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The Manoel Island campaign in season 1965-66

A dispute between the clubs and the owners of the Empire Stadium in September 1965 resulted in the game being transferred to the old naval ground of Manoel Island. Wednesday September 29 1965, was a historic day in the history of local football. 

For the first time in 75 years, a Maltese club played on a ground owned by the clubs themselves.

The occasion was Floriana’s home match against Borussia Dortmund, of Germany, in the first round of the European Cup Winners Cup. 

Unfortunately, however, the ground was not up to standard. It sloped a little to one side, bringing to mind the old National Ground at Pietà.

There was no adequate sitting accommodation for the public and above all, it was at the mercy of all kinds of winds which sweep the island throughout the year.

Security was at a minimum and the spectators could jump into the pitch at will. But beggars can’t be choosers. There was no alternative and the clubs had to make do with whatever was available.  

However, despite all these set-backs, for the first time ever, the MFA had full control of the gate’s takings which amounted to about £120,000 and it could negotiate as it pleased the bars and advertising contracts.

Notwithstanding, the clubs still failed to make a profit. The following season, the MFA was forced to swallow its pride and patched up its differences with the Stadium proprietors. 

Sliema Wanderers, back-to-back league champions in 1963-64 and 1964-65, completed a glorious triple at Manoel Island.

They started their defence of the title on October 16, 1965 with a convincing 2-0 victory over Ħamrun Spartans.

It was not a good start for the new ground. The biting cold wind and the rain which swept the Island during that weekend sent the few spectators brave enough to venture to Manoel Island beneath the stands to take what little shelter was available.

The game between Sliema and Floriana was played on ‘All Saints Day’.

It attracted to Manoel Island one of the biggest crowds of the season. The match was rough and exciting, but the football served was mediocre. 

At the end, justice was served and both teams went home with a share of the spoils to show for their bruises.

On Sunday November 7, 1965 Sliema beat Birkirkara 4-0 to go to the top of the table but the next weekend Floriana beat Ħamrun Spartans in a blizzard.

The next day, Sliema met Hibernians. The Blues struck one of their worst moods in this match and they were rather lucky to go home with a 2-2 draw.   

The next weekend, Floriana overcame the weak challenge put up by Birkirkara to overtake Sliema at the top of the table but in their next match against Hibernians they were lucky to collect both points. 

Valletta played a great game against Sliema. Fortune however always seems to back a winner.

Fighting an uphill battle, Sliema somehow managed to beat the Citizens 2-1. With this defeat Valletta surprisingly ended the first round at the bottom of the league table.   

The next day, Floriana’s traditional good luck was once again in evidence. They beat Birkirkara 1-0 with a goal which referee Tommy Restall should never have given. 

Lolly Borg openly pushed Barbara in the back before leaping to head home the winner. After this goal, Floriana retreated into their area and Birkirkara kept pounding unsuccessfully at the Greens’ fort for the equaliser.

Sliema met Floriana for the second time on Saturday January 15, 1966 in a game which would eventually decide the destination of the title.

A few minutes from the start, Lino Falzon centred for Leli Micallef to head in from close range.  

Floriana reacted immediately. Relying on their sturdy defence they stretched the Blues with fast counter-attacks until Tony Cauchi scored the equaliser.

Barely had the game re-started when Alfred Debono swung a high ball from midfield. It bounced in the Blues’ penalty area and Freddie Debono punched the ball into his own net.

Could Floriana do it?  Would they hold on to their lead and pip Sliema for the title?  Six minutes remained for the end of the game and the Wanderers were visibly shaken. But in the final dramatic minutes, the Blues scored three glorious goals which placed them once again on track for their third championship in succession.

On Sunday January 23, they beat Birkirkara 4-1 and with Ħamrun beating Floriana 1-0, the race was over. 

It was true that Sliema could still be beaten by Hibs and Valletta, but things rarely work out that way in Maltese football. The Blues beat Hibs 2-0 and then, on Sunday February 23, they drew 1-1 with Valletta to clinch the championship.

This match brought the league to a sad ending. With the result standing at 1-1, Valletta seemed to be containing the fury of the Sliema forwards when all of a sudden referee James Sawyer gave Sliema a penalty.

This decision created pandemonium amongst the City supporters. The players joined in the fun and rushed the referee in a rugby tackle. The official seriously fearing for his life had no alternative but to abandon the game and run for the safety of his dressing-room.

This incident highlighted the unsuitability of the Manoel Island ground.

There was practically no security in the ground which made it easy for the fans to interfere with the game whenever they felt like it. 

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