Welcome to Malta, an Island nation shaped by numerous invaders and brave repellers. A history of attackers and defenders, as deeply ingrained in the Maltese people as their fierce support of one side versus the other in every cause they get involved in, including their non-Maltese football teams: Italy or England, Juventus or Inter, Man United or Liverpool.
Amongst that cauldron of passion is a little bit of Aston Villa and the story of Sandro Gatt, one incredibly committed Villa fan. It is also a tale that is very close to my heart, and my home.
On what was seemingly an uneventful Saturday afternoon in Malta in May, 1981, a 7 year old me walked into a sports shop with my mother, with the promise of the purchase of an Ipswich shirt. My two older brothers had a team, I needed one and I’d seen Ipswich at the top of the league table in the newspaper.
“No Ipswich,’ said the man behind the counter. But, as what turned out to be the sound of football commentary on BBC World Service caught my attention from his little radio, he did offer one of the best suggestions I have ever heard:
“Aston Villa have just won the league. I have their shirt”.
And with a Villa “shirt” that was a creative stretch of an imitation (this was Malta, post British rule, in the days of few imports, a story for another day) a life of highs, heartbreak and never ending un-matchable emotional enjoyment was born.
At the same time somewhere else in Malta, other Villa fans were celebrating that final day 2-0 defeat at Arsenal. One of them was Sandro Gatt, hooked thanks to Brian Moore and a photo on Big League Soccer in May of 1975.
For many English football fans outside of the UK, Big League Soccer was the highlight of our week. Brian Moore was a legend, the excitingly calm voice, and kind face, of the best league of the best sport in the world. Many families in Malta, including mine, wished the 6pm “news in brief” was even briefer than its 5 minutes so we could get to the iconic Big League Soccer theme music, and Brian Moore’s teasing introduction as we wondered who would see as the main match highlights. There were days when a disappointing 6.05pm announcement let us know that the program “had not arrived” in Malta that week and instead we would be treated to Borussia Monchengladbach scoring more goals in the Bundesliga. They always seemed to score a lot.
Sandro was watching on his non-colour TV on that day in 1975 as Brian Moore ran through other football news. One of them was about Villa. It was the year they were promoted from the second division, but this story could have been about them winning the League Cup.
“I remember the picture of a young guy with a trophy. The shirt was black and white but it was different from the stripes of other teams.”
Over the thousands of air miles, bus and train trips since he has grown to love Villa Park and its surroundings as his second home. Sandro embarks on a trip to Villa Park like many of us would go to visit a friend an hour away. Where we look up Google maps for the best way to avoid traffic, Sandro is plotting how he can get from Malta to Birmingham for a Wednesday night match without anyone noticing that he’s stepped away from the auto parts business he manages at home.
Although there are regular flights to Birmingham, this was one of his favourites:
Malta-Exeter, Wednesday morning, 4hrs bus, half hour train, watch evening match, sleep over, 5.30am at airport and back at work Thursday at noon. And its all so very worth it when you are doing something you love.
“Just for that 90 minutes, but more than that. I’m not a huge pub-goer. But I enjoy the atmosphere before the match. It might be three hours as I’m there early and wander around and I’m happy. It’s a nice place . . . a nice place,” Sandro reminisces with a look of contentment as he drifts off mentally to his happy place.
Sandro is a season ticket holder with a seat in the Upper North Stand. He is most often there by himself but has also taken work colleagues with him when they coincidentally are in England for a work trip.
We import auto parts. We would go to the UK to buy second hand parts but would never go in the summer. I used to book it for Thursday. Friday we load the container, Saturday or Sunday we watch Villa. If it was midweek I’d make appointments around it.
Favourite Villa memories? We all have them, we all enjoy talking about them, even if they didn’t always have a happy ending.
Sunderland, the Benteke hat trick. 6-1. My first match: August 1996. Blackburn, 1-0, Southgate, just after his penalty miss at the Euros.
And all the Wembley matches. League Cup vs United, Arsenal FA cup, League Cup vs City, two playoffs. Playoffs are special. The atmosphere is unique. It’s the only match in the world where fans get most of the seats. 40k tickets went to Villa fans. The match against Derby was beautiful, especially afterwards. We stayed in the stadium for about an hour.
Sandro’s family understand his love of being at Villa Park. His wife enjoys going to Birmingham with him a lot more now than in the earlier days: “It has changed a lot and is a much nicer place for a weekend.” His kids have accepted that they compete with the Villa for his affection.
“I told my kids, when I die don’t go looking for my money in the bank. You’ll only find memorabilia, tickets, magazines. All Villa!”
And many shirts. Every first home game of the season, Sandro buys the home shirt from the Villa store and every last home game he buys the away shirt.
With how small Malta is, it is remarkable that our paths never crossed. I wish this could be a story about the thriving Maltese Villa Lions club. It does exist, but more on social media than in person. Sadly the members rarely meet, as most fans are happy watching at home or in one of the many bars that show Premier League football. But there are a couple of times where our stories do intersect.
Sandro, like me, spent many hours watching his local team, Floriana, at Ta’ Qali, the one stadium that until a few years ago hosted all the Maltese Premier League matches. Many times I was probably there for the same match, supporting Floriana’s “Old Firm” rivals Sliema Wanderers: the “Irish” Greens vs the Blues and their “Lazy Corner” fans. Interestingly, when on my recent return I asked about where to go to watch Villa on TV with other fans, I was directed to the Floriana FC bar. Sandro confirmed the family that own and run the bar are all as passionate about Villa as he is. Twenty years of living in Malta as a Villa fan and I never knew this.
Sandro was at Old Trafford last season for Villa’s FA Cup tie, accompanied by his son, who is sadly a United fan. The reason is the same my sister gives, and her machinations had a bigger influence on him than his dad. Yes, my sister, a teacher and a huge David Beckham fan, had all her students celebrating United’s 1999 Champions League win in her class.
“I blame your sister, Aidan! It’s all her fault!” Sandro’s anger is all in good humour. It’s his nature; a wonderful, easy going person, extremely humble about how lucky he is to be able to enjoy the Villa as he does. A truly polite, pleasantly friendly man, he even apologized to me for having to take work calls while talking to me to deal with ever rising market costs of supplies.
I shared with Sandro how many of the overseas fans I spoke to previously talked about the Villa family. Sandro’s eyes lit up.
“Yes. I see it. It’s like a small community at Villa Park, 38,000 people who all have the same feelings.” And not only that.
‘What I really love is what the players do before and after matches. They go out of their way.”
He’s seen John Terry signing shirts and anything else for an hour, Brad Friedel looking embarrassed that he didn’t have a promised shirt for a young fan, another player who put his kids in the car and came back to spend time with fans. Jack Grealish was always wonderful, he remembers. Sandro and Stan Petrov talked about Malta.
Alan Hutton after ‘the’ goal, an hour later he was still there, chatted with everyone, shook hands, photos. They are moments I will never forget. I may forget goals but these experiences are memorable. It really does feel like a family. It’s the players that make it. They mingle with the fans.
And then Sandro shares a story that makes me jealous. Gary Shaw was my first Villa idol, but had a career that was sadly way too short. I missed his visit to Malta many years after his playing days were over. But Sandro created a connection with Gary that lasts to this day.
I was his driver and was supposed to take him to play golf. But it rained so I asked what he wanted to do. ‘Shall I show you the island?’ He said yes, but was not interested in history or churches! ‘Let’s enjoy it,’ I said, and we had a fantastic day. I have met him since and always remembers me and gives me a hug.
We talked about the atmosphere about Villa Park. It’s great for the first 10 minutes, he says but it’s no different to Old Trafford or Anfield. He laments his distance from most of the singing in the Holte End and his proximity to the away fans, who he hears the most.
Best away fans? “Leeds. During the 3-3 last season they didn’t stop for the whole 90 minutes.”
He jokes, maybe only half jokes, that the atmosphere at Maltese match with a 1000-2000 attendance is more fun because each fan group has a band that plays for the whole match. He prefers standing at Villa Park and wishes this was an option.
I was there for the West Brom play off semi and a Blues derby and we were standing in the Holte End. It’s much better when standing and that’s why I enjoy away matches.
This conversation with Sandro really could have gone on for way longer than it did. Talking about Villa probably made him feel he was a million miles away from the phone calls, stock sorting and truck loading going on just outside his office.
He chuckled when he told me a story he was desperate to share.
It was Wigan away. I sat next to a woman on the bus who asked me to be careful as she had just fractured her leg. She was probably at least in her 70s. And she’s going to Wigan away! She had a walker and was met with a wheelchair. A year later I saw her again at a bus stop in Birmingham. I spoke to her on the bus and she told me she had never missed a match home or away.
Any fan has to be given the opportunity to voice their opinion of the team.
I’m worried about us buying a whole bunch of new players next season. United and Liverpool used to buy one player every year. We can’t change the whole team. Yes, we need a decent squad. Ings would have been good if he put away some of those chances but are we going to do much better? Same with Luiz. Digne? Better than Targett?
This was towards the end of last season and it looks like, with the way the summer transfer business is going, Sandro is getting his wish.
Come to Malta for the sun, beaches and history. Go watch Villa in any bar and stay for the hospitality. Sandro is a shining example. Look up the Maltese Lions and they will be sure to help you enjoy your time there as much as Sandro does in B6.