In July 2016, a little club from Gibraltar caused shockwaves across Europe.
Many assumed, wrongly, that the English side Lincoln City had somehow got into the Champions League because the headlines read ‘Lincoln Red Imps 1, Celtic 0’. The Glasgow giants had been slain, and to an untrained eye, it seemed the then non-league side had done it. After all, who else could the Lincoln Red Imps possibly be?
The truth was, for many, even more bizarre. Lincoln Red Imps were virtual unknowns, the champions of Gibraltar, which gave them passage into the Champions League. They are one of eight teams that had to qualify in the first qualifying round, grabbing an unexpected 3-2 aggregate win against Flora Tallinn. From there, they drew Scottish giants Celtic.
Nobody gave them a chance; Celtic have won the European Cup in the past and were expected to ease past their rivals. Instead, football in Gibraltar was given a massive boost as Lee Casciaro bagged the game’s only goal. The second leg ended in a 3-0 defeat and out went Lincoln Red Imps. That wasn’t the end of the story though. They’ve since appeared in the Champions League twice more, and this season have hit the big time.
As explained by Inside World Football, they’ve caused a huge upset by becoming the first club from Gibraltar to reach the group stage of a European competition. They entered the Europa League, knocking out Prishtina in the preliminary round, then defeating Union Titus Pétange in the first qualifying round before falling 5-0 to Rangers in the second qualifying round. That saw them drop into the final qualifying round for the Europa Conference, where they surprisingly beat Latvia’s Riga FC 4-2. They had secured passage to the group stages of the new competition, where they rub shoulders with Slovan Bratislava, PAOK and FC Copenhagen. They’re unlikely to emerge from that stage; they’re rank outsiders in the latest football odds with Coral, but history has still been made. They are expected to make around €3m in prize money; not bad for a team who play on a ground that can only hold 5,000 fans. Even if they do go out, as expected, they have won the hearts and minds of many across Europe.
Even more remarkable is that the Victoria Ground, their home turf, is shared with every other senior club in Gibraltar. With just 33,000 people in the whole country, the prize money alone will be seriously beneficial. No longer will people confuse them with a small provincial team from England’s lower reaches.
That link might not be as unusual as it sounds; the club does indeed take their name from Lincoln City. Lincoln Red Imps were formed in 1976 by Charles Polson, who was close friends with Reg Brearley, a resident in Lincoln, England. Lincoln City helped promote football that summer, travelling there for a post-season tournament that included Sheffield United, where Brearley was the chairman, and Blackburn Rovers. In the early days, Brearley provided the fledgling team with kits and sponsorship income in exchange for the new team being named after Lincoln City, whose nickname is the Red Imps. That nickname comes from their playing kit and a gargoyle in Lincoln’s famous cathedral.
Connections between the two clubs have remained, with Lincoln City sending club steward Paul Owen to their second leg against Celtic to exchange pennants. However, with Lincoln Red Imps success, the team in England now lives in the shadow of their successful European namesakes.