The origins of Hibernians are traced back to the so-called amateur era of Maltese football. In 1922 a club was formed in Paola representing Strickland’s Constitutional Party. The club participated in the newly established minor Amateur League in the same year. This, however, was their last for a few years until season 1927/28 when the team of Constitutionals FC was reformed to become one of the top in amateur football.
The Birth of Hibernians FC
After winning the Amateur League in 1930/31, the club’s directors were motivated by the idea of turning professional. Before applying to join the MFA League, it was decided to make some necessary reforms in the interest of the club’s future success. The first step, as recommended by the MFA, was to give the club a new name, and Hibernians FC was the one chosen. The aim was to release the club from any political connections that the name Constitutionals implied.
The first match under their new name came in October 1931 against HMS Antelope which was won by Hibernians 2-1. They were required to play another season at amateur level until a place was vacant in the MFA’s national league. Hibs started off their First Division campaign in January 1933 on a positive note with a 3-1 victory over Sliema Rangers. Since then Hibs have always participated in the top division of the national league championship and have never been relegated to a lower division.
The late 1930s were an interesting period in the history of Maltese football, though partially disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. The local enthusiasts, however, kept the ball rolling and the game alive even during those dark years. The standard of the game was high with the influx of foreign players particularly Jewish refugees from central Europe. Hibs, who by this time had established themselves as the third strong team on the island, had their share of this foreign talent, mainly that of the goalkeeper Alexander Svoboda.
The foreigners, unfortunately, costed the Paolites a fortune as well as their place in the Association. Hibs, heavily in debt, were disbanded on Wednesday 26 May 1937 by the MFA Council for refusing to produce their books. It seems to have been a harsh and unfair decision against the Paola club since evidence indicates that other ï¿½big-nameï¿½ clubs were in no better situation but no action had been taken against them. Hibs demanded the Council to withdraw the sentence and eventually even took the case to court. This meant that Hibs went out of the scene for a number of years after a satisfactory performance in season 1936/37.
After season 1939/40 Hibs were asked by the MFA to drop all claims and were promised a place back in the First Division (the top division at the time). This was realised in 1945 when the Championship resumed after the War. During this period Hibsï¿½ application for a place in the Associationï¿½s competitions was still in dispute in the several meetings of the Clubsï¿½ Standing Committee due to the constant disapproval by some clubs. It was finally resolved in Hibsï¿½ favour during another meeting of the clubs held on 20 October 1945.
An interesting episode in the history of the club came in season 1946-47 with the unification of the two leading football clubs in the Paola-Tarxien area. It was quite a common norm at the time for two clubs to join forces particularly after the MFAï¿½s new ruling that one district can be represented by only one team in the National League. In practice, being two distinct villages, this rule never effected Paola and Tarxien who were always eligible to participate separately. In spite of the rivalry that exists between the two neighbouring clubs, however, it was suggested by many that Hibernians Athletic Club, Second Division side Rainbows FC of Tarxien, as well as Little Hibernians of the Third Division should amalgamate for the benefit of the existing interest in football in that particular area. In September 1946 a committee, chaired by Captain Serafino Xuereb, was set up to formalise the amalgamation. This was realised a few months later with Capt. Xuereb holding the presidency. Its destiny, however, was short-lived because in 1949 it was dissolved.
During the 1950s Hibernians continued to consolidate their position in the top flight among the ï¿½big-boysï¿½. From time to time they managed to acquire the services of some talented players but they were still far away from real success by another decade or so. The Paolites were also hit by hard times when financial trouble came in and they had to settle their accounts by transferring some of their key players. Despite all they lived their interesting moments and a handful of minor honours did come along the way.
One worth-mentioning episode is the Cup final of season 1951-52 which unfortunately ended in the worst-ever tragedy connected to Maltese football. Following a rather quiet league campaign, Hibsï¿½ form geared up in the FA Trophy by gaining a place in the final at the expenses of St. Patrickï¿½s and Valletta consecutively. The challenge, this time, was against Sliema Wanderers. The team from Paola and that from Sliema had to face each other for the third time before the encounter was decided. After a thrilling 3-3 draw and another 1-1 draw six days later, the trophy finally went the Wanderersï¿½ way on the 8 June by a second-half goal. The dramatic part of the whole story, however, was an incident after the match that took away the lives of two fans from Paola. Fireworks on an amphibious truck, intended for after-match celebrations, exploded and killed the young twenty-year-old Harry Grasso as well as Victor Pace, 26. Their memory is preserved in the name of the Pace-Grasso Stadium in Paola, formerly Schreiber Sports Ground.
This decade was clearly one of the most successful eras in Hiberniansï¿½ history. From an average top division side the team gradually transformed itself into a strong one that seriously challenged for the honours on many an occasion. This period saw Hibs fielding many skilled players like goalkeeper Freddie Mizzi, Louis and Eddie Theobald, and Johnnie Privitera, mostly former Footballer of the Year award winners. During this period the Paolites lifted the Championship cup on three occasions and the FA Trophy twice. Besides other honours they also won both the Independence Cup and the prestigious Cassar Cup twice.
The first League title came in season 1960-61 by beating the League holders of the time Valletta FC. The team from Paola became the first to represent the country in Europe when they faced the Swiss side Servette in the following seasonï¿½s edition of the Champions Cup. Ironically, Hibernians were also the first Maltese club to compete in the Fair Cities Cup, the equivalent of todayï¿½s UEFA Cup. In the 1960s Hibs built a great reputation against foreigners after attaining a number of memorable results and encouraging performances in European competitions, Christmas tourneys, and countless other friendly matches. Among the latter were a 1-0 win against Portsmouth and a goalless draw against Arsenal. One of the most interesting results from Champions Cup outings was undoubtedly the 0-0 score versus the star-studded future champions Manchester United of Sir Matt Busby in 1967. The home encounter against the English side was played in front of a record-breaking crowd in the Gzira Stadium.
The 1970s & 1980s
During the 1970s Hibsï¿½ consistency, particularly in League campaigns, declined considerably and challenges for major honours became rare. Notwithstanding, the club still managed to collect its share of silverware and in the continental scene its reputation lived on by adding further positive results to its record. A 0-0 draw against mighty Real Madrid in the Cup Winnersï¿½ Cup of 1970 was certainly a creditable achievement. And a year later, after making it to the second round at the expenses of Icelandï¿½s Fram Reykjavik, Hibs were unlucky to end up eliminated by just an own goal against Steaua Bucharest after 210 minutes of play.
Towards the end of the decade the Paolitesï¿½ fortunes changed course by the coming of what was probably Hibs’ best era in their entire history. Star players like Joe Cini, Freddie Delia, Johnnie Privitera, and Eddie Theobald reached their retirement age to make way for the emerging youngsters that were destined to become among the top on the island. They finished second in the League in season 1977/78, and went on to dominate the scene by winning three League Championships and twice the FA Trophy, besides several other minor honours, in four years. The climax was reached in season 1981/82 by completing a League and Cup double. This was a star-studded team for Hibs. Guzi Xuereb, John Bonello, Norman Buttigieg and Ernest Spiteri Gonzi are but a few names. This era will also be remembered for the remarkable record set by Hibs of 37 successive league matches without defeat. The feat stretched over three seasons and it stands to this day as a national record.
Following this period of success, the clubï¿½s glory ended abruptly and the team had to struggle one season after another, haunted by relegation, and without winning a single cup for a number of years. The worst of them all was undoubtedly 1989 when the Paolites retained their Premiership status only after emerging victorious from a series of playoffs.
The 1990s & 2000s
Hibs, slowly but steadily, recovered their status among the leading clubs by building a strong team that included several Malta internationals and top-level foreigners. A new era, with former England international Brian Talbot at the helm, saw the Paola club lifting the Premiership trophy on two successive occasions between 1994 and 1995. Since the eighties the Paolites were never again troubled by the relegation trap but always looked forward to maintain a comfortable position with the top four, introducing from time to time some fresh talent from the youth section. Another successful season was 2001/02 when the team won the title again under the management of Robert Gatt and Michael Woods.
The team today
The last title win, the tenth in the club’s history, came in season 2008/09 under coach Mark Miller and his assistant Edmond Lufi. Caretaker coach Richard Mercieca and assistant Ndubisi Chukunyere steered the team to the ninth FA Trophy triumph three years later in 2012.