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The demise of a great player

Ronnie Cocks leads the national team at Wembley Stadium for the European Championship qualifier against England in May 1971.

Ronnie Cocks leads the national team at Wembley Stadium for the European Championship qualifier against England in May 1971.

They don’t come any bigger than Ronnie Cocks.

That is why when I heard the news earlier this week that the great Sliema Wanderers and Malta player had passed away, I was shocked to the core.

Cocks was a player I always admired. Not only for his great football skills but also for his sportsmanship.

Together with his contemporaries, Eddie Theobald and Louis Arpa, he wins my vote as one of the most exciting forwards to emerge from the glorious Sixties.

Cocks was born in Gżira on August 1, 1943.

He started his career with Gżira United in the Second Division at the age of 13. It was the start of a long and brilliant career in football spanning almost 32 years.

Cocks stayed with Gżira for six seasons during which he won the admiration of all who attended Sunday morning football at the Empire Stadium.

Many clubs showed interest in the promising youngster but in 1962 Cocks joined the Wanderers. This was a natural thing in those days when the Gżira club was considered by many to be the nursery team of the Blues.

Cocks was an instant success at Sliema. That season he was included in the team, which beat Hibernians 2-0 in the final of the FA Trophy. That was the first in a long list of honours which he won with the Wanderers.

In 13 glorious seasons, he won five league championships, five FA Trophies, four Independence Cups, two Christmas Cup medals, a Scicluna Cup, a Testaferrata Cup and a Sons of Malta Cup.

An automatic choice for the national team, he captained the side in the memorable Wembley match against England in 1971.

That was Cocks’s biggest moment of his career.

After a somewhat low-key display at the Stadium, England were eager to get their own back at Wembley.

They certainly had the capability but things do not always work out the way you want them to in football. To cut a long story short, one must say that Malta went to Wembley for the return match like lambs to the slaughter.

The English newspapers all agreed that this would be England’s turn to avenge itself.  Double-figure scores were mentioned, which however never materialised.

On the day, the gallant boys in red inspired by Cocks’s leadership qualities limited the damage to bow out with a 5-0 defeat.

A powerful but at the same time fast and tricky winger, Cocks could centre the ball to great perfection. He could also score goals as can be seen from his record of 63 goals in 163 league appearances for Sliema Wanderers in the top division of Maltese Football.

Twice the league top scorer, he capped a glorious career in 1965-66 with the Footballer of the Year Award.

US experience

In 1966 a serious attempt was made to establish football in the USA. Linked to this event is the story of the greatest exodus of Maltese players to a foreign country.

It all started when Phil Woosnam, the famous Welsh international footballer, was appointed by the Americans to help set up the North American Football League.

In those days, the US was not a member of FIFA and therefore was not bound by its rules.

Woosnam took advantage of the situation and launched a campaign to lure famous players from South America and Europe to the new league.

Woosnam’s list of agents included Janos Bedl, one-time coach of Sliema Wanderers and the national team.

Midway through the 1966-67 football season Bedl, working from a base in Essen, Germany, set his sights on Malta and the exodus began.

Many Maltese players were approached but at the end only four players took the plunge.  Ronnie Cocks, Alfred Debono, Edward Aquilina, and Charlie Williams all signed for Pittsburgh Phantoms.

Cocks, Debono and Aquilina returned to Malta after only one season, perhaps richer more with experience than American dollars but Williams stayed on to make a name for himself and to help establish the game in the new continent.

Meanwhile, more honours were waiting Cocks with the Wanderers but in 1975 he was transferred to Ħamrun Spartans in the Second Division.

It was a surprising move, which left everybody wondering.

At 32, Cocks was still delivering the goods and there seemed to be no valid reason why the Wanderers should have wanted to part with their star striker.

Cocks stayed for four seasons with the Spartans, helping the club return to the First Division before joining Reds’ neighbours Pietà Hotspurs.

Cocks continued playing up to 1985 when he finally retired in a career which started and ended at Gzira United.

Cocks is with us no more but his memory will linger on for as long as football is still played on our shores.

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