Football: Eeles and Baker leave Halifax with unequal battle for League survival: The tale of two teams fearing for their League future ended happily for Gillingham yesterday. Owen Slot reports

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The Independent Online
THERE was a horror film atmosphere for the fans at Priestfield Stadium yesterday. When your team is facing relegation from the Football League, do you watch and endure the ultimate scare or do you hide your head in terror? Just 10 minutes into the game yesterday, Bill Williams, Gillingham's general manager, was spotted taking a walk outside the stadium. The thought of 43 years of league status about to end is not easy to handle.

There was more, though, for Halifax to play for. They were bottom of the Third Division, two places below Gillingham, and it is accepted fact that relegation would result in the club folding altogether. Seventy-two years as a football club about to end, well . . .

So, 90th v 92nd in the league. Gillingham's largest league home crowd of the season were there in the knowledge that with Torquay and Northampton both still in the equation no side would be relegated today, but that a win would guarantee Gillingham's survival. And so another fact sweeping Priestfield yesterday - that Gillingham are the only league club without an away victory made a win all the more crucial; next Saturday the Gills are away, to Torquay of all people.

Halifax, you might say, are used to this sort of thing. For the last two seasons they finished second from bottom, yet each time there has been no relegation and the season's finish has been irrelevant. There was no chance of any complacency yesterday.

Two nervous teams started the contest with nothing to calm their nerves. By the time Williams went walkabout, there had been a booking apiece (Joe Dunne for Gillingham, Kevin Megson for Halifax), a close long-range shot by Megson and two Gillingham near misses - one goalmouth scuffle and a Nick Forster header which rattled the inside of the left-hand post.

Thereafter it was an even tie. Billy Barr and Jamie Patterson, who was outstanding for Halifax, both went close, each demanding the sharpest of saves from Gillingham's Scott Barrett, and minutes later Halifax had a penalty appeal turned down.

An outstanding shot from Tony Eeles, in the 49th minute, finally separated the teams. Eeles's pinpoint left-footer into the roof of the net from the edge of the box, gave Lee Bracey no chance and it gave his side some necessary composure. Barrett had to continue his miracles in the home goal, once tipping a header from Chris Lucketti against a post. But in the 78th minute, Paul Baker settled it for Gillingham with another spectacular strike into the roof of the net from 25 yards.

The scenes in Priestfield, when the referee's whistle finally settled the argument, were extremely moving - a whole season's frustration unloaded in joyous relief. Fans swarmed on to the pitch (when did this last happen here?), the stewards attempted to stop them but eventually gave up. Gillingham were staying up and the celebrations weren't going to be silenced.

Gillingham's manager, a relieved Glenn Roeder, agreed that he had just witnessed the most important game in Gillingham's history. 'All the emotion you can imagine. It was a Cup tie, wasn't it?' For the losers, the nightmare is almost complete. Torquay won and are safe. Halifax have to beat Hereford next week, and if Northampton win at Shrewsbury even that won't be enough.

Gillingham: S Barrett; J Dunne, E Martin, R Green, R Carpenter, N Smith, P Clark, D Crown (S Crane, 74 min), P Baker, T Eeles, N Forster. Sub not used: G Breen. Manager: G Roeder.

Halifax: L Bracey; D German (D Christie, 81 min), B Barr, J Hardy, C Lucketti, R Bradley, J Peake, K Megson, D Ridings, J Patterson, P Craven. Sub not used: N Greenwood. Manager: M Rathbone.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Goals: Eeles (1-0, 49 min); Baker (2-0, 78 min).

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