The subject of today's article is a player from the recent past. Although now retired, the memory of Nicholas Saliba is still fresh in the minds of local football lovers, especially those from Valletta.
Nicky, as he is affectionately known by his numerous admirers, was one of the most influential Valletta players in recent years. Born on August 26, 1966, he started his career with Msida in the Second Division in 1983. He made his first-team debut for the Saints on January 8, 1983 in a 3-0 victory over Qormi.
Although only 17, Saliba played like a veteran. Msida officials were delighted with the progress of their young midfielder, realising straight-away that they had a winner in their hands. Saliba kept his place in the team and by 1987, he had already played 41 times for the club, scoring 12 goals in the process.
One day in 1987, my good old friend and former colleague at Umberto Calosso Trade School, George Busuttil, asked me to pass on some information to the Hibernians FC committee.
Busuttil, one of the finest Maltese coaches of his era, has one of the shrewdest football minds I have ever encountered. He told me that Msida had discovered a talented player and that if Hibs were interested, he would probably persuade the youngster to move to Paola.
I hastened with the news to the club but Hibs did not seem to be all that keen about the idea.
While others pondered, Valletta acted. They anticipated all others and made a successful bid to sign Saliba.
Hibs' loss was Valletta's gain because in a career spanning over 16 years, Saliba won 28 major honours including the Footballer of the Year award twice in 1991-92 and 1998-99.
An attacking midfielder with an appetite for scoring goals, Saliba led the City team through the greatest period in its history. Making his debut for the Citizens on September 20, 1987, against Mosta, he went on to play more than 400 competitive matches for the club before retiring in 2003.
Surely, 1996-97 was a particularly happy season for the Valletta and Malta midfielder. That year, he helped the Citizens to a record five major honours. In 2000-01 the Citizens went one better. They won the league championship for the fourth time in five years together with five other major competitions, including the Centenary Cup. It was a fantastic achievement.
For Saliba, however, the season was one of mixed fortunes. After missing out on the Euro Cup, the FA Trophy final and the Centenary Cup final because of a serious injury, he made his comeback in time to steer the side to victories in the league, the Super Five Cup and the Super Cup.
Saliba played his first match for Malta on Nov. 23, 1988 in a 1-1 draw against Cyprus. He went on to represent the country in 69 internationals and scored four goals. He also played four times for Malta U-21.
A pillar of strength and consistency, Saliba hardly ever missed a match between 1987 and 1999. Then, luck deserted him and an injury sustained during that season continued to trouble him up to the end of his career.
Saliba retired at the end of season 2002-03, leaving behind him a huge void which Valletta will find very difficult to fill. 'In-Nicky', however, will never be forgotten by the City faithful. He remains forever a symbol of the greatest period in the history of football in the capital city.
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