Ernest Spiteri Gonzi played a key role in Hibs’ title success.Ernest Spiteri Gonzi played a key role in Hibs’ title success.

The gates of the Empire Stadium were closed for the last time on November 29, 1981.

The match which brought the curtains down on the famous old ground was the Premier League meeting between Sliema Wanderers and Senglea Athletics. Almost 60 years of regular sporting activity and tradition had come to an end.

Many were the important and curious events which had occurred since the inauguration of the ground on November 4, 1922.

On that historic day, it was the MFA XI and HMS Ajax who had set the ball rolling on the sandy pitch of the newly-built Empire Stadium.

Mr ‘Memè’ Scicluna of the Stadium must have turned in his grave when the referee’s whistle was heard for the last time. The subsequent game between Żurrieq and Senglea went down in the record books as the first Premier League match at the new National Stadium at Ta’ Qali.

All this had been made possible by the agreement reached by the Ministry of Sport and the MFA which ended their long-drawn  feud.

A committee was formed to organise the allocation of grounds and to administer the gate-money.

This historic agreement was signed by Deputy Prime Minister Dr Joe Cassar and by Dr Guzè Mifsud Bonnici, representing the Malta FA. Mr J. Copperstone and Mr C. Cauchi signed on behalf of the Federation of Football Organisation.

The second edition of the Premier League was started on the dry, hard pitch of the Stadium and finished on the green and lush turf of Ta’ Qali. It was an historic occasion which opened new frontiers in the history of the game on our islands.

Hibernians dominated the competition from start to finish, winning the league with the biggest margin of points since the competion had been introduced in 1909-10.

The Paolites were in a class of their own. The challenge was there, but only in the first round, when four teams were still in the running for the title. Hibs, however, shrugged off their opponents with ease.

This was the best-ever Hibs team. Between 1978 and 1983 they set a record of 37 consecutive positive league results, a record which still stands although it has been equalled by Valletta.

Hibs could not have had a better start to the competition, winning their opening three encounters.

In their next match, however, they dropped a point to Żurrieq and had to surrender the leadership of the league table to Floriana.

In the meantime, both Sliema Wanderers and Senglea Athletics emerged as possible contenders.

Sliema, winners of the Independence Cup earlier in the season, opened their league campaign with a 3-1 victory over Ħamrun Spartans. The Blues beat Żurrieq 1-0 but lost to Floriana 4-1.

The Greens won their first four matches and at this stage they seemed to be Hibs’ toughest challengers.

First Division champions Senglea Athletic made their presence felt with two fine victories over Valletta and Gżira United. In their next match, however, they were brought down to earth when they were beaten 5-1 by Hibernians.

They recovered quickly, grinding out a point against Sliema. At that stage a negative transformation came over the team. They could do nothing right and, after a long sequence of negative results, they were relegated.

Valletta had one of their worst-ever starts in the competition. In their first two matches they were humiliated by Senglea and then suffered a 3-0 defeat against the champions. They never recovered from this bad start, and in the end, they could only finish fifth.

By the end of the first round, Hibs had already built up a two-point lead over Floriana. This gap continued to increase when they beat Ħamrun Spartans 5-0, while Floriana could only take a point from a 1-1 draw against Valletta.

Hibs ended the first round in style. They beat their ‘bogey’ team Sliema 4-2 in one of the most thrilling matches in recent years.

Unstoppable leaders

There was now no way of stopping the league leaders who continued to win one game after the other, brushing aside all challengers. They cleared the way with ease to their second successive championship.

There is no doubt that Hibs had a great team in those days, possibly the best-ever in the club’s history. It is hard to single out a player but, if one were to twist my arm, I would choose Ernest Spiteri Gonzi.

Spiteri Gonzi played his heart out for both Hibs and Malta. In a great season, he won the League title, the FA Trophy, and the Footballer of the Year Award besides ending as the league’s top scorer - a feat that has never been equalled.

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