Between a Rock and a Spanish place – Victoria Stadium, Gibraltar

Suppose this post is a sort prologue to things to come. This was about my trip to Gibraltar and the Victoria Stadium back in April 2019 – 2 days before I had my new job in Marbella confirmed.

Lincoln Red Imps v Gibraltar United

Victoria Stadium / Gibraltar League / April 2019

Gibraltar is weird. Likeable enough, but weird. I’d throw that sentiment towards Gibraltar’s only football ground too – well the ‘weird’ part at least. It’d be difficult to say the stadium itself is interesting enough to be truly likeable.

That last part may sound a bit harsh to some, as Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium (the peninsula’s only stadium) is one of those grounds that has a habit of popping up on “Grounds you must visit before you die” lists. I think it’s fair to say that the reason it encroaches on such lists is down to one key factor: the backdrop.

The Rock

Think Gibraltar, you think ‘Rock’ – the thing obviously synonymous with the place. The 426m tall ‘monolithic promontory’ (I’ll let you Google what that is) dominates and dwarfs the whole peninsula, so it is inevitable that it is the Rock which creates the powerful background to the stadium. It is a golly impressive sight behind the goal too and one that is certainly unique to world football. Although some people’s eyes may be diverted away from the iconic Rock end of the ground to the opposite end of the ground, where you’ll find the other quirk of the Victoria Stadium.

The border between Gibraltar and the adjacent Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción has to be one of the most bizarre border crossings in the whole world. The only way to get to the Spanish border from Gibraltar is by crossing a runway; not an abandoned, out of use one, but a fully functioning, live runway with big, old passenger planes landing on it and everything. It’s all a bit mental. Don’t you worry though – health and safety reigns king in the 21st century, so there are obviously barriers that come down to stop people crossing when an actual plane is on its way; you won’t have to worry about looking overhead to see if any Boeings are coming down on your head whilst crossing – which is always a relief. Aside from standing on the runway itself (Los Boyos does not endorse standing on runways) one of the best places to watch the planes land and take-off is from the main stand of the Victoria Stadium, which sits right next door to the runway.

The runway crossing. ‘Please cross quickly’.

So to summarise, if you love gigantic ancient rocks and planes, then Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium will certainly be the one for you. It’s elsewhere where the ground goes a bit ‘meh’.

It was a warm Tuesday night and I was heading to the ground to watch the Gibraltar League game between Lincoln Red Imps and Gibraltar United. I was saving my ascent up the Rock for another day, so my heading to the ground had come via an afternoon wandering the old town of Gibraltar and then the modern, glamorous(ish) Ocean Village. Ocean Village is just a few minutes away from the ground so that’s probably your best bet for prematch food and drinks in the range of sports bars and chain restaurants (Las Iguanas, Wagamama’s etc.) The Yard was a particular favourite.

Just within the main stand of the ground itself there is a small, dingy bar selling the usual range of chemically-ploughed, generic lagers from British shores. On a side note, don’t expect to find any craft beers or real ales in Gibraltar; a fact that has made me adamant that some clever brewery needs to dive into that gap in the market. Anyway, it was a scorching evening in ‘Gib’ (as the locals call it – pronounced ‘jib’. I never really got on board with saying it) and so I was happy to discover I could take my beer out of the bar and up into the main stand with me. Even more pleasing was that it was free to get into the ground too, as it apparently is for every league game.

The bar at the ground.

And the main stand is virtually all that the ground is. It’s just your usual bland, athletics stadium with no real discerning characteristics aside from the aforementioned Rock and airport which help the vivify the ground and propel it to ‘worth a visit’ status. My opinion of the place was probably even more scathing as over the previous 72 hours I’d been to watch football at two absolutely glorious arenas: Sparta Rotterdam’s glorious castle-like ground, Het Kasteel, and also Feyenoord’s iconic stadium, De Kuip. It’s a long story of how I’d gone from a weekend in Rotterdam to Gibraltar, but an even longer step down in terms of quality of football grounds.

I’ve never seen so many Union Jack flags as I have in Gibraltar and so my assumption was that the stadium name was linked to Queen Victoria and the Empire and all that imperialistic jazz. Considering Queen Victoria died 25 years before the ground was even built, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is not named after her really. It is in fact named after the wife of Gibraltarian philanthropist John Mackintosh – her name was Victoria obviously. As well as helping transport coal between Gibraltar and the UK during his lifetime, he worked extensively to ensure that Gibraltar – where he was born – prospered. In his will he left large trust funds to help fund the peninsula – from Gibraltarian educational initiatives to improving care for the elderly. A top guy indeed. Undoubtedly, Mackintosh would have supported the opening of a new sports facility, as the Victoria Stadium opened in 1926, initially as a British Military sports ground. However, the ground was redeveloped in the 70s and it became a multi-use sports ground. The stadium mainly hosted athletics before it began hosting cricket games throughout the 90s, but now it is football that reigns king at the Victoria Stadium.

What a backdrop.

The headline act for football at the stadium is obviously the national team – a national team who were only admitted into UEFA as recently as 2013. Even then, the ‘nation’ were not allowed to play at the rather basic Victoria Stadium and instead were forced to play their home games about 400km away in the Estadio Algarve in Faro, Portugal. The Spanish weren’t going to let them play over the border now were they…Eventually, in 2016/17, the Victoria Stadium gained its Category 2 status meaning the national team could play back at home, but also that the 2,300 capacity ground could host European club competitions.

The ten clubs of the Gibraltar Premier Division all play at the Victoria Stadium due to…well, the fact that there probably isn’t enough room on the 6.7km square mile peninsula for another 10 football grounds. Plus, interest and attendances for the game are hardly soaring – which I really don’t understand when there is a team who actually just call themselves Boca Juniors. Who wouldn’t want to follow a fake Boca Juniors?

My knowledge of the Gibraltar Premier Division is limited to say the very least, but I had actually heard of the Lincoln Red Imps, so I was glad to hear that I’d be watching them take to the hallowed plastic of the Victoria Stadium pitch. This is the team who have won the league 23 tines and also famously triumphed 1-0 in a Champions League qualifying game against Celtic back in 2016; this was Brendan Rodgers’ first competitive game in charge of the Bhoys, but he made sure Celtic pulled it back with a 3-0 win back home in the second leg. On this warm April evening, the opposition were the slightly less glamorously-named Gibraltar United (why couldn’t they call themselves River Plate and make this league more interesting!)

Lining up for kick-off.

My brief research of the Gibraltar league had thrown up the fact that there were a hell of a lot of goals to be seen in this league with double figure score lines not being uncommon. I was not expecting much in regards of quality, but hopefully I’d be getting goals. Well, my expectations on the quality of Gibraltarian football were spot on – my hope of goals for this evening was off though.

The ‘runway end’.

The slowest, dullest football game I’ve probably ever watched – and I’ve watched a lot of live football. I spent most of the first half thinking was I being slightly hyperbolic with ‘my worst ever’ thoughts, but I honestly couldn’t think of any football game that I had seen that was worse than this. The football was not proving entertaining so I needed another outlet to keep me entertained. The beer! No, that was crap too. Plus, no-one else was drinking in the stand, which made me feel like I was some sort of yob from the British mainland. Maybe, there’d be some planes to entertain me?! Nope, the glorious orange sky remained plane-free all night. I’d just have to stare at that massive rock behind the goal all game instead. Yet, as I stared at this huge slab of stone, I heard something that brought pure laughter out of me and kept me going for most of the game.

Of course, I was only a few 100 yards from Spain itself and so a lot of the players – and spectators – were Spanish and were thus unsurprisingly speaking Spanish on the pitch. Their slow tippy-tappy, going-nowhere football was soundtracked to the quiet murmurs of the Spaniards, before suddenly…

“GET FUCKING RID, JOSE! FOR FUCK SAKE!”

Yes lad!

The stereotypical brutish and British centre back still prevailed here on the Rock! This man was a Rock! A wonderful clash of cultures revealed itself to me on the pitch: the calm, patience of the intricate Spaniards and the more barbarous British players all singing from the same Sunday League hymn sheet with classics of “LET’S HAVE A NAME ON IT!” “HAVE A DIG!” and of course “GOT THE BALL REF!” Now, this I did find entertaining.

The game did slightly improve and I saw one of the finest saves I’ve probably ever seen on a football pitch, which came from some calamitious defending. However, it remained slow and dull and error-strewn for the entire game and even the errors led to nothing too exciting. I think a few of the players had had some of the crap lager from the bar before the game.

The game finished 2-0 to the Lincoln Red Imps and at the sound of the final whistle I was straight down the steps and back into Ocean Village for some beers to recover. Admittedly, the beers weren’t much more appetising there. Seriously guys, who wants to open a brewery with me in Gibraltar? We’d clean up!

Despite some of my negativity towards the Victoria Stadium, the stadium is still definitely worth a visit for the whole Rock factor alone. If you are on holiday down in the south Spain anyway, I’m sure some Gibraltar League football would be a nice excursion away from the sun loungers too – and maybe you’ll see a lot more goals than I did.

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