The BOV Challenge League season has returned with 18 teams fighting for a promotion spot to next season’s Premier League.
Unexpectedly, this season, the second-tier hosts 26-time Malta champions Sliema Wanderers who suffered relegation last season and will be hoping to keep their stay in the division as short as possible.
Their first outing was an indication of this as they beat Naxxar Lions 2-1 but new coach Paul Zammit believes it will be the hardest challenge of his career to bring his side back into the Premier League.
“We can’t hide from the fact that the club is doing everything to build a squad with the aim of being back in the Premier League,” Zammit told the Times of Malta.
“Even though our club is Sliema (Wanderers), we need to respect our opponents and we know it will be difficult to achieve our target – but the aim is to achieve it.
“Sliema in the Challenge League sounds strange, but it is something that happened due to a number of circumstances. I admire the administration of this club who have not been through the best of times these past few years. They have invested a lot and now it all boils down to what we do on the pitch.”
Zammit, a well-known figure across Maltese football, has seen the highs and lows of the sport throughout his career but admits it was a difficult decision to make when he was approached by Sliema.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for me, not only because the club had been relegated but also personally as I wanted to be sure I was up for the challenge,” Zammit said.
“We have a great responsibility as a club, but I was hooked on the project presented by president Keith Perry and Alex Muscat. I appreciate what they are doing as they immediately wanted that with me as head coach, we would start a three-year plan for the club.
“What we want to do is to turn the negatives of the relegation into positives. In fact, we’ve been working for the past three months on building a new setup. However, as I said, the set-up is new and the squad is also relatively new – the signings we’ve made are aimed at the present but more importantly towards the future.
“The objectives are clear but out of the three years, I think this will be the most difficult.”
While one of the drawbacks of a relegation is the loss of certain players who wish to play at a higher level, Zammit emphasized that this was not the case for the Wanderers.
“I wish to underline that no player of ours wanted to leave. However, we were open with our players and some of them were not going to fit into the plan, even if they are very good players.”
Asked about the difficulty of the Challenge League, Zammit believes the marathon will be tough.
“I haven’t coached in the division for a while because I’ve been coaching in the Premier League for many years but I’ve followed it through my children, one of whom played in it, so I know that despite the lower level there are organised teams that can put you into trouble,” he admitted.
“Any team can beat the other and especially with this year’s format, it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be very competitive and now that we’ve started, we can see that even the so-called ‘small teams’ have done their homework.”
This season’s league will be split into two pools after the first round of 17 games each, thus creating further pressure for teams to try and get into the top spots as early as they can.
Sliema started on the right foot with their win over Naxxar on Saturday and Zammit believes it was very important.
“The biggest positive was the result. I believe we played against a side which will challenge for the title this season,” he said.
“They were very good but with the fact that we played most of the game with an additional man due to a red card, I think we should have taken advantage of it and closed off the game earlier.
“I think Naxxar pressed us a lot in the final ten minutes but in the end the result is the most important thing.”