“MAYBE Robert DeNiro looks like me”.
You can say a lot of things about Gibraltar coach Allen Bula, but not that he lacks confidence.
Following a friendly game last summer, a journalist who was interviewing the 49-year-old for the first time, gently asked if he was ever compared to the iconic American actor.
“Oh, I get that a lot,” Bula replied, before turning the comparison on its head.
Following Gibraltar’s 7-0 hammering to Poland, you might expect his confidence had taken a knock, but with the spirit of Jake LaMotta coursing through his veins, he’s back on his feet and swinging hard, ahead of Saturday’s game in Dublin.
Not only is he ready to stand toe to toe with Martin O’Neill, he’s also predicting a shot at the playoffs.
“Many managers just work on the strengths and weakness of opponent players, but I also like to work on the same for the opponent managers,” he explained.
“My idea is to make them make the mistakes that will then feed into their team.
“We know that the Germans are the favourites in the group, but after them, every other team is going to start nicking points off one another.
“If we can get a good run in the first half of the qualifiers, I genuinely think we can make it to the play-offs.”
O’Neill could ask for Bula to be given a standing count once he hears those comments, particularly in light of last month’s pummeling by Poland, led by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski who scored four.
The British Overseas Territory’s first ever competitive game – played in Portugal’s Estadio Do Algarve, failed to quieten critics who have questioned whether Gibraltar deserved their place in UEFA.
Despite boasting the seventh-oldest FA in the world, Gibraltar were only admitted to UEFA last year, and with a pool of 150 players in a population of approximately 30,000 (think of Bray), they’re unlikely to ever trouble the natural order of the continental game.
But Bula, credited with discovering Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic while coaching in Slovakia, insists he saw enough in the 7-0 defeat to Poland to remain optimistic ahead of his trip to Dublin.
“There are going to be changes and our game plan has to change, because I have reflected on Poland and seen where we went wrong, where I made mistakes, and I aim to correct them,” he said. “We need to work hard, and play like the first 45 mins we gave against Poland, and give it for 90 minutes against Ireland.
“In the first half we held them well, then after we conceded a goal in the second half our heads went down and we thought ‘this is Poland, we’re going to get slapped by them’.
“At this level, against that opposition, you can’t lose concentration for a minute.
“They can score 3-4 goals in 5-10 minutes, so we have to be careful with that. We have to maintain our shape and fitness.”
Fitness is expected to be one of O’Neill’s trump cards, with the majority of Bula’s squad comprised of amateur players who have had to be excused from work to play in Aviva Stadium next weekend.
Gibraltar League side the ‘Lincoln Red Imps’ are the main contributor to the squad, and despite Bula’s fighting talk, his country’s first ever qualification campaign is likely to be an exercise in making points, rather than winning them.
“My aim was to prepare Gibraltar for UEFA before we were admitted, rather than go in and then start to prepare,” he explained of his role, that began in 2010 when he was named head of development.
“I knew that many smaller nations had made the mistake of preparing once in UEFA, and had paid the price for a few years.
“One of my conditions was that the players and technical team started to work like professionals on and off the pitch, and that we played at least ten matches per year against professional sides.
“One of my biggest tasks was to show the world that, even prior to entry into UEFA, we had the requisite quality to play at the highest level in Europe.
“My country is a football-loving nation, and that obviously helps a lot in growth. Football is in our blood from birth and we showed against Poland we can give anyone a chance, now we need to do it for 90 minutes.”