Jayce Olivero: from Abingdon United to facing Hazard with Gibraltar

Ben Fisher on 16 November 2018

If Craig David considers his 7 Days hectic, he clearly has never met Jayce Olivero. Take the international break last month when Olivero and his country tasted their first competitive win, against Armenia; Saturday 13 October 2018 will live with Gibraltar forever. By the Tuesday night they were celebrating another, against Liechtenstein, and by Wednesday afternoon, via Gatwick airport, he was back home in Headington. By 9am Thursday, Olivero, a third-year student at Oxford Brookes University, was sitting in a two-hour lecture. Two days later he helped Abingdon United beat ninth-tier Tuffley Rovers in the Hellenic League Challenge Cup.

Olivero, who had trials at Leicester and West Ham in his mid-teens, knows what is coming. “I always get that question,” he says, laughing. “I’ve been very fortunate to play against players like Hazard, Lukaku, Dzeko, Nani, all these great players … Kompany, Courtois, just a big list of brilliant players. Kevin De Bruyne.

“They’re just great players who a few years ago I would just want on my team when playing Fifa. I’d be watching them, supporting them and little did I think I’d be standing side-by-side with Lukaku, or marking Hazard at a corner. The players here are not the same calibre, but when I come back [to England], I don’t drop my tempo, I actually raise it because I know I need to keep improving if playing against those great players is what I really want.”

Olivero speaks eloquently about juggling his BSc sport, coaching and physical education degree with playing for Gibraltar, for whom he made his debut aged 17. They play on an artificial pitch at Victoria Stadium, round the corner from the international airport, with that looming limestone rock as the backdrop.

“It is crazy for spectators, who are watching the game and all of a sudden there are planes landing a few metres away,” Olivero says. “It’s crazy, but it’s just the way it is. What really is special is that big rock that overlooks our pitch and our stadium. I think that is what really inspires us. When our national anthem goes off, we are looking up at the rock. That rock holds everything, it is everything we are and represent. That rock is really special.”

The Gibraltar national squad train in the shadow of the rock.
The Gibraltar national squad train in the shadow of the rock. Photograph: Stephen Ignacio/Alamy Stock Photo

It was the match in Yerevan that captured the hearts of those far beyond Gibraltar. After 22 games without a competitive win, Gibraltar, who five years ago became Uefa’s smallest member with a population of around 35,000, had won.

“The thing is the emotions started prior to the final whistle,” Olivero says. “We were fully focused, playing our hearts out, but I remember at one point I was looking at the captain [Roy Chipolina] and he looked back and we were in tears, because there were only seconds left. We were seconds away from getting that first one. We had tears coming down our faces; we were cheering our teammates on with so much emotion. When that final whistle went … it was just like a dream. I fell to my knees and just thanked the Lord for allowing us to get that win. Everybody was hugging each other and even the opposition crowd gave us a clap; they saw the emotions and the effort we put in. It felt like a family in a very emotional moment.”

The homecoming was special. On the ground along with GBC, Gibraltar’s public service broadcaster, and a sea of supporters were almost a dozen of Olivero’s relatives, each wearing match-worn shirts carrying his name and number. “Every time I play I have given a shirt to a member of my family a shirt, so they all have one. It makes me happier to see them wearing the top and them feeling proud rather me just having it in my room.”

Gibraltar players celebrate after beating Liechtenstein, their second consecutive win, in October.
Gibraltar players celebrate after beating Liechtenstein, their second consecutive win, in October. Photograph: Marcus Moreno/AP

The defender counts De Bruyne, Hazard and Ricardo Quaresma among his toughest opponents but is loth to swap shirts with players he considers to be his heroes. “I really value the shirt of Gibraltar, our history and our past,” he says. “That’s why I like to keep them because years down the line I want to look back and remember playing.

“I’ve got a few shirts, [Thomas] Meunier, John O’Shea’s, a Portugal shirt, a Poland shirt, but I really value the shirt of Gibraltar. I always like to keep it because at the end of the day, I can look at those shirts and think: ‘Wow, I’ve played against those players’ – but I can look at my shirts and remember the games and the hard work we have put in.”

He believes being rejected by Leicester and West Ham made him mentally stronger and exposed the areas of his game he needed to improve. When he was on trial at Leicester, in February 2016, the club were en route to being crowned Premier League champions.

“I would literally be having lunch with them, back-to-back with [Kasper] Schmeichel or in the gym beside [Wes] Morgan,” Olivero says. He also played alongside Anton Ferdinand for Southend United, in a pre-season friendly in Spain. “I was a boy then. I came across much more mature players. It made me realise what I have to do to get to the top level.”

For now, his focus is Friday’s Nations League qualifier against Armenia. Olivero will miss Abingdon’s trip on Saturday to Flackwell Heath in the Hellenic Premier League but will return in time for next week’s home match against Brackley Town Saints.

Will it be another famous night on the rock? “Hopefully,” Olivero says. “We always have to remain humble. We have got things clear. We have won, we have made history but there is a lot more things to achieve. We have to keep our heads down, keep working and trying to improve. I have tasted that feeling of success and I just want it again. We know what we have to do.”

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