Football: Fan's Eye View: Shouting men look to future: Gillingham

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE significant event of last year that may have escaped some of the residents of Kent was that it marked the 100th birthday of their only Football League club, Gillingham.

The Gills have a rather modest history, the main highlight being the Fourth Division title in 1963/64. I was brought up on the teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s under Gerry Summers and (Sir) Keith Peacock.

During these years, it seemed to my teenage eyes that we never finished anywhere other than fourth place, losing out on promotion on goal difference. Attendances were often above 8,000, and the football was well worth watching. I remember seeing teams like Watford and Swansea by-pass us and go on to greater things even though we always looked better than they did, at least when playing them at home. Swansea paid us a visit in November 1978 and Gillingham produced an outstanding performance with one of our most underrated players, Mark Weatherly, subduing John Toshack in a 2-0 victory.

In the early and mid-1980s, Gillingham teams under Keith Peacock consistently played excellent attacking football. With Tony Cascarino banging in the goals, and Steve Bruce in defence (the best player I've ever seen in a Gills' shirt), we seemed on the verge of real success. 1983/84 saw a superb performance in the FA Cup, taking the eventual winners, Everton, to two replays. 1987 arrived and there we were, nine minutes away from the Second Division - 2-0 up against Swindon in the play-off final, only to be hauled back from the brink of glory by two late goals and - the most sickening night of my life - a replay defeat at Selhurst Park. We all know where Swindon ended up, and where Gillingham ended up six months ago: on the verge of non-League football and probable extinction.

This brings us back to this year, and the climax to the most nerve- shattering, tension-filled season you can imagine. The football, although irrelevant, was so abysmal it verged on the comical. Last-minute goals conceded, Keystone Cops defending, and a complete loss of confidence combined to keep Gillingham in the bottom three nearly all season. Then came a sun-drenched day in May, almost exactly 100 years after the birth of the club, and the visit of Halifax Town. The equation was simple - winner stays up. How had the team who promised so much in my youth ended up in this position? Would we ever experience the dizzy heights of the (now) Second Division again?

All the questions you would ask yourself if your team found themselves on the edge of oblivion didn't matter that day in May. All that mattered was 7,000 screaming voices giving the team the confidence to survive. My memory of the whole thing boils down to the two top-class goals Gillingham scored, and the feeling of total elation and relief that washed over me when the second one went in. I kissed the pitch after a tearful excursion across it with the rest of the crowd.

Eight months later, and what of this season? Our manager, Glenn Roeder, left in the summer to join Watford. A dour, sullen individual, he will not be missed. His successor, Mike Flanagan, is an honest, likeable man who has already improved the team's performances and ended our awful record of 18 months without an away victory. I can find real reasons for optimism around Priestfield - a good board of directors, one or two promising players, and the knowledge that there is huge untapped potential support in the Medway towns. I hope and believe that Gillingham can achieve real success, and I suppose I would not turn up every week if I didn't. To celebrate our centenary, the club are releasing a book called 'The Home Of The Shouting Men' - which is what Gillingham means in Anglo-Saxon. We are starting to look to the future again in this corner of the footballing world, but I still have not quite got over the day the shouting men helped my team stay alive.

Comments