It was not just the numbing cold that chilled Accrington Stanley yesterday. While Gillingham marched on towards the League Two title, only York City's defeat to Torquay at Plainmoor kept Stanley from slipping back into League Two's relegation zone.
It took the Lancashire club 44 years to regain the Football League place surrendered when debts forced them to resign in 1962. This loss leaves that status very much in peril. A match away to the champions-elect may look like one that could be written off but Stanley had travelled south in hope after successive wins with seven goals scored. Their hosts were not only showing poorer form but have been vulnerable at home.
"The lads are disappointed as we really fancied ourselves today," manager Leam Richardson told Stanley's website afterwards. "We were outstanding in the second half. At times we played them off the park."
Gillingham's Martin Allen said, however, that he never feared his team would lose the lead provided by Matt Fish's stunning goal 24 minutes into a first half his team controlled. Stanley did then dominate much of the second half but despite utilising two former England international strikers were unable to gain reward.
"We now have six matches we must win," said Richardson, "but we are playing good football and creating chances so we must be positive."
Looming over everyone at Stanley is the knowledge that relegation to the Conference could be ruinous. Only Torquay and Oxford of the 16 clubs to be relegated in the last eight seasons have returned to stay and four have experienced severe financial problems. In the case of Rushden & Diamonds these were terminal. Accrington, with their small supporter base (at 1,620 their average gate is the league's lowest), would certainly have reason to fear the drop.
'Pride not £££' read a banner hanging in the corner of Priestfield Stadium allocated to the 28 away fans. It is an admirable attitude but one borne of necessity not choice. The club has the division's lowest budget yet still failed to pay players' wages on time this month. Stanley work hard to engage with its community raising £1,600 for a local charity at their midweek win over Wimbledon and polling the fans to see what they wanted (a new toilet block and covered bar in the home end being the answer).
Yet even in Accrington the English game's cash and glamour attracts exotic imported talent. They were without Rommy Boco, who is on World Cup duty with Benin in Algeria on Wednesday, but did include Congo DR international Amine Linganzi.
A more recognisable figure led the line: former Everton striker Francis Jeffers who a decade ago scored on his only international appearance but whose career has been in steady decline ever since with his most recent club in Malta.
Gillingham had their own glamour striker, Deon Burton, who played in the 1998 World Cup for Jamaica. He was first to threaten but Tom Aldred scrambled his 18th-minute header off the line after Leon Legge had headed back Charlie Allen's free-kick. When Aldred followed up by heading away Danny Kedwell's goalbund header it looked as if it might take something special to break the deadlock. On cue Fish provided just that, the right-back cutting in from the flank to unleash a left-foot drive which went in off the underside of the bar.
Shortly before the break Chris Whelpdale should have put doubled Gills' lead but scuffed his chip when clear and with Joe Martin, watched by his father, former England defender Alvin, fizzing a shot narrowly wide Gills' pressure had scant reward.
Jeffers had been a spectator in the first period but after the break dropped deeper and Stanley began to keep possession. Peter Murphy, then Jeffers with a curling shot, brought Stuart Nelson into action and Gills grew anxious. Jeffers sent a glancing header, the same manner in which he scored his England goal, just wide, but then a cold hamstring twanged. Off the 32-year-old limped to cries of 'old man' from the home support, and on came Stanley's other ex-England veteran, James Beattie.
He won a couple of headers but did little else against the tightest defence in the division. It was nevertheless a nervy finish with all the relevant cliches: Gills taking the ball into the corner flag, Stanley keeper Paul Rachubka coming up for corners, and 10,000 fans whistling for the end.
Gills are now eight points clear and not only promotion seems certain but also their first honour since winning this division 49 years ago. For Stanley fans the only consolation was the free burger and chips Gills provided them at half-time.
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