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‘Anything could happen..’ - St Joseph FC Club President says about match against Rangers

St Joseph FC face one of the most important matches in their club history this Tuesday as they prepare to play Rangers. After beating Prishtina in the preliminary round of the Europa League St Joseph have been drawn against one of the top sides from the first round of teams. A tough match, even tougher for a small club such as St Joseph. We spoke with Club President Stuart Rodriguez ahead of the match.

As one of the top clubs in Gibraltar this does now mean that you are a big club in terms of structure. Facing now Rangers firstly how important is it that you will be the hosts to them; secondly how difficult is it that you really only have a few days to prepare for a club who will expect the same level they can provide when they have the structure to do so?

I wish we could say, “yes we have a structure in place that can cope with the demands of running a Club”, not just for Europa League rounds but also during the season. This is highlighted by the fact that we don’t even have one full-time employee helping to run things. Instead we rely mostly on volunteers to assist us through sheer goodwill and passion alone. Our director of football and my cousin, Johnpaul Hendrick has been a major factor behind the success of this Club, particularly in the last 3 years. He has been immense, a real soul-mate and worthy of this recognition. Chisholm Sanchez has also been great with our youth section working quietly behind the scenes and always loyal to the Club, as ever. My dad is now the head of security for Europa League games, after 10 years since he retired! Hooky will always be Hooky and die-hard St Joseph’s - we wish we had more like them - but they don’t grow on trees.

Playing host first to Rangers FC is only a small advantage (footballing-wise) as our stadium here has been capable of creating the “Anfield” factor, and local teams have churned out amazing results over the years against supposedly superior opposition. Celtic got beat here and we can never forget results like that, because the world of football never does. On the other hand, playing home first in a matter of days between our last home game and the Rangers home game means that our already limited resources are not only stretched to the limit, but pulled apart at times. We literally have 2-3 people (with their own jobs) sorting out TV deals, ticketing, interviews, away travel for 30 people, policing, sponsorship, pitch-side hoardings, match programs, press conferences, ball-boys, etc etc - and this is without even mentioning attending to footballing matters! The local football federation and some individuals therein in particular have been especially helpful too, and I wish to thank the  GFA and give credit where credit is due.

Rangers FC are aware of our limitations and they have tried to assist us wherever possible. They have been very respectful in this regard.

Rangers visit to Gibraltar brings with it what you have described yourselves as ‘high risk’. Considering their recent history in which the control of fans will be a significant factor what have you had to do to prepare and have you sought assistance from other clubs or the GFA?

There have been a number of high-level meetings with the GFA, local police, and security officers to deal with any potential threats and make decisions collectively like ground security, policing, alcohol bans, fan segregation, ticketing and the like and these meetings have worked well. At the end of the day we all want public safety as well as making it a game to remember for the right reasons. We have a good relationship with most, if not all the other local clubs. Lincoln have been helpful in passing information on about their experience at the Celtic game with regards to ticketing and crowd segregation and we have taken their advice on these matters gladly, and I wish to personally thank Dylan Viagas. Both our respective boards shared a lovely dinner in Kosovo 2 weeks ago when our paths met, and this is how local teams should help each other out.

As a club hosting Rangers will have I suppose a significant economic benefit not just in the additional funds from reaching this next round but the possible revenue from increased spectator, tv rights, advertising etc. How important is this to your club especially knowing that next season it could be four clubs entering Europe?

Gibraltar clubs need to be sustainable and this is the major challenge for us all, even those who do qualify for European football are struggling, so imagine those that don’t. We had three years of that side of the coin before we eventually qualified, now being three years on the trot.

There are few revenue streams and league income is virtually non-existent. In this regard, there has been little progress since our watershed UEFA membership some 6 years ago, although a “pillar” support scheme from the local federation is being introduced for next season, and this will be a small but important step to help clubs. It is clearly not enough though.

Without a proper “home” stadium, we cannot generate any additional income through ticket sales, advertising, tv deals for the league as we don’t have a refined professional football and commercial league product to sell. After 6 years in Uefa we don’t even have a score-board for local games and the fan experience is arguably worse than 30 years ago with negligible improvement in stadium facilities from the fan point of view. Yet with all these difficulties, people still expect us to beat other clubs with bigger and better run leagues. For those who attended the Prishtina home game at the stadium, who can forget the sight of not one but two corner flags disappearing from their corner poles and the game being stopped twice, in comical fashion. On the second occasion a ball boy’s tee-shirt came to rescue and was used as a makeshift flag as a Prishtina player looked for the real flag behind some scaffolding - and all this before Prishtina taking a corner, whilst there was not a soul of a single stadium official or employee on hand to help. It lead to the other team filing a complaint to UEFA at half-time saying that our local team was deliberately wasting time. If we want our game and our local football to be taken seriously, these things cannot happen. Imagine if this happened again against Rangers live on TV? How would it make our country and our football standards look like? Would sponsors want to invest, would fans want to watch?

What further concerns me are foreign or even local investors who play “Russian-Roullette” by acquiring local Clubs for 1-2 seasons (or less) to try and get into Europe and then down tools when the “dream” does not materialize. Already last season we have seen players stage a sit-down protest before a match for not getting paid and another Club being one match away from been kicked out of the league for not fielding a full team. The league and Clubs need to find sustainable models with steady income like all successful leagues. Until this occurs we will continue to put at risk the integrity and reputation of our football on the rock. It is only a matter of time before a team gives up midway through a season for financial or other reasons, and this has been coming for a long time.  

People locally should be thankful and more appreciative of clubs with local owners and I, for one, do not think it is a coincidence that the three local teams who have qualified for Europe since our Uefa membership, are all locally 100% owned.

As a club you must be aware that the results against Prishtina in which you not only won at home but also also drew away along with Europe’s success means you might have pushed your co-efficient ranking even further this season. Could you comment on this?

We are proud to say that in our last 4 European games (home and away), we remain unbeaten having only conceded 3 goals, and all by penalties. Co-efficient scores, whilst great to improve ours, can certainly lie when it’s 11 v 11. It’s all about who wants it more. Having said this, we help Gibraltar football in being respected and not the laughing stock that some away and some hailing from our own shores thought we would be, when we joined UEFA.

Steven Gerard, Defoe and if we listed the Rangers names we could go on for ages, but when it comes down to the match does it matter who they are?

If you play the game and not the occasion then in theory it should not matter. We drill it into the players that they should fear no-one, but they themselves need to believe. It only matters if players think of the name opposite them rather than a human being, but these players have these big names for a reason. We must forget about that for 180 minutes though.

Rangers played Mansfield recently only winning 2-0, they played The New Saints, a club similar to Europa, Lincoln even yourselves and only scored the one to win. Against Prishtina you were never the favorites. Yet you not only drew the first leg you went on to win the second leg. When you consider this does it make you feel that you might have a chance against Rangers?

our players’ confidence is sky-high at the moment. Anything could happen. But we have to believe it can happen. Without this belief we do not have a fighting chance to be honest.

what do you expect from this first leg against Rangers?

To win, make the St Joseph’s family proud and greater..... to meet Mr Gerrard personally and have a “keep-it-up” with him before kick-off.

If you had had the freedom of choice would you have played the first leg in Gibraltar considering the logistical difficulties that exist with the Island Games taking place?

We like to play away first although bearing in mind the quality of the opposition, we are happy to play home first and continue the feel-good factor from our last home game.

Before our last tie, the Prishtina FC President, made declarations to the Scottish press to the effect that his team “would qualify comfortably for the next round against Rangers.” They disrespected our Club, even asking us to play in our away shirts at home to suit them - so I printed out an enlarged quote of his exact demeaning words and stuck it on our dressing-room door for all our players to read before both our games.  Needless to say he was unavailable after our home match for a handshake. What a shame!

Those memorable scenes at the end of the match against Prishtina will live with both my football and real family, and me forever. I will never ever forget that.

The Club is now where it belongs, which means we need to work twice as hard to keep up the progress, whilst maintaining our feet on the ground, apart from those “keep-it-ups”.

Forever Blue’