Gibraltar's students continuing to learn

  • James Coombes and Michael Yome are forwards for Gibraltar

  • UK-based university students have 12 caps between them

  • Duo hope to become the starting forwards for their country in future

James Coombes and Michael Yome aren’t your typical university students – they are also international footballers. Studying in the UK, the young forwards find themselves in a unique situation of balancing full-time education with representing their native Gibraltar at senior level.

From attending lectures and seminars to facing Eden Hazard, Mesut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski in competitive fixtures, it’s a staggering contrast for Yome and Coombes that the duo have grown accustomed to ever since Gibraltar have been competing in qualifiers since 2014.

"It’s interesting balancing university with international football,” said Coombes, a second-year Business Management and Marketing student at Cardiff Metropolitan University, in conversation with "It’s quite a difference but it’s just like anything else: getting down to do the work when it has to be done. It requires a lot of discipline."

"At first I thought it was going to be difficult juggling the two," said Yome, an aspiring secondary school teacher approaching the end of his PGCE at Canterbury Christ Church University. "It’s a big contrast and it’s a shock at first but I’m used to it now. There are many talented professionals who will never play for their country, so I’m incredibly humbled to be able to represent mine against other nations."

Having risen through the Gibraltar youth ranks together, Coombes (21) and Yome (22) made their senior debuts in 2015 and played a part in Gibraltar’s maiden UEFA EURO qualifying campaign, as well as the nation’s historic first FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The smallest UEFA member with a population of 30,000, Gibraltar boasts an incredible sense of togetherness amongst their tight-knit squad. And with three Casciaros and three Chipolinas, the set-up also has a real family feel to it.

"We have a very special bond and community within Gibraltar and it really shows when the team meets up," said Coombes. "Everyone knows each other and we’re all really close mates, both on and off the field. Unless you live in a small community, I don’t think anyone will understand the bond the team has."

"Two of my best friends are in the squad and it’s incredible to be able to experience this with players you’ve grown up with throughout the years playing football in Gibraltar," Yome concurred. "You know everyone there and they all know you. It’s like a group of friends playing in the same team."

Cyprus test and future goals Jeff Wood’s Gibraltar next face Cyprus at Portugal’s Estadio Algarve, the venue of their home games in World Cup qualifying. Though Gibraltar have yet to register a point in a competitive fixture since their first qualifier in September 2014, Coombes and Yome have their sights set on overturning that record.

"This process is still new to us and we’re still learning, but we want to show that we can compete with other teams out there," Coombes said. "We’re hoping to prove some people wrong and get something out of the next game."

"We’ll be going into that game looking to get an historic result," asserted Yome. "There’s a naivety about us that we need to get over and I think, with time, we can become a respected team. It’s about getting accustomed to playing professionals who are the best of the best in their country.

"Hopefully soon we’ll have our own ground in Gibraltar, too," Yome continued. "It would help us a lot, having thousands of people there supporting us. We do miss that sometimes at our games in Portugal."

Former club team-mates at Gibraltar side Manchester 62, Coombes and Yome are among the fresher faces in the national team, boasting 12 international caps between them since graduating to the senior side. The young forwards are eager to keep featuring for their country and hope to be Gibraltar’s starting-striking duo in the future.

"Mikey and I have known each other for years," said Coombes. "We’ve grown up in the GFA since we were kids. The dream is for us to be playing more regularly together for the senior team, but we need to keep working hard to achieve it."

"We’re always playing together, so we have good chemistry between us," agreed Yome. "We’re both next to break into that team and establishing ourselves as the two forwards for Gibraltar over the next three years."