Martin Gregory, scorer of Malta’s goal in the 2-1 defeat to Italy in 1992, shares his memories of that World Cup qualifier with Kevin Azzopardi

Martin Gregory has been capped 63 times by Malta and won several honours with Sliema Wanderers in a successful playing career but he is best remembered for ‘that goal’.

On December 19, 1992, Malta, then under the guidance of Pippo Psaila, met Italy in a 1994 World Cup qualifying match in front of a capacity crowd at the National Stadium.

With only two minutes left, Italy led 2-0 courtesy of goals from Gianluca Vialli and Beppe Signori but the Azzurri had been reduced to 10 men after Franco Baresi was red-carded for a blatant handball.

Kris Laferla’s penalty was saved by goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca but late on Malta were rewarded for their bold efforts when Carmel Busuttil raced into the box to collect a Charles Scerri through-ball before passing to the unmarked Gregory who poked home from close range.

That moment earned Gregory a special place in local football folklore and his famous goal and celebrations have been replayed countless times, not least in the past few days as the hype surrounding Malta’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Italy tomorrow rises by the minute.

“It was one of the best moments of my footballing career,” Gregory told The Times.

“I cherish all the league and cup titles I won with Sliema, also as a coach, but that goal against Italy was definitely the highlight of my international career.

“Unfortunately, the result was not really good as we lost 2-1 on the day but a lot of people remember me for that goal.

“We were 2-0 down in the second half and we had missed a penalty after Pagliuca saved Laferla’s shot.

“We managed to pull one back late on but, even with 10 men, Italy were so good that they hardly allowed us to touch the ball after we made it 2-1.”

The growing excitement ahead of tomorrow’s qualifier has revived fond memories for Gregory, now 48.

“There’s a lot of interest ,” Gregory said.

“It was the same 20 years ago, it’s always like that when Malta are drawn against a big team in the group.

“We’ve watched my goal against Italy on television recently. That moment has increased my popularity but that’s a nice thing I guess.

“It has brought back memories of the good old days and all the friends I had in that team because we were really united back then.”

As today, the build-up to the 1992 game generated a lot of interest from the media.

“There was a growing sense of expectation in the lead-up to the game,” Gregory said.

“There was great interest from the local and foreign media.

“The hype inevitably added to the pressure but the comments Ray Vella (former Malta midfielder) gave to an Italian journalist before the match remained indelible in my mind.

“The journalist asked Ray Vella ‘are you afraid of this game?’ and he replied: “We’re not afraid. We are looking forward to the match with a sense of courage. We know we can learn from this experience’.

“The motivation was high because everyone was talking about this match. Let’s be honest, it’s not everyday that Maltese players get the chance to be involved in a game of this magnitude.”

As he reminisced about the Malta-Italy game of 1992, Gregory recalled a funny scene that greeted him on his return home after the match.

“I also have treasured memories of that match because my first daughter was born during that period,” Gregory said.

“The match was shown live on Rai Uno and, as I was celebrating my goal, the television camera panned on an ecstastic young lady who was crying with joy near the touchline.

“When I returned home after the match, my mother-in-law told me ‘prosit’ and I replied ‘thank you’ but she promptly remarked: “Who was that girl celebrating wildly after you scored?”

The team of Gregory, Vella, Carmel Busuttil, David Carabott and Charlie Scerri are widely acclaimed as potentially the best national side in Maltese football history.

It has often been suggested that the technical level of Maltese players, and subsequently that of the national side, has declined significantly in the last two decades.

As one of several former internationals who have turned to coaching, Gregory, who also played under current Malta coach Pietro Ghedin during the latter’s first spell in charge of the national team in the 1990s, doesn’t concur with the view that Maltese football has gone backwards in recent years.

“For 10 to 12 years, I coached in the lower divisions,” Gregory, who stood down as Melita coach in November after leading the club to the Premier League, said.

“I don’t think the level has gone down. Coaching a Premier League side this season, I noted that the players are better prepared tactically, physically and technically.

“I mean the likes of Roderick Briffa, Andrew Cohen, Michael Mifsud and Luke Dimech are very good players and they would have walked into our team.

“Even the level of foreigners is better.”

Former Malta players who took part in the 1992 game against Italy are expected to figure prominently in the television coverage of tomorrow’s match but Gregory will be going to the stadium as a supporter.

He said: “I hope that Malta obtain a better result than we did 20 years ago.

“My wish is that Michael Mifsud scores in a win or a draw for Malta!”

Flashback... Malta vs Italy (19-12-1992)

Malta 1
Gregory 88;
Italy 2
Vialli 59; Signori 62;

Malta: D. Cluett, S. Vella, R. Buhagiar (J. Camilleri), J. Galea, J. Brincat, J. Buttigieg, C. Busuttil, N. Saliba (R. Vella), M. Gregory, C. Laferla, C. Scerri.

Italy: G. Pagliuca, P. Maldini, A. Di Chiara (A. Bianchi), S. Eranio, A. Costacurta, F. Baresi, R. Donadoni (M. Simone), D. Albertini, G. Vialli, A. Evani, G. Signori.

Referee: Guy Goethals (Belgium).

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