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Watch: Sliema Wanderers look to reach next level after Cup success

Sliema’s Geoffrey Acheampong (centre) tries to break through the Floriana defence. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

On Sunday, Sliema captaincy duo Mark Scerri and Edmond Agius held the FA Trophy aloft to complete one of the most remarkable fairytales in local football history.

Just two years before, no one could save the Wanderers from the embarrassment of relegation.

Yet, Paul Zammit turned this dormant giant from strugglers to Cup winners in less than a year, with Sliema’s remarkable rise being the story of the season, as many neutrals were pleased to see them clinching the FA Trophy.

A 4-2 scoreline on penalties sent their arch-rivals Floriana reeling out of the National Stadium, to finish the season empty-handed.

Yet the feeling in the aftermath of this shock result is that Sliema Wanderers could be on the verge of a significant recovery from years in the doldrums.

Sliema have outperformed all expectations this season by finishing third. Although they never got close to champions Ħamrun Spartans in the Premier League, in January they went on a five-match winning streak as Zammit guided the club back to European club competition for the first time since 2014.

“Winning the cup was the cherry on the cake. We went down to the Challenge League with a clear mindset. The aim was always to build the foundations for a successful team in the second tier in a bid to hit the ground running in the Premier League,” Zammit told the Times of Malta.

“The players embraced these plans and their level of commitment never fell short of expectations. We booked a berth in European football for the first time since 2014. I will never forget the commitment, the approach to the game and the resilience of this crop of players,“ he added.

If there was one team, no other team wanted to face in a penalty shootout during the FA Trophy final, it was Sliema Wanderers.

Sliema have won their last three titles on penalties. Only four finals were decided by penalties – Sliema have been involved in most of these shootouts and won all of them.

On their way to the final, Sliema survived another penalty shootout against Mosta in the quarter-finals and beat Balzan in the Round of 16 and Birkirkara in the semi-finals courtesy of a penalty late in extra-time.

Sliema goalkeeper Rashed Al Tumi (centre) was his team’s hero in Sunday’s penalty shootout. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Joseph Minala scored against Balzan and Birkirkara and on Sunday, he repeated this by sending Nemanja Andrijanic the wrong way to earn Sliema their 22nd FA Trophy title.

“When you see the ball go in, you just think, I did my job,” he explained.

Minala took the accolade of the match winner but there was another name on everyone’s lips following Sunday’s final – goalkeeper Rashed Al Tumi.

In the shootout, the Sliema goalkeeper first saved Mattia Veselji’s effort before repeating his heroics on Kemar Reid.

“This success was a long time coming and the foundations were set in the Challenge League, Al Tumi said.

“My two saves were special, but praise should be given to the Sliema administrators who worked well to assemble a very competitive team.”

Sheer luck

But Sliema did not nick the cup by sheer luck.

Zammit built this Sliema team on his image. Through his astute recruitment, encouragement of local talent, and uncompromising commitment to attacking football, Sliema has become once again a Premier League force.

“The team was good, a good mixture of experience and youth. I was immediately convinced by the club’s project. Bringing so much joy to the Sliema supporters as well as becoming the most successful local team in history is priceless,” Minala said.

“Maltese football is changing, and it is attracting high-quality foreigners. This will raise the level of football here while helping the Premier League to become more visible.

“It would be beneficial for the national team as well. It would be nice to see Malta playing in the European Championship or trying to qualify for the World Cup,” he added.

The Cameroon midfielder, who had his career at Lazio cruelly cut short by a bizarre age claim, has epitomised his coach’s philosophy, leading by example, making crunching tackles in the middle of the park, putting in maximum effort and shouldering the responsibility of taking important penalties.

Sliema’s Vito Plut speeds away from his marker against Floriana on Sunday. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

“The game wasn’t pretty. The plan was to push forward in the second half, but there were few scoring chances. But the resilience of the team helped us to win the cup. We turned the page completely in these last two years,” he said.

The new-found passion was never more evident than on Sunday when Sliema’s frustration at spending so long in the shadow of their rivals showed in every biting tackle that clinched the title.

Something which must have warmed the hearts of their supporters who filled every corner of their stand at the National Stadium. This was a source of great pride for club president Keith Perry who never lost faith in his ability to run the club and kept the axe firmly in its scabbard without overspending.

“The administration provided me with the tools I needed for this job. Now, we need to go that extra mile to take the team to a new level,” Zammit said.

“The first two-year plan was executed to perfection, now we need to embark on another plan. That is a discussion for another day, let me celebrate our success today.”

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