Maltese like it hot, 2013

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First published in Forty-20, November 2013

MALTA – the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret. A sunny jewel set in an azure sea. A place of history and culture.

I went for the rugby league.


Melita FC’s ground in the distance. As ever, the best way to find the ground is to aim for the floodlights

“Leave plenty of time to get there, the ground’s 20 minutes from civilisation” turns out to be good advice.  So I get off the bus on the main road and, after a few twists and turns, take a path across a rocky nature reserve before glimpsing the day’s field of dreams – Melita FC in Pembroke, venue for the MRL Dove Men+Care Championship grand final.

It’s a smart little stadium and when I arrive there’s a healthy crowd in. Then they all leave as the junior soccer session winds up on the pristine 3G pitch.

In search of company I take a seat in the glass-fronted clubhouse overlooking the pitch. “Best seats I’ve ever had for a grand final,” announces a new arrival. The accent is distinctively Australian.

Andrew is a Wests Tigers fan working in online gaming in Malta. We’re soon joined by Sonia Dorsett, also from Sydney’s west, who is visiting family in Rabat. Between the two of them the NRL gossip flows.

Sonia’s an official of the Windsor Wolves club down under and was in at the beginning of Malta RL when it was founded in Sydney. That team was an all-Australian outfit made up of players with Maltese heritage.


Malta Origin defeated Sliema to land the trophy

To progress internationally the founders knew they had to take the game home. “So that’s when Choc packed up and came here,” says Sonia. That was in 2008. Choc is Anthony Micallef, organisational and social media dynamo, chief exec of Malta RL, and referee for today’s clash between Sliema RL and Malta Origin. He spends a large chunk of his free time working on the game and has big ambitions for Malta. He points out that while Malta is currently ranked 21st in the world that’s higher than any Maltese team in any sport has ever been.

Another couple in the bar turn out to be from near where Sonia lives in Sydney. Rugby league really is a small world. It gets a little smaller when I spot Gareth Barron leading the Malta Origin warm-up. I occasionally gave him a lift home when he was a Gateshead Thunder apprentice back in ’99.

Gareth, now well-travelled in rugby league, answered an online ad looking for someone to beef up the Malta Origin pack at the back end of the season. In the Maltese media he was billed as “the British enforcer”.


The slightly unusual scene confronting goal-kickers at Melita FC

As the teams line-up it becomes obvious that a few compromises have had to be made to get the game on. The pitch has neither rugby posts, nor pitch markings. The try line is the front of the soccer six-yard box, supplemented by a line of brown parcel tape stuck across the width of the pitch. A goal is scored by getting the ball over the soccer bar and between two large green posts supporting the mesh that stops balls leaving the stadium.

Malta Origin kick-off, Sliema concede in the first minute. There are some good passages of play and Sliema are slick with ball in hand but can’t make their skill tell. Malta Origin are on top and lead 14-0 at half-time. Despite an early sin-binning for a high tackle the game is played with great enthusiasm and in good spirit.

Although it’s cooler than high summer the shade temperature is still 27 degrees and out on the pitch, where there is no shade, it’s warmer still. There are few concessions to the heat.

There’s a bit of a Sliema fightback in the third quarter before Origin romp away to a 46-10 win. With the Sliema defence tiring Barron, having played the full 80, completes a rare prop’s hat-trick. For Sliema it’s the end of a two-year unbeaten run. It’s fair to say they weren’t helped by losing eight regulars on the eve of the match.

Afterwards Sonia is called down from the stand to take on the role of visiting dignitary and present the trophy to winning skipper Joe Paolella. For the Origin boys there will be victory celebrations later in Paceville, Malta’s nightlife centre, but they can’t start until midnight. Many of the players have to attend a slightly sinister sounding “initiation” at their rugby union club first.

Meanwhile, there’s tidying up to be done and, still in his playing gear, the British enforcer is peeling the sticky tape off the pitch.

o Find out more at,, or follow @maltaRL on Twitter

o This article originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine’s November 2013 issue:


Return of the Sunday soul sessions, 2013

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spitfires october 2013 (2)THE Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of gigs – first Sunday of every month – in aid of the Bubble Foundation at The Cluny, Newcastle. The next, the sixth, is on February 2, 2014. Doors open at noon, £6.50 admission. Here’s the back story to what was meant to be a one-off:

First published in The Chronicle, Newcastle, August 2013

THEY’D queue from 11.30am with the doors opening at noon. Soon the foyer of the Newcastle Playhouse at the top of the Haymarket would be heaving, with 200 or more music fans crammed inside.

From 1982 to 1986 the Sunday lunchtime gig they’d all come to see was a Tyneside institution.

The East Side Torpedoes was a North East soul and rhythm and blues band who played all over the UK. But every Sunday they came home, missing only a couple of gigs in all that time.

East Side Torpedoes 1982

The East Side Torpedoes outside the Playhouse in 1982. From left, Steve Hall (guitar), Neil Hunter (vocals), Dave Connolly (trumpet), Dave Allan (drums), Derek Nattrass (bass), Andy Hawkin (keyboards), Nigel Stanger (alto sax), Lindolph D’Oliveira (tenor sax) and Terry O’Hern (trombone). Picture copyright ncjMedia

They had started as a five-piece, led by singer Neil Hunter, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section.

And while classic soul covers figured, the set was mainly original material, some of it evocative of North East life. The Evening Chronicle said their live shows featured “a brand of music that is powerful and fun” and called the band “a breath of fresh air”.

It was £3 to get in. Gill Johnston, who sometimes took the money on the door, remembers:  “The atmosphere was electric. You had to stand and it got very hot. The band would do two 45-minute sets but the second one could go on and on depending on their mood.”

Coast to Coast album coverThe Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by former Animal Chas Chandler. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop broadcaster. They appeared at Knebworth and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film on the band.

Neil remembers: “Some weeks we’d play three or four nights, some weeks five or six, sometimes none but we’d come back for the Playhouse, often driving through the night, because it was that important. We had a road crew of three or four guys who were on £25 a week and the Playhouse gig paid their wages if we didn’t have the work in.”

Gill recalls the gigs always ending on the same song, the slow, Hunter-penned ballad On Such A Night As This. “By then”, she says, “you’d have the audience swaying, everyone singing, people singing harmonies and descants.”

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Neil – in the mid 80s. He and trombone player Terry ‘Ernie’ O’Hern stuck together in the Blue Sharks, the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires in 2003.

And it’s the Spitfires, complete with a four-man horn section, who are playing a Sunday lunchtime gig once again, in aid of the Bubble Foundation which funds life-saving treatments for babies born without an immune system. It is a cause the band has supported for some years, introduced to it by Gill Johnston, now Bubble’s fundraising manager.

The venue is The Cluny in the Ouseburn in Newcastle on Sunday September 8, doors open at noon.  Gill’s hoping it’ll recapture some of the spirit of the Playhouse days.

o Tickets £6.50 on the door or visit More about the Bubble Foundation at

o The article above appeared in the Chronicle, Newcastle on August 31, 2013