For Ħamrun Spartans fans the past 48 hours has provided them with emotions they have been dreaming of for more than three decades now.
On Friday, the Malta FA Executive Committee have decided to bring to an end the 2020-21 Premier League season due to the COVID-19 restrictions and declare Ħamrun Spartans as the new Malta champions for the eighth time in their club history.
In fact, when the championship was halted last March, the Spartans were leading the standings with a five-point gap over Hibs.
Celebrations along the town’s main road, St Joseph High Road, were limited to a carcade for their fans on Friday as COVID-19 restrictions currently do not permit a full flow party as the jubilant supporters would have wanted after so many years hoping their team would finally climb at the top of Maltese football.
Ħamrun Spartans coach Mark Buttigieg told The Sunday Times of Malta that the Premier League triumph was somewhat unexpected particularly as the Reds fielded an almost new team and the initial thought was that the club would need three years to reach their main objective.
“When you consider that we had almost a new team and technical staff as well as other factors, I sincerely didn’t believe right from the start of the championship that we could lead the standings let alone win the title,” Buttigieg said.
“However, from the first game we never showed any signs of inferiority to our opponents and I think it was credit to the coaching staff who managed immediately to gel together a competitive team and find the right rhythm. We always knew we had quality players, but still we had to play the right way.
“To be honest, at the moment I have mixed feelings on the current COVID-19 situation.
“The majority of the players and technical staff were keen to complete the season and win it on the pitch, but it was not to be as the health authorities deemed otherwise.
“But up to Match Day 23 we deserved to be at the top and that is mirrored by our performances on the pitch.”
The arrival of Joseph Portelli as the club’s new president was a crucial factor in the Spartans rise to the top of Maltese football.
“The Gozitan entrepreneur has not only provided the financial muscle to strengthen considerably the squad but also managed to build a solid administrative set-up that inevitably has left a positive effect on the whole environment.
Stefan Sultana, Buttigieg’s assistant at Ħamrun, has been at the club for over three decades, first as a prolific goalscorer, and then as head coach in the senior team and club academy, and said that much-needed stability had played a key role behind the club’s success.
“I don’t think that anyone can deny the fact that being financially stable was an important factor behind our success,” Sultana, the all-time Premier League top scorer with 197 goals, said.
“But finances alone do not win you any trophies. We had 16 new players in the squad and Mark together with all the technical staff managed to gel them into one solid group.
“Obviously, for the players to have that peace of mind that their efforts are being appreciated by the club was a major factor for the team to challenge for the honours.
“At the start of the season, I wasn’t so confident that this team could win the title and my main aim was to at least qualify for European football, something that has been missing at the club since 1993.
“But when in December the team was at the top, then I would have not been happy with nothing else than the title.
“Honestly, I was pleased to win this title success for our fans, particularly those who have been supporting the club for so many years.
“Seeing our elderly fans with a big smile on their face really made me emotional as I know how much this success meant to them after so many years.”
Now that the championship campaign is over Buttigieg and Sultana are hopeful of being able to prepare the team for their participation in the Champions League qualifiers, provided they will be given the green light from the European body following their involvement in a match-fixing case a few years back.
Buttigieg said that he hopes the current situation will improve so that the team can start their preparations next month.
“There are some factors that one has to consider,” Buttigieg said.
“Apart from the players of the national team that have been training lately, the other members of the team have not played a match for more than a month now.
“If we are playing in Europe in the first week of July, it would mean that our players would have not been able to play for more than three months.
“In football you cannot let your players in an off season for a long time as it would work against their condition.
“We will give to our players individual sessions to do at their home but it will be crucial for us that in mid-May we are given permission to return to the pitch so that we can start our preparations.
“But at the moment we just have to wait and see how the situation evolves.”
Buttigieg said that in the coming weeks, the club will start doing their work to try and strengthen their team for next season where they hope they can successfully defend their league title.
“Surely, for us this year was a good starting base for the upcoming season both in terms of members of the technical staff and players,” Buttigieg said.
“We have a good base to start with but now we need to sit down and try to improve on what we have to make the next step forward.
“Our goal is to ensure that the team will be strengthened in the right areas and with the best possible players so that they can help us make a much-needed leap forward in quality that would lead us to bigger objectives in the future.”