Some people say that the modern-day footballer is self-absorbed with no time for their supporters. It’s said most would rather be clubbing at Chinawhite’s in London than honing their skills on the training grounds of their respective clubs. As long as the hefty pay packets, so synonymous with the modern day footballer, are funding a luxurious lifestyle then the world is good. However, such people have clearly never met my interview subject…
It’s a typical British summer’s day as I drive to Bristol in England’s west country to meet my contact. By that, I mean that the skies are heavy and there’s a cool breeze preventing any humidity from breaking through. I park my car at Bristol Temple Meads train station, the main point of entry for many of the city’s visitors. It is perhaps apt, given my appointment with a footballer, that the city has been designated the European City for Sport in 2017.
I wait outside Temple Meads’ main entrance for 20 or so minutes past our allotted meeting time. No sign of my subject but then I receive a message saying that he is on his way and he apologizes profusely for being late. I try to reassure him it’s not a problem for me but he insists and he’ll be with me in 20 minutes.
Before those 20 minutes are up, I hear my name being uttered in a quizzical fashion and Australian accent and turn around to be greeted by Malta international wing-back, Jacob Borg.
Immediately, it’s clear Borg is unlike a number of professional footballers I’ve ever met. There’s no sports car and no Rolex hanging off the wrist. Instead, he sports a t-shirt, shorts and running trainers with a ruck sack on his back. “I’ve been preparing for pre-season so I run everywhere at the moment,” he says. How many managers would love to hear that from a player in this day and age?
Having introduced ourselves, Borg walks me to a nearby Starbucks cafe in a new development just next to the station. It’s a lazy Sunday so the area is quiet save for the odd England cricket fan who is meandering on his or her way to the One Day International in the city against Sri Lanka.
Despite my best efforts, Borg insists on buying the coffees and I immediately begin to understand just what a down to earth and likeable gent he is. The weather’s not too cold and there’s even a little sun in the sky at intervals, so we decided to take a table outside and we begin to chat about his career to date and his hopes for the future…
Despite being a Maltese international, Borg is Australian born and bred. This is something that becomes ever clearer as we talk, aside from the accent. As his name suggests, he has Maltese parentage in the shape of his father. Interestingly, as if to emphasise the multicultural nature of modern-day Australia, he also tells me, “my Mum is half-Scottish and half-Greek.”
And it’s in Australia that the story begins. Borg was born in the steel-producing city of Wollongong, in New South Wales’ Illawarra region. It was there that he learnt his trade as a youngster and as a supporter of the NSL’s old Wollongong Wolves club. Indeed, he is keen to make the point to me that his parents deserve so much of the credit for how his career has panned out, stating, “They are the backbone of my success.”
Attending one of the city’s academies at the age of 12, Borg began to take his football very seriously with a view to making it his future career. However, it was here that he was to have an experience that was to shape his career. He tells me, “When I was being coached in an academy at 12-years-old, the coach came up to me and said, ‘There’s no point you training as hard as you are because you’re never going to make it.’” I put it to Jacob that it must have been a soul-destroying experience for one so young? “For me it was actually a massive confidence boost. I’m going to prove to everyone that I can do it and the year after, in the local NSL juniors, I got Player of the Year and then I was in the Team of the Year. After that I was invited to go to the New South Wales Institute of Sport but I didn’t want to go. So I went to the AIS and then got called up for the Australian Under-21’s. So much for someone who wasn’t going to make it.”
Borg was just 16 when he joined the AIS in Canberra, a move that most players don’t make until the age of 18. And it was at the AIS that he came under the guidance of Steve O’Connor, a coach he still maintains was one the finest he played under.
After spending time with Blackburn Rovers Academy in England, and subsequently with an offer of a contract from League Two club Macclesfield Town, a homesick Borg moved to the Sydney FC Academy back in Australia. This was then followed by a move to North Queensland Fury, also of the A-League. Despite a solid first season of operations, the Fury experienced a very different second season in 2010-11, with the FFA called in to run the club before its subsequent demise at the season’s end. A young Borg was due to sign a three-year contract with the club but was left in limbo when operations ceased.
Borg moved south down the Queensland coast after the end of the Fury, joining the new Gold Coast United club which was owned by billionaire mining magnate, Clive Palmer. Following on from a promising start in world-class surroundings, the club soon began to lose money and, as Palmer’s interest waned, it soon became apparent that Borg would soon be on the lookout for another contract. Crowds of 2,000-3,000 and half of Skilled Park being closed off on match days was a sign of another franchise preparing to depart the local scene.
A return to Illawarra proved to be the springboard Borg needed and he signed with Illawarra League side, Dapto Dandaloo. The ambitious Wollongong club had stocked its roster with former A-League campaigners and were also prepared to allow Borg to run his own individual training sessions. An offer of a contract extension was on the table from the club but it was at this point that the ambitious Borg decided to chance his luck overseas. Malta beckoned.
Coming To Malta
It was 2012 and Borg had decided to take a trip to Malta to visit his brother, Dylan, already playing for Sliema Wanderers. He then takes up the story and says, “I went to visit Dylan but also have a kick about with Gżira United. While I was there I was put in touch with Balzan by my agent, Chris Tanner. I signed for them and two weeks later played my first game.”
Borg would spend the remainder of the 2012-13 season with the Australian-owned club and played 24 games in all. But it was just before Christmas of 2012 when he was contacted by the Maltese FA regarding participation in a national team trial game for trialists, up-and-coming players and those generally on the radar of national coach, Pietro Ghedin.
The Wollongong-born full-back attended the sessions and game having told his parents, “It’s probably just for the Under-21’s. But I wasn’t able to represent them because I’d already played for Australia at that level.” However a quick check on some of the players present, one of whom was Malta legend and ex-Melbourne Heart striker Michael Mifsud, and the reality hit home that this was a senior trial.
He was subsequently called up for the Malta squad against Northern Ireland in a friendly on 6th February 2013 but didn’t come off the bench in a 0-0 draw. A stint on the bench against Italy in a World Cup Qualifier the following month also resulted in no playing time.
On the 14th August 2013, Jacob Borg made his debut for Malta when entering the action as a half-time substitute in a friendly against Azerbaijan. The game in Baku finished in a 3-0 defeat for the Maltese but it’s still a game that Borg describes as, “an amazing experience. One of the best days of my life.”
At this point I play devil’s advocate. I put it to Jacob that I assume his first choice would’ve been to play for the Socceroos, having grown up in Australia? “Yeah, of course. First choice was always Australia. But that’s how decisions can lead you down one road. Playing for my country at the Under-21 level, there was no better feeling. Not many people do it. But we play against a lot better countries for Malta. You play against your Croatia’s, your Italy’s. In Australia, we play against Asia. Michael Thwaite is my mentor and we sat down and he gave me advice and said, ‘Just go for the Malta team. You’re young so go and make the best of the situation.’”
“For someone like me to come from the other side of the world, it was a big achievement. Now I don’t want to step back. I want to keep pushing forward. The Maltese brought me in as one of them. As a bunch of players they’re really close. They’ll fight and die for each other, even in training. There are some very intense games in training and a never say die attitude.”
With things looking up for Borg’s career since moving to Malta, the youngster found himself the subject of various transfer offers that summer. In the end, it was between two of Malta’s giants to battle it out over his services. He began training with Valletta but ended up signing for rivals Sliema Wanderers instead. He says, “In Malta, there’s a rule where, even if your contract has expired and you leave a club, another club still has to pay to buy your contract. After training with Valletta, Sliema came in with an offer and told me they’d buy my contract and give me ownership of it. I knew that I needed to take that offer as it gave me freedom.”
And so 26 games for Sliema followed, the side finishing an impressive 4th in the Maltese Premier League. There was also an FA Trophy Final appearance which, sadly, resulted in a 1-0 defeat to Valletta at Ta’ Qali. Overall it had been a good season but Borg was instructed that he would need to find another club for the following season as the club already had four other full-backs on its books.
Following a trip back to Australia to visit friends and family, Borg returned to Malta and was offered a contract by Premier League newcomers, Żebbuġ Rangers. It was a season that promised so much, the club beating Valletta in its opening game of the season, but ultimately relegation back to First Division was the conclusion and Borg left the club with two games to spare after picking up an injury. He tells me, “We were a really good team. We had some really good players but we just didn’t gel properly.”
After Żebbuġ came the opportunity for Borg to move to England train with Bristol Rovers. The move tied in with his partner being based in Bristol but ultimately no contract was forthcoming. He recalls, “I don’t really understand what the problem was between my agent and the club but they said they couldn’t sign me so I trained with them for a while.”
There was also a trial stint with Portsmouth on the south coast but more confusion was to put paid to a move. “I was on trial with Portsmouth and Gosport were their feeder side. So they said, ‘Let’s have a look at you,’ and Gosport had a game against Luton Town. And there was a mess up between the clubs and my agent. They thought I was going to come later and I arrived earlier so they said, ‘We don’t have a game for the next two weeks so we’ll chuck you in at Gosport and see how you are.’”
Borg went on to win Man of the Match for Gosport against Luton and also repeated that achievement in his second and final game for the Vanarama South club against League Two side, Northampton Town. He says of the experience, “I think you have to get in early with English teams. You can’t come in late because they’ve already got their bases set.”
With no contract forthcoming in England, Borg returned to Malta and trialled for a month with Floriana, then under the guidance of former Belgium international Luis Oliveira. Borg speaks highly of the former Cagliari striker and is quick to point out he learnt a great deal from the experienced Brazilian-born coach. He also says, ““I don’t think he had full control of the team, and a guy like him needs full control. He was a fantastic coach. All the time I was there he never had a negative vibe. Always positive and if the team didn’t play well he would always say that it’s now onto the next game to put it right.”
Borg returned to England after his stint with Floriana, in the hope of finding that elusive contract with a British club. He has been keeping fit and preparing for the coming pre-season by doing his own work, something any coach will be impressed by. Of the current time, he tells me, “I’m training every day. Doing my own skill work and then four times a week I’ve been going to play 8, 9, 5-a-side just to keep my touch going and it’s actually helped me a lot more than I thought. We play those games for about an hour and fifteen minutes so it’s almost a full game and helps with fitness.”
So what next for this extremely likeable and driven 25-year-old? One thing for sure, Borg is not short of ideas and he displays a very admirable level of ambition. “At the moment I’m looking to Asia for next year,” he says. “My goal is to play football all year around.” I put it to him that surely that risks burnout? He responds, “Players do burnout. It’s happened to me numerous times. But I think if you have the right lifestyle you’re probably more likely not to burnout. Ronaldo doesn’t have a week off. Messi doesn’t. During the season, it’s very hard to burnout. You have a lot of breaks, a lot of free time. Off-season is probably when most players burnout because they come off the back of a long season and then they go straight into an intense season again. But if you have the right diet and the right lifestyle then it’s very hard to burnout.”
There is also the small matter of getting back into the national side, something he hasn’t been involved with since a friendly against the Faroe Islands back in 2013. He states, “I’m still involved in the national team programme. My goal for the next 5 years is to get into a very good league in England or somewhere else and play as many international games as possible. I want to be the best defensive player, which I know I can be.”
An added carrot for Borg is the World Cup Qualifier against England at Wembley Stadium this coming October. Will he be involved? “I really hope so,” he says. “That game would be such a huge experience and if I have a good first few months of the season, in Malta or England, then I hope I can catch Ghedin’s eye.” I also ask him if he’ll be there as a fan if not a player. “Definitely,” he says with a smile.
But Jacob Borg is a man who also wants to give back to the sport that has given him so many wonderful experiences already. An academy is a project that he’s currently sewing the seeds for. “I want to start my own academy. I want to give people the chance I had. I don’t know if that will be based in Europe or in Australia. I’m leaning towards Australia because, the A-League is great, but there is still not as much opportunity as over here. If there is a player who is good enough but doesn’t have the financial background, I’d like to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got you covered.’”
So does he think that more Maltese-Australians could make the journey? He tells me, “If they don’t have an opportunity in Australia, the good thing is to go to Malta. It’s the sort of thing I want to venture into. I know I opened up a window at Balzan. They have a lot of Australians in the youth system now. I had a good year and Anton, the Aussie guy who owns the club, he brings over Australians every year to play in the youth team and see whether they’re good enough. So I’m glad to help out that way.”
But he’s keen to point out to any aspiring Australian youngster that life as a professional footballer can be tough and the road fraught with difficulty. “It’s day-to-day living. Sometimes I’ll get a message saying I have a contract and the next day I hear it’s fallen through. That’s just how it is. You have to be resilient and flexible.”
I question Borg on whether he’s ever had problems receiving pay as has been reported by other players in Malta. He’s very honest but also philosophical and says, “It’s happened to me numerous times. I think that’s the only thing really keeping Malta behind the rest of Europe. Sometimes it is tough but you can’t always blame the clubs. Sometimes they just don’t get the money they were promised by the sponsors. It’s just how you come out of it and it’s why I got a part-time job, just for some security. But it also happened at North Queensland as well.”
After an hour or so of talking football, Borg’s phone sounds. He’s due at his next 5-a-side game just across from the station as he continues his pre-season preparation. It’s a mark of the man that he even invites me to come along and watch. Usually I’d bite his hand off but, alas, today is a full schedule and I have the drive back to the Home Counties to undertake against the clock. Before we part ways, however, he very kindly signs my Malta shirt and two Sliema Wanderers shirts which will be proudly framed and hung on the walls of my home. He even walks me to my car as we chat more on a personal level. He wishes me and my family all the best and we part company.
Whatever the immediate future has in store for Jacob Borg, nobody could wish it to be any less than the best. Make no mistake, he is determined and confident in his own ability. He has an attitude that any manager would love to see more of in the dressing room, especially in this day of the pampered star. Whether he stays in the UK or heads back to Malta for the 2016-17 season, don’t bet against him lining up at left-back against England at Wembley on Saturday 8th October. As he says, “I want to score at least 10 goals every season. Lately I’ve been practising my shooting. That’s my goal. I’ve done it before in Australia so I can definitely do it again.”
by Paul Gellard (2016)
Since I wrote this article, Jacob has now signed for BOV Premier League newcomers, Gżira United.