Back to reality in Gibraltar

Both teams for our match v HMS Rooke on the naval ground

Both teams for our match v HMS Rooke on the naval ground - Credit: Roger Mann

In February 1975, the Torbay Gentlemen were invited by the Gibraltar FA to bring their Victorian football to The Rock.

We had played a televised match against the Gibraltar Veterans, and spent a day in Tangier... now we had three more matches to play.

On the plane back from Tangier, we each admitted to the useless items which we had just bought in the Kasbah - but, at least we had still got our wallets!

The next day was a Monday, and we had arranged a visit to a Moorish castle.

I suppose I should have guessed that just ten of our 38 members would turn up for the bus! After a day in Africa, a morning by the pool was an easy winner.

At 4pm, our bus called to take us to the Gibraltar naval base where security had been tightened after an incident with neighbouring Spain.

All our bags were searched, and we enjoyed watching the looks on the faces of the guards as they sorted through Victorian bustles, and a variety of ladies’ petticoats, in their search for hidden weapons.

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In due course we were allowed to continue to the naval football ground, and prepare for the second match of our tour, against HMS Fife.

Gordon Astall captained us to a comfortable 4-1 victory, and the evening was spent in a local restaurant next to our hotel.

Tuesday saw a visit to St Michael’s Cave, and a return to the naval ground for a 5.15pm kick-off against the shore based HMS Rooke.

From the moment we arrived, we were made to feel welcome, and the naval families loved our Victoriana, and the chance to chat with people from 'back home'.

The Minister of Sport arrived, with his entourage, in time for the kick-off, and our Football League referee, Lester Shapter, officiated.

Once again, the Torbay Gents won, although, this time, it was a much closer contest!

That night, we were fed and entertained in the mess, and few of us, who were there, will ever forget the hospitality we received.

Packed into a tiny bar, the drinks were free, and the laughter was constant... what a night we had!

Gordon Astall and Harry Smith played darts all night long, and, by midnight, were still unbeaten.

The coach journey home took just ten minutes, but, by the time we got back to the hotel, most of us were fast asleep!

Thoughtlessly, or, perhaps by design, the Gibraltar FA had left our toughest match until last.

When we walked out on to the National Stadium the following night, having played three games in four days, we were in no condition to face the full current Gibraltar national team under floodlights!

Thank goodness, this time the game wasn’t televised because our ninth match on foreign soil ended in our first defeat.

The following day, the local newspapers picked out our chairman, and goalkeeper, John Churchward, as its hero.

John, who had plucked out crosses just as easily as if they had been swedes from his Torbay market garden, had saved us from a much heavier defeat.

It was now our last full day in Gibraltar, and tonight we were to be the guests of the Minster of Sport at a banquet at City Hall.

However, early that afternoon as we were laying by the pool, John, suddenly walked past us wearing a suit and tie.

“I’m just off to the television studio to do an interview with the minister,” he said, holding up the newspaper and pointing out the headline 'The chairman saves his team’s blushes!' and grinning broadly.

Gentlemen can put up with heroes, but not big-headed ones!

In a flash, three lads grabbed him from behind, shouting 'Those who gloat must learn to float!' - and threw him into the pool.

He climbed out, muttering: “Bloody hell! I’m on television in 20 minutes!”  

To his credit, he was soon smiling again, and headed straight for the taxi. 

He did the television interview, dripping wet, and when, live on air, the minister said to him: “Mr Churchward, you look wet.”

He smiled and replied: “Yes! We get quite a lot of rain where I come from!”

He had just become our hero twice in two days!

The banquet was a fitting end to what had been an incredible week, and every one of us felt we had got full value for our £52 each!

The hero of our last two days... our chairman John Churchward

The hero of our last two days... our chairman John Churchward - Credit: Roger Mann

The Minister of Sport, HMS Rooke's captain, referee Lester Shapter and captain of Torbay Gents, Roy Clarke

The toss before the match v HMS Rooke - from left, the Minister of Sport, the captain of HMS Rooke, referee Lester Shapter and captain of Torbay Gents, Roy Clarke - Credit: Roger Mann

The invitation to a banquet at the City Hall in Gibraltar

The invitation to a banquet at the City Hall in Gibraltar - Credit: Roger Mann