Guest article by Andrew Haines
The streets of London hustle and bustle. Even in the suburbs of England’s capital the streets are alive with activity: commuters going about their business, endless traffic and street football, one street versus another, to name but a few. This hive of activity seems an unlikely starting point for a Maltese Premier League star in the making; it is not.
Justin Tellus would begin his meritocratic rise through the Maltese football pyramid in South London, the streets of Bermondsey – where he would take on a team from the next road over – would one day become the Ta’ Qali National Stadium in front of 30,000+ people.
More immediately, the streets would become playing for the borough of Southwark as a striker in the mid-80s, which in turn would then become London School Boys, a collective XI from all of the London boroughs.
“London School Boys was like a big melting pot,” Tellus recounted with a nostalgic smile written across his face. “Luckily enough lots of professional teams started to look at the players in the squad so that led to trials with West Ham and Millwall at the time.”
“Through my youth football career, I moved a lot though, I remember getting scouted to go and play for Stoke City, Alan Ball was the manager at the time and I remember him saying: ‘oh, you southern softies’ and stuff like that.”
Tellus would enjoy a youth career that was scattered across many clubs, “the mistake I made was that I didn’t stick to one team really and I think that’s what let me down,” he said. Struggling to find a club that he was happy to stay with by the age of 18 – Malta was calling.
First port of call, Sliema Wanderers. The Malta-born had a dual nationality, due to his mother’s side having English descent, signed his first professional contract with a one-year deal in the Maltese town.
With limited first team opportunities Tellus left Sliema a year later, having won both the Under-18 and Under-21 league titles, for newly-promoted side St. George’s. A year on from that point and Tellus would be again on the move, this time to Birkirkara; a growing club in a big city.
“What persuaded me to go there was the president at the time, a bloke called Victor Zammit, I spoke to him and he said: ‘I want to build a young team, we have the biggest following in Malta and I want to make Birkirkara the biggest team in Malta and compete in Europe.’ – people thought it couldn’t be done.
“Our first season turned out to be a difficult one as we finished fourth or fifth, which was something which fell below the expectations of what we were starting to set ourselves, but the team was progressing, and we were making some real noises in Maltese football.”
The second season it would click; so began the most affluent period in Maltese football history. Sliema and Hibernians were disposed of by Birkirkara and Valletta – the king of Maltese football – and it became a neck and neck race for the title year in, year out.
Maltese football had hit its boom time.
“I remember a league-title deciding game between Brikirkara and Valletta a few seasons after that point, in a stadium with a capacity of 30,000, which had to stop letting people in three hours before kick-off because it was packed – we hadn’t even arrived yet!” Tellus recounted.
That season Birkirkara would finish second, a qualification spot for UEFA Cup qualifiers, the first time Birkirkara had ever reached that height in the club’s history.
The following season would see Birkirkara finish second to Valletta again, and the season after that – second, again. By this point in 1999 Tellus had developed an epithet of a ‘bad boy’ image due to the tough-tackling nature of his game, which would stifle any chance of a national career.
“I think I accumulated the most red cards of any player during that era and it became a realisation that my game had changed – I’d changed from this very technical, young player who was scoring goals for fun at youth level to this tough, sturdy defender who was no nonsense.
“I remember one game where Michael Misfud smashed my teeth in – I was just upsetting him so much that he actually tried to headbutt me, the referee caught him and sent him off, but he smashed all my teeth, I have a few now which are still broken from it,” Justin said, looking sternly across the table.
Having battled with Valletta for the previous four years of his career, an unthinkable point came for Tellus – the Maltese giants came knocking.
Birkirkara wanted Valletta’s star man Draško Braunović, but to acquire his services, Tellus was to head in the opposite direction in a player-plus-cash deal. Birkirkara’s club president reluctantly wanted it to happen to get their man.
Tellus said with a bemused look still struck across his face to this day: “I was shocked, I’d been fighting with them, literally, for four years and he was telling me that they’ve said the deal wouldn’t happen unless I was swapped and I just said, I don’t want to go to Valletta. They wanted Branovic so much though that they would’ve given anything for him.
“My grandad, who was still alive at the time, was a big Valletta supporter and he told to at least listen to them and see what they had to say and really, I went because of my grandad,” he smiled.
Terms were agreed and Justin made his move with the promise that the club’s fans would see their hate, turn to love.
“I was only at Valletta for 18 months, and if I could describe my time there, I would say that the first six to seven months was the best football I ever played in my career; I was absolutely flying.”
However, after seeing red in a crunch-tie between Valletta and Birkirkara which ended 0-0, Tellus found himself on the outside looking in. “All of a sudden, everything at the club turned on me,” he said. Valletta finished second, Tellus would again go without a title win as Birkirkara won their first ever MPL title.
Frozen out in the cold, Birkirkara – the reigning champions – wanted to resign the man that left a season and a half previously.
“Despite playing some of my best football with Valletta it just didn’t work, it couldn’t have – I just didn’t fit in,” Justin explained, with a stark look of resignation.
“So, I re-joined Birkirkara and I was delighted, but at the end of that season we finished second again. I think I am the only player to have finished five times runner-up.”
Long-time friend and former teammate of Justin, Afraik Kaejtan “Chucks” Nwoko played for Birkirkara throughout all Tellus’ years there and has fond memories of their time playing together.
“Justin played a huge part in helping me settle in quickly in Malta, I was far away from home and Justin was more like a brother than a friend or a teammate. When he went in the swap deal with Braunović it was very difficult for me to digest,” the Nigerian-born midfielder explained.
“It was great to have him back when he returned, but on the part of the club a lot had changed over the year and a half. The club had invested a lot in new big-name players within the island and things weren’t the same anymore.”
Tellus was vice-captain and he was beginning to represent the old guard of Birkirkara, when a new coach came in with new philosophies over the direction the team should be heading in and with young players breaking through; Tellus was no longer flavour of the month and deemed a superfluous commodity.
A loan move to up-and-coming side Marsaxlokk became a permanent transfer in 2003, in his first season they would finish sixth, in the second – third. Tellus then moved on from Marsaxlokk to Marsa, a Maltese First Division outfit, the season after Marsaxlokk would win the Maltese Premier League and Tellus would again miss out on title glory.
“I was there for around three years, but I was moving towards the more semi-professional side of the game and focussing on my business; so, I made the decision to retire. I remember playing in a Division One game and coming off the pitch and realising that I was nowhere near to the levels that I was.
“I didn’t want to be remembered for that, I did alright but it just wasn’t what I wanted to be remembered for. I wanted to be remembered for being the player that was fighting at the top of the Premier League,” he admitted.
“I just completely fell out of love with the game. I wasn’t interested in coaching or anything; I just wanted to walk away from the game and concentrate on something else. There was a lot of things I saw in my career that I didn’t like.
“Looking back now I was probably in some type of depression, but I wasn’t aware of it – it took me a few years to recover from that.”
“I think that’s one area that isn’t addressed enough in football. You’re on a pedestal, you’re running through all these emotions constantly and your adrenaline is flying week in week out and all of a sudden it stops. When you hit that low it’s about how you react to that.
“I never had any advice or counselling on what was going to happen, I don’t think there’s enough support in sport for professionals, not just in football. It’s definitely got better but, in my generation, it just didn’t exist.”
Tellus went on to spend seven years out of the game as football had been left a marred memory for the 44-year-old. His wife, Carol Brooke, who had been with Justin since his time at Marsaxlokk had seen the change in Justin since his retirement from the professional game.
“Justin seemed to go through a period after he retired where he wanted a break from the game to follow his new business path,” Carlo explained. “But I don’t think he was ever truly happy being away from football as it had had always been a major part of his childhood and adult life.
So, I feel it did affect his moods in some way for many years until one day he seemed to then want to support his local club through the youngsters to give them the opportunity to have a career in the game like himself.”
After seven years of focusing on his business, Tellus was offered a role with his local non-league club, Matlock Town, as a development manager to oversee a restructure of the academy at the Evo-Stik club.
“It was a voluntary role and I wasn’t sure about it, so I went and spoke to my wife about it. She said: ‘I think it’s a good thing, ever since you stopped playing football you’ve not been the same…’ so I agreed to go down and help out,” he said.
Four years later and three academy graduates sold to professional football clubs, including Matlock’s first in their 141-year history, Tellus is making strides in the world of development football and re-found his love of football.
“Matlock has brought my love back for the game, but it’s always been in my blood, from a 7-year-old playing in the streets – I get great satisfaction now in helping young people progress to hopefully have a career like myself,” he explained with a glint of optimism back in his eyes.
As he began his rise through Maltese football 22 years previously, Tellus began a similar path in English football four years ago with Matlock and having just been appointed Director of Football of a new Leeds United Elite Player Development Programme’s hub, he looks to be on another path to the top.