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Hibs gamble on Xuereb pays off

Gużi Xuereb steered Hibernians to several domestic honours.

Gużi Xuereb steered Hibernians to several domestic honours.

In Paola they called him ‘King Ġużi’ and for a while between 1978 and 1982 he was really the king of Maltese football.

Born on July 1, 1957 in Tarxien, Ġużi Xuereb was one of the best three Maltese players to come out of the 1980s – the others were Carmel Busuttil and Raymond Vella.

Xuereb kicked his first ball at the Augustine Oratory in Tarxien but instead of signing for his home club he joined Hibernians. The youth team, coached by George Busuttil, ran away with the minors  league.

Realising what a bundle of talent they had on their hands, the Hibs’ directors decided to introduce their entire youth squad in the first team.

It was, perhaps, a rash and dangerous decision but in the end the club bosses were proved right because the youngsters developed into a formidable squad.

Led by Xuereb, Hibs won the league three times and the FA Trophy twice in four glorious seasons. During that period, the Paolites created a record of consistency which has never been surpassed.

Barely 19 years of age, Xuereb soon became the ‘darling’ of Maltese football, giving first-class performances for Hibs and Malta.

His memorable matches in 1978-79 are still remembered with nostalgia by many of his admirers and he fully deserved to be voted Footballer of the Year.

In 1979-80, Hibs were favourites to retain the championship but a slip against Marsa at the start of the second round cost them the league pendant.

Their unbeaten league run started on their last league game of the season when they beat St George’s 9-0. Then they went on to win the FA Trophy.

In 1980-81, they regained the championship unbeaten but the team really came into its own in 1981-82 when they won the league with the biggest-ever margin since the competition was introduced in 1909-10.

Then, they crowned the most successful season in their history by beating Sliema Wanderers 2-0 in the FA Trophy final.

Hibs record run lasted 37 games, spread over a period of 33 months – a record of consistency which has only recently been equalled by Valletta.

Xuereb played many great games in his career but none stands out more than his debut for the national team on February 25, 1979.

On that day Malta held mighty West Germany to a goalless draw at the stadium.

Showing an impressive will to fight against over-whelming odds, Malta refused to be intimidated by the big names that made up the German team.

German test

The Maltese players played the game of their lives to earn a prestigious 0-0 draw.

On that day, the locals went to the stadium to see the stars of Germany. But it was not Bonhof, Rummenigge, Muller or Fischer who caught the eye but Xuereb.

At first, Xuereb was marked by Cullman but after he made a mess of the Cologne midfielder, coach Jupp Derwall assigned Bonhoff to take over.  But even the tough German marker could not stop the youngster.

Xuereb, however, was still able to display most of the artistic numbers in his repertoire to push his fighting companions forward.

Emmanuel Farrugia also played a blinder on the day and, together with John Holland, built up a defensive barrier that no German could penetrate.

All Maltese players were a hero on the day but it was Xuereb’s magic that still lingers in my memory to this day.

By 1983, Hibs’ great team began to crumble but the worst came when Xuereb was seriously injured in a tackle during a match against Valletta.

It was rather an unfortunate incident which deprived Hibs and Malta of one of its biggest stars.

Xuereb recovered but he never really regained his old sparkle. He carried on playing for Hibs up to 1991. He was, however, a mere shadow of his former self but, now and then, his fantastic talent would re-surface giving the younger fans a taste of his old magic.

After leaving Hibs, Xuereb played for a couple of seasons in the lower divisions with Fgura United and Gudja United. He also played in Gozo with Xewkija Tigers.

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