Rock of Gibraltar

Two weeks ago, Pep Guardiola sent his Bayern Munich team into an away game in the German Bundesliga against FC Augsburg. On the same day – three hours later and 1,600 miles away – a man called Mick McElwee sent his Lincoln Red Imps FC team into an away game in the Gibraltar Premier Division against Glacis United. Bayern lost 1-0. Lincoln won 3-0.

For the vast majority of football fans there was no connection whatsoever between these two clubs, matches and results. But a small group of people viewed this differently. For them, Guardiola had been playing against McElwee for the 54th time in a row. And McElwee had now come out on top.

Of course we’re talking about people who love arcane statistics. Before losing against Augsburg, Bayern had gone 53 league games in a row without being defeated. It’s a new Bundesliga record. It’s not, however, a new world record. That one is (probably) still being held by a club from Ivory Coast called ASEC Mimosas but better known as ASEC Abidjan, after the city where they are based. And Bayern also didn’t come close to the European record, set by Steaua Bucuresti from Romania.

But Lincoln are still very much in the running. If Mick McElwee and his men can keep their act together – and if McElwee can restrain himself from resting too many first-team regulars, the mistake that cost Guardiola the game on Saturday – they have a decent chance to break those records. We can even make a pretty good guess when it will happen. But first we have to look back.

On April 28, 2009, Lincoln played at home. To be precise, they were regarded as the home team. There are only six teams in the Gibraltar Premier Division and they all play at the Victoria Stadium, which holds 5,000 people, so there aren’t really any away games for the clubs.

When the match in question began, Lincoln had already won the league. They were eight points clear of Shamrock 101 with only two games left. That wasn’t much of a surprise, because Lincoln are almost always crowned champions. They have now won the league eleven times in a row. It doesn’t become immediately apparent, though, when you look at the record books. Because they say that a club called Newcastle United won the Gibraltar Premier Division every year between 2003 and 2007. However, that team is actually Lincoln Red Imps FC. They just borrowed the name of an English club for a few years, not unusual in this league. At the moment, there is also a team called Manchester United in Gibraltar’s top division.

Back to that April afternoon in 2009. On this day, the old and new league champions Lincoln were beaten 4-1 by Glacis United. It was Lincoln’s last league loss to date. Since that day, they have stood firm as a rock and gone 86 matches undefeated. It’s a small number for a full five years of football, but since there are so few teams in Gibraltar, the clubs play only between 12 and 20 games per season. (Depending on the league format, which changes from time to time.) When Bayern’s unbeaten run ended, Lincoln became the only currently active team left that has any sort of chance to catch Steaua or ASEC.

The Romanians set what is generally regarded the European record a quarter of a century ago. Between August 1986 and September 1989, they remained unbeaten in 104 consecutive league games. However, a cloud of suspicion hangs over this record, because Steaua had ties to the Ceaușescu regime (Valentin Ceaușescu, the son of president Nicolae Ceaușescu, held an official post at the club). It’s certainly a strange coincidence that Steaua’s long run ended only a few weeks before the Romanian Revolution and that a team which hadn’t lost a single game in more than three years suddenly lost four in one season. However, no manipulations have ever been proven and so Steaua’s European record is widely accepted.

It was even a world record for a few years. (Although an inofficial one, because neither UEFA nor FIFA officially keep track of such things.) To be precise, until the summer of 1994. That’s when ASEC Abidjan, according to most people who care about such things, bettered Steaua’s mark. Seven years ago, a piece in the “The Knowlegde” (a section run by the highly respected English newspaper “The Guardian”) stated: “Boasting a side featuring numerous Ivorian internationals, ASEC went 108 matches unbeaten between 1989 and 1994. For most of that period they were managed by Philippe Troussier. When their winning streak did eventually come to an end – via a 2-1 defeat by SO Armée – the backlash was immediate: they crushed their next opponents 11-0.”

I’m not totally convinced about the validity of this claim. The Ivorian league wasn’t well-documented at the time. The most widely circulated account of the record was published only some years later, in 2004. That was when Arsenal were on an unbeaten run of their own in England, which prompted the BBC’s West African football correspondent James Copnall to look back upon ASEC’s incredible achievement. It was probably his article which “The Knowledge” based their piece upon, because Copnall wrote that “ASEC Abidjan from the Ivory Coast went 108 matches without losing between 1989 and 1994″ and then added the detail about the 11-0 win.

The problem is that Copnall also wrote: “ASEC’s series, a world record, included games in both league and domestic cups.” That, of course, would mean it’s not a world record after all, because we are only talking about league games here. (Steaua’s 104 unbeaten matches didn’t include any cup ties.) But perhaps Copnall simply made a mistake and ASEC Abidjan do indeed hold the record with 108 league matches.

If we accept this figure, then Mick McElwee and his Lincoln Red Imps still have a lot of work to do. But their task is far from impossible. If they can finish the current league season without a defeat (they have only two games left to play, on April 14 and May 3), it extends their run to 88 games. Another unbeaten season in 2014-15 would then raise the total to 103.

That means Lincoln could pass Steaua two games into the 2015-16 season, which will probably start in early October. So it would be about mid-November 2015, when Mick McElwee’s boys finally surpass ASEC to write their club’s name into the history books. And maybe, just maybe, Pep Guardiola reads about this somewhere on the internet and thinks: “Well, that could have been me.”

© IFFHS 2014

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