In the early 1920s, HMS Iron Duke had, arguably, the best team on the island.
Duke supporters, hailing mainly from the Cottonera area, were given a chance to sing their favourites’ praises when the sailors met Floriana in the semi-finals of the 1922-23 Cassar Cup.
This game was eagerly awaited and on the day of the encounter the Empire Sports Ground was filled with the blue uniforms and white caps of the navy and the green and white colours of Floriana.
The Greens also had a fine team that year and were in no mood to dish out favours especially with a final against Sliema Wanderers in prospect.
They turned on the steam from the word go and beat the navy champions with a brace from George West and another goal from Salvu Tabone.
In the other semi-final, the Wanderers found the army a much harder nut to crack and the match had to be replayed twice before it produced a winner.
The first game, played on March 31, 1923, finished in a 1-1 draw.
The second encounter, on April 8, featured a strange episode that was very typical of how things were done during that period.
In those days, the team used to meet at the stadium shortly before the start of the game. There were many instances when a player arrived late and his team had to start without him.
That afternoon, however, Ruġġieru Friggieri informed the Sliema committee that he could not play because he was ill.
The Sliema officials looked around for a replacement and seeing Fox, of HMS Iron Duke, among the crowd they asked him to replace Friggieri. However, since the Navy full-back had already played against Floriana he was rightly judged ‘cup-tied’.
That should have settled the argument but Sliema refused to take the field unless Fox was allowed to play. Fearing a riot from the thousands of supporters that were already in the ground, the Cassar Cup committee held an emergency meeting there and then.
The sports officer of the army and the representative of Floriana sportingly declared that they would raise no objection if Fox was allowed to play for Sliema. Fox therefore was given permission to play.
The game was finally started half an hour late. Once again, however, there was no winner; the match ending in a 0-0 draw.
The second replay was held on April 11, 1923. This time Sliema won a thrilling game 2-1 with goals from Archie Caunter and Frankie Busuttil.
The final was played on April 26. The contest, as expected, was hard-fought and exciting from start to finish but it had to be a freak goal which decided the issue.
The game was barely 10 minutes old when Toto Busuttil touched the ball with his hand in the penalty area.
Tabone, as usual, stepped forward to take the penalty. He was nearing the end of a long and glorious career and had never missed from the spot before.
Taking a long run, as was the custom in those days, he kicked the ground before hitting the ball lamely.
However, Joe Nicholl, Sliema’s young goalkeeper who was deputising for no.1 Johnnie Perrin, stood petrified as the ball trickled over the line and into the net.
It was a freak goal if ever there was one but enough for the Greens to win the match.
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