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An Englishman In A Small Town

Paul Grech Friday, February 17, 2012 , ,

Gharghur is very much a typical Maltese town, with a multitude of narrow winding lanes all leading to a main square that is dominated by a huge church. Although the setting is unique and spectacular – built as it is into a disused quarry – Gharghur is also typical in that it now boasts one of the synthetic pitches that thanks to UEFA’s and FIFA’s money are replacing gravel ones all across the island. It is at the clubhouse adjacent to this pitch that I meet Ben Perry Acton as he and some of his Gharghur FC teamates pass the time before training kicks off by watching a rerun of one of the previous weekend’s Premiership games. English football has always had a massive following on the island, a heritage of the island’s colonial past, and there’s blanket coverage of all the games in the Premiership and even some from the Championship.

“I do yeah, every week!” is the enthusiastic reply about whether he follows Blackpool, one of his former clubs. “It is the first score I look for every weekend. I’ll never stop following Blackpool.” “Last season was brilliant as well as a bit devastating.  I think that Blackpool was every neutral’s favourite team.  They were a small club but had a lot of heart, they were entertaining to watch and very,very unlucky to go down.”  Other than Blackpool, Perry Acton played for other clubs, among whom is Bolton, yet these do not seem to have a similar hold him like the Tangerines and with good reason: his grandfather Bill Perry not only played for them but also scored the winning goal in the 1953 FA Cup final.

Ben Perry Acton (left) together with his FA Cup
winning legend grandfather
“He was one of the nicest men I’ve come across.  If you spoke to him you wouldn’t say that he had won an FA Cup.  He never spoke about it ever.  He loved his golf and was a family man. He was someone I really look up to and admire.  I loved him to bits and he’s greatly missed." Having such a famous grandfather did not put additional pressure in the form of heightened expectations. “No it didn’t put pressure at all,” he insists.  ”He came to watch a game to see me do will, not to shout this or that. People knew that I was a different player and to be honest if I was half the player he was that would be brilliant.  There was no added pressure growing up. “He was immense.  He took me to my training session and came to watch all the games. He gave me a lot of advice – not all of it in good ways! – but he knew what he was talking about and I took it all on board.  To this day I can remember what he told me. He was a great influence.”

It is clear that the prospect of following in his grandfather’s footsteps must have been a huge ambition for him.  Making, one would imagine, the decision to leave football a more difficult one. “It was in one respect.  I played for Wigan and Blackpool.  After being released by Blackpool, my confidence was knocked quite a bit.  I carried on playing with a team called Cliterhoe which is a side in the North West Counties and slowly started rebuilding my confidence to build my way up again.”  But then came the decision to leave. ”I’ve been coming to Malta with the family every year: my mum and dad have a holiday home in Sliema.  And I’ve been saying it every couple of years that I wanted to move over.  Then me and my girlfriend decided that time was right.  Not specifically because of football but because I love the island and everything about it.  It is so laid back  and we just thought that there was nothing to lose and to just go for it. When I moved here, my first intention was to find a club.  I went on trial with a couple of Premier League clubs – Hibernians and Sliema – but nothing came of them.  And then Pieta were interested and signed for them. Then, after a season, I moved to Gharghur. I love it here, I love the club, the people.  I live in the town even so it is nice."

The football itself has been good with one major difference.  ”I think that it is the pace.  It is a lot slower over here but you expect that.  The physical side is probably the same, you still get the odd shove in the back.  But mainly it is pace which is quite a lot slower. ”Fitness hasn’t been an issue.  I regard myself as being quite fit and I thought that I’d be one of the fittest at the club – which I probably am – but the rest aren’t far behind.” It was here that he enjoyed the highlight of his career so far, promotion as champions from the Maltese Third Division after they were down by two goals in the title decider. ”Oh, it was brilliant,” he says, eyes lighting up at the memory. “The town loves its football.  With the game and how dramatically it ended as well as the celebrations after the game, everything was brilliant.  Afterwards there were fireworks in the village, everybody was partying and it went on into the early hours of the day.  People still talk about it and everybody is still buzzing about it.  We got a new training complex and it put them on the map a bit.  Nobody put Gharghur as a force to be reckoned with.  We were a hard working bunch and it was all down to determination. Everything about the day was brilliant and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Talk eventually turns to the lack of Englishmen playing abroad. “In England you’ve got so many opportunities and so many clubs that you can go up and down the country to play.  That said, I definitely tell anyone who might be thinking of going to play abroad to go for it.  It is brilliant to experience different styles of play and to play in different countries.”  ”It can only benefit you.”

With a relatively short winter and sun shining almost all year round, Ben laughs when it is suggested that it shouldn’t be much of a problem to sell the idea of playing on the island to his fellow countrymen of whom there seems to be a shortage. ”I do think that there’s space but whether they want to come to Malta is another story,” he reflects.  ”For people who have been here, Malta is not the place most people would pick to go play in.  Especially among English players who look for more high profile destination.  I’ve told a few friends but up to now none of them have taken me up on my offer!”

This article originally appeared on TwoHundredPercent.


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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer