Desperate Dan reborn as the rock of Gibraltar
34-year-old Chester defender Danny Higginbotham set to make international debut for Europe's newest football nation
Sunday 17 November 2013
It is pretty extraordinary for a footballer to make his international debut at 34 but when it comes to Danny Higginbotham and Gibraltar, Europe's newest football nation, there is very little that is not out of the ordinary.
After all, how many international careers have begun with a tweet from a distant uncle? That is precisely what happened to Higginbotham, whose mother's brother, Allen Bula, contacted him a few months ago with the message: "I need to speak to you".
They had not met in over a decade but Bula, coach of the Gibraltar side awarded full Uefa membership in May, was keen to invite Higginbotham to join his squad. The end result is that the one-time Manchester United trainee will line up against Slovakia in the British territory's first official fixture on Tuesday.
"He got in touch with me through Twitter, because we'd not been in contact for a long time," explains the Manchester-born Higginbotham, whose father was stationed on Gibraltar with the British army and married Danny's Spanish mother on the Rock. "As far as I'm aware it's through my grandma that I'm eligible to play because she had some Gibraltarian blood," he adds.
For somebody whose closest brush with international football had been a place on the England Under-21 standby list, it was too good to refuse. "I am 35 next month and for me to play international football or get the chance at my age was something I don't think I could turn down."
The fact that Higginbotham is playing part-time for Conference side Chester is hardly a problem in a Gibraltar squad made up almost entirely of part-timers from the local eight-team Premier Division. He is one of three English-based players – along with Barnsley defender Scott Wiseman and striker Adam Priestley of non-league Farsley – and his experience will be vital given he has played for the real Manchester United, rather than the Gibraltarian team named after them, Manchester 1962, from which five of his new team-mates come.
"There'll be a lot of young players that haven't had the experience of playing professionally, so if there's any advice or help [to give] then that's one of my main things," says Higginbotham, who made 210 Premier League appearances as a defender with United, Derby, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke. "I am going out for my own experience, but there's the opportunity to help Gibraltar try to get established and get themselves on the map."
With a population of just 29,000, Gibraltar will be the smallest nation involved in Euro 2016 qualifying, but Higginbotham defends their status as Uefa's 54th member association. "I would liken it to the FA Cup. If someone said [Gibraltar] shouldn't be in [European Championship qualifying], that's like saying why should non-League teams be in the FA Cup because they're not going to win it?"
Bula shares the view that Uefa membership will help develop football in Gibraltar – which has roughly 1,650 registered players of all ages and genders – though the first task is to build a new stadium. "At the moment we have one pitch which is used by everyone," says the coach, referring to the artificial-turf at the Victoria Stadium.
With that ground not up to international standards, Gibraltar will play their home matches in Faro, Portugal. Fans travelling through Spain for the Slovakia game have been asked in a Gibraltar FA statement to "avoid the over-exposure of flags, banners, etc… to prevent any unnecessary confrontation". As for Higginbotham, he was flying to Faro having played for Chester against Luton Town yesterday.
It's a far cry from his Manchester United days, but he has no complaints. At Chester he has "gone full circle", back to washing his kit and cleaning his boots.
"There is something I enjoy about it," he says, which is a good thing given more of the same may well await him in Gibraltar.
A rocky road
1. The Gibraltar FA was founded in 1895. It had an earlier bid for Uefa membership rejected in 2007.
2. Gibraltar beat Rhodes 4-0 to win the 2007 Island Games. Their first Island Games appearance in 1993 was less successful as they lost to Jersey, Greenland and Anglesey.
3. Frank Worthington scored a hat-trick when a touring FA XI beat Gibraltar 9-0 in an April 1973 friendly — following up an earlier 7-1 FA XI win in May 1965.
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