Team aging is something which every team must go through in regular periods.
No matter how much a club’s committee works to keep the average age of the team within acceptable limits, there comes a time when big changes become inevitable.
During many years following the fortunes of my home-town club Hibernians, I have seen many such changes.
One such period was that of 1999-00.
1999 saw the departure of club stalwarts Michael Spiteri and Charlie Scerri. During the summer, Spiteri informed the committee that he wished to start the new season with a new club. He had given sterling service to the club in a long and distinguished career.
No one wished Spiteri to leave but the player felt that he needed a new challenge. Therefore, before the season opened, he was transferred to Birkirkara FC.
Scerri started the season with Hibernians but, after playing a handful of matches, he was transferred to Ħamrun Spartans. Scerri was probably the best Maltese player to wear the club’s colours in the last two decades.
Joining the club in 1986, he played 278 times for Hibernians and scored 52 goals.
During his 13 seasons with the club, he won two league championships and an FA Trophy medal. He was also chosen as the Footballer of the Year for 1988-89.
The loss of these two veterans left a big void in the team which was not easy to fill. The absence of Spiteri was greatly missed, and it was some time before the traditional solidity returned to the Hibs’ defence.
Players of the calibre of Scerri are very rare in Malta but fortunately his place in midfield was filled with distinction by Nigerian Essien Mbong who joined the club from Julius Berger FC of Nigeria.
Mbong soon became the darling of the Hibs’ supporters. His elegant midfield play complimented perfectly the attractive passing game of Adrian Ciantar who had joined the club from St Patrick’s in 1997-98.
Mbong came to Malta with excellent credentials having been in the Nigerian Olympic squad which beat Brazil in the Olympic final.
He had not actually played in the final itself but qualified for an Olympic medal because he played in the qualifying matches alongside such greats as Arsenal’s international star Nwankwo Kanu.
Affectionately known as ‘Papa’, Mbong is best remembered for his long and successful career with Hibernians.
At his peak, Mbong was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. He was surely one of the greatest-ever players to don the famous colours of Hibernians.
An elegant midfielder he was also the best ‘shielder’ of the ball that I have seen in 60 years of watching football. I have never seen Mbong lose the ball to his opponent in all the years he played for Hibernians.
With Hibs, Mbong won the league championship in season 2001-02 and the FA Trophy in 1998 when they beat Valletta 2-1 in the final.
In 2005, Mbong was honoured for his performances with the Paolites when he was named best midfielder and best foreigner player at the Malta Football Awards.
The Nigerian ended his stint with Hibs at the end of season 2005-06 and went on to play for Marsa, Tarxien and Senglea Athletic before he retired.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria on August 4, 1975 he died prematurely on June 22, 2013 aged just 37.
Essien’s legacy however is carried proudly by his son Joseph who, although still in his early years, has already made a name for himself with Hibernians and Malta’s national team.
In season 2020-21, Joseph Mbong will start a new adventure with Ħamrun Spartans.