Fans of Manchester United, Chelsea, Lincoln City and Newcastle United take note - you may have a new 'second' team to follow. All the way from Gibraltar, welcome to IBWM Daniel Griffin
Imagine a league structure where Lincoln have risen to the top of the pile, leaving Manchester United and a second division Chelsea trailing in their shadow. Unless you were playing Football Manager a lot you would think this was impossible, however, take a trip to Gibraltar and you will see that this very league structure is a real thing.
The league structure in Gibraltar is made up of 2 divisions and plays host to 18 teams - 6 in the first, and 12 in the second. Amongst some of the odder names (Lynx FC, Llanito World and Leo Santos spring to mind) you’ll find a few familiar names springing up. Gibraltar currently has 3 teams who are the namesake of an English club - Lincoln, Manchester United, and Chelsea. All 3 teams have been around for varying amounts of time (Lincoln and Manchester United having been formed in the late 70’s, Chelsea somewhat later on), but their success levels are nowhere near their English counterparts.
In the case of Lincoln there’s an interesting story behind them for the best part of the last decade. In 2002, the then chairman of Newcastle United Freddy Shepherd had a holiday home in Gibraltar. With his financial backing and footballing interests, he somewhat inevitably looked around for a club to sponsor. He decided to go for a moderately successful team at the time in Lincoln.
Shepherd's initial plan was to sponsor Lincoln by officially changing their name to Newcastle FC, giving them a full set of replica Newcastle United home and away kits to play in, and some money to work around with in terms of facilities and training equipment - something desperately needed by the strictly amateur teams in Gibraltar. The team formerly known as Lincoln ABG (ABG being another sponsor) had suddenly taken a more professional outlook, and the effects of this new and lucrative sponsor soon started to show on the pitch.
Newcastle went on to win the 2002/03 first division by 3 points with a +32 goal difference after the 15 games played in the league, and suddenly they started attracting some of the bigger names in the country’s game. This led to Newcastle becoming somewhat of a superpower in Gibraltar. Despite Freddy Shepherd pulling out of the sponsorship after leaving Newcastle United in England, the effects are still clear to see as Lincoln/Newcastle have since won the league every year after the sponsorship deal (by totals of 17 and 21 points to name but a couple - impressive considering the short season). In essence they achieved what Freddy Shepherd had failed to do at their English equivalent. They still to this day play in a basic Adidas black and white stripe kit similar to Newcastle’s (also being one of the few teams with an away kit, an AC Milan style red and black stripe kit). The Red Imps also boast almost half of the normal international squad in their side too, a huge factor in their dominance of the peninsula’s football.
Manchester United have been a moderately successful team in the fact that they have always retained their place in the first division. Having gone under sponsorship influenced names such as Manchester United Eurobet and Manchester United ABC, they’ve normally been a decent team although they did benefit in the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons in that they finished bottom but were not relegated for reasons such as teams folding and the GFA needing to keep numbers up. Following the Lincoln model they operate a number of youth teams from the under 7 to under 15 range and like Gibraltar United and the Imps, they have some of the strongest youth teams (I’ve happened to play for all three teams at different youth levels so can vouch for that claim!). Unlike others in the league though Manchester United have always kept the name and were set up by fans of the English club, who congregated at the official fans club in Gibraltar.
Chelsea are the most recent of the three sides having been established in 2003 by a group of fans. For most of their existence they have been known by the rather weak name of Chelsea Beacon Press (a stationery shop), whilst their youth teams were sponsored by Roller Pet Shop - arguably an even worse sponsor’s name. Chelsea started in the third division, didn’t participate in the 04/05 or 05/06 seasons, then re-joined in time for 06/07 before moving to the second division in the 2008/09 season (the third tier was abolished and replaced by a reserve league which was in place to replace the then recently removed U17’s).
Their club career started poorly, finishing 9th out of 12 in their inaugural season and after rejoining a lowly 12th with just 3 points from 22 games - even falling below the school team of Bayside FC. Since then though they’ve pushed forward, recording a second place finish in the second division. Whilst they’ve never reached the heights of their namesakes, they still have a huge appeal to Chelsea fans in the area purely because of their name.
Whilst Gibraltar is by no means the only country with namesake football clubs (Mighty Blackpool in Sierra Leone being one of the better), they have hosted three, which have each carved a little nick in the history in Gibraltarian football. The real uniqueness of the situation lies with Lincoln and will be for some time as they remain by far the most dominant team. For fans of Lincoln City if you do want a club to adopt other than your own, perhaps you could do worse than looking at a namesake - particularly one as successful as Gibraltar’s incarnation.
You can follow Daniel on twitter here and read his excellent blog on football in Gibraltar here