese, and it was the Maltese version that were at home! It’s fair to say that he hasn’t been allowed to forget the incident since, and the modus operandi is for a hopper to send Martin a picture of the ground when they visit. It goes without saying the tradition was kept up!

Hibernians were formed in 1922 as part of the Constitutional Party, but when the club turned professional in 1931 a new name was picked as the club wanted to remove any political affiliation. They entered the Maltese League and have never been relegated. Interestingly the club were managed by former Oxford United and Rushden & Diamonds manager Brian Talbot in the 1990’s, winning the title in 1994 and 1995. The ground is unusual in that the club actually own it. For all of that, they seldom actually play there. Although the club moved here in 1986 the 2,000 capacity ground is rented out to the Maltese FA for other clubs to use and Hibs themselves usually play their home games at the National Stadium in Ta’ Qali, or the Victor Tedescu Stadium in Hamrun.

This day was a case in point with two top flight games back to back none of which were Hibernians. The ticket gets you both games or either game but the cost is always the same, €6. There was the vexed question of which side of the stand to pick but that was helped by the ticket office. I got there just as it opened, and after a brief “Hail Mary,” the window opened and they pointed out that Valletta would bring the most fans!

The games were both entertaining, even if some of the locals were slightly nonplussed at seeing me being posted a teamsheet through the gate to the VIP section before each kick-off. In the first game Tarxien had far too much fire-power for Rabat, even if the goal of my tour, let alone the game came from Rabat’s Ryan Micallef who managed to lob the keeper from the left, from the goal line!

Despite me being in the Valletta section for the second game, there was a touching moment before kick off when the Vittoriosa captain presented a bouquet of flowers to the family of a recently deceased fan in our section, but on the pitch Valletta were far too strong for Vittoriosa and were good value for their 4-0 win.

It was by anyone’s standards an excellent day’s football with the dockyard cranes forming a formidable backdrop to my day. I’ve seen Andy’s photos from Kercem Ajax on Gozo, it looks an interesting place to visit, but I’ve no regrets on my choice. I bought another bottle of Kinnie and retraced my route back to St Paul’s Bay.