The 1980-81 League Championship was the last one held at the Empire Stadium. It was also the first one played under the title of the Premier League.
It was the end of a long and memorable era in the history of the local game. The next season the game moved to the newly opened, National Stadium at Ta’ Qali.
It was a great improvement from the old ground but for us old-timers, the local game was never the same again.
Hibernians dominated the 1980-81 championship. Led by coach Joe Attard, the Paolites ran away with the competition. Their dominance was so complete that at the end they were still unbeaten.
Hibs opened their league programme on Sunday, October 12, 1980 with a 0-0 draw against Floriana.
The Paolites kept their opponents under tremendous pressure. On one occasion, the post denied Hibs a goal but the Greens, although playing their first official match of the season, deserved the draw.
Hibs’ next match was against Ħamrun Spartans.
The Spartans played well, and it was only late in the game that their defence started reeling.
Ernest Spiteri Gonzi opened the score for Hibernians, but George Xuereb equalised seven minutes later.
Hibs took the initiative, but the Reds’ defence held fast until ten minutes from the end when Pawlu Xuereb scored what proved to be the winning goal for Hibernians.
Hibs’ first big challenge arrived on Sunday, November 9, against Valletta. During the first-half, Valletta dominated over a hopelessly disorganised Hibs XI.
Leonard Farrugia opened the score after two minutes of the second half but, instead of consolidating their lead, Valletta allowed the Paolites to creep back into the game.
It is enough to say that they gave away two soft goals and missed a penalty.
Birkirkara have always proved to be a hard nut for Hibs to crack. Matches between the two rivals are always close affairs no matter the respective positions of the two teams.
On Saturday, November 29, Hibs were at the top while Birkirkara were languishing at the bottom of the league table.
Yet, the Stripes rose to the occasion and went very close to obtaining a shock result.
Birkirkara took the lead.
Hibs hit back with goals from Pawlu Xuereb and Spiteri Gonzi, but Birkirkara went very close to obtaining a merited draw when Calleja hit the crossbar.
The Paolites had their lucky stars to thank for taking home both points.
Meanwhile, Sliema Wanderers were still hot on the trail of the leaders.
On Sunday, November 30, the Blues beat Floriana 3-0 to go to the top of the league table on goal-difference. Before this game, the Greens had gone through 14 league matches without losing.
The two league leaders met on Saturday, December 27, 1980.
Much was expected from this clash of giants, but the game failed to live up to expectations. It was a drab match which left the large crowd present disappointed.
The game livened up a bit in the second half when Hibs replaced Consiglio with Frans Mallia, and the newcomer immediately made his presence felt with some intelligent passes.
Seven minutes into the second half, Tabone scored for Sliema.
This goal jolted Hibs into action and for a while, the crowd was rewarded for its patience with some good football.
Three minutes from the end, Mallia sent Pawlu Xuereb through for the latter to hit home mercilessly past Sciberras to even up the score.
From that point, the league campaign developed into a game of chess in which the protagonists planned their moves in such a way as to avoid making a fatal slip.
On Saturday, February 22, 1981, Hibs beat Valletta 3-2 to gain a psychological advantage over their rivals.
In the meantime, Sliema Wanderers were held to a 1-1 draw by Floriana.
True to expectations, Hibs beat Birkirkara 4-0 to become sole leaders.
From then on, they never looked back and when on Saturday, March 14, 1981, they encountered Sliema Wanderers, Hibs’ morale was sky high.
A large crowd filled the Stadium terraces in what proved to be one of the last big games to be held at the old ground in Gżira.
There were plenty of thrills as both teams stretched every muscle to try and gain the advantage.
The Paolites were more relaxed and this was evident from the way they moved the ball along the ground. Sliema were more earnest in their play and too eager to score.
Thus, they left their flanks wide open. This was a suicidal thing to do with a dangerous striker like Spiteri Gonzi on the loose. The Hibs’ prolific scorer notched in two great goals to put his side on the way to victory.
However, Sliema were not beaten yet. Fabri scored and with only ten minutes left for play, the Blues applied tremendous pressure which almost brought about an equaliser.
The Blues threw every man into the fray and the Hibs’ defence started reeling.
On one occasion, Caruana had to do his utmost to save a shot from Pandolfino which seemed destined to end in the net.
Somehow, Hibs survived and with only the games against Marsa and Żurrieq left to play, Hibs’ way was clear to coast home to the league championship.
Hibs were crowned champions on Saturday, May 29. 1981 when they collected the two points from their match against Marsa.
The Paolites were worthy champions. Throughout the campaign, they were unbeaten and lost only two points out of a possible 26.
In addition, they made football history when they became the last team to win the championship at the Stadium. The following season, the competition was started at Gzira but was completed at Ta’ Qali.
Hibs’ championship celebrations started on April 12, 1981 at the Stadium when they defeated Zurrieq 5-0 in the last match of the competition. There was great rejoicing before and after the match when Hibs were presented with the Johnnie Walker Cup and the celebrations continued at Paola Square well into the evening.