Keith Elliott at Large / Football: Love is the drug for a loyal few: 'Armchair fans will never know the camaraderie of a 12-hour coach journey, the agony of an 89th-minute goal'

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The Independent Online
IT IS only when you rub shoulders with supporters of the Football League's worst team that you realise what optimism is all about.

For Gillingham, adrift at the bottom of the Third Division and without a League away win all season, life is one large rain cloud interspersed with hail and the occasional hurricane. The club are in debt and losing an estimated pounds 4,000 a week. There are no superstars like old boys Steve Bruce and Tony Cascarino, whose sale to the Premier League fat cats could at least provide a leaky umbrella. Relocation rumours make the future uncertain. On the face of it, there is nothing to tempt even someone with a house alongside the ground to venture inside Priestfield.

But stand among supporters at the Rainham end and you would never guess you are watching a team that looks increasingly likely to skid down Relegation Hill into the GM Vauxhall Conference. You are among football's faithful, the ones who don't ask how they will get time off to reach Carlisle by 7.30pm on a Tuesday, but what time the coach leaves. These are the fans who never have holidays during the season, who can suffer the pain of a 4-1 defeat and a week later, remember only their side's consolation goal. For them, hope resurfaces like Excalibur, every Saturday.

Huge numbers claim fealty to Manchester United or Liverpool. But most are armchair fans with a red scarf. You won't catch them on the terraces. They think supporters carry rattles, drink mugs of steaming Bovril and sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. They will never understand the importance of being there, or know the camaraderie of a 12-hour coach journey, the agony of an 89th- minute goal.

Next season will be Gillingham's centenary. It has been a period of almost uninterrupted mediocrity. They have never risen higher than the old Third Division, and most fans agree that the highlight of the past 100 years was losing the play-off final to Swindon in 1987. Not much to get excited about, is it? But men like Michael Phillips, Rob Sharpley, Dave Taylor and Andy Bradley would find it easier to miss a family funeral than a Gillingham game.

Phillips was voted Fan of the Year in 1992. An insurance clerk, he lived 50 miles away in Brighton but until last season, he never missed a game. 'I don't drive, and it just became impossible to get to some of the evening away games. But I still wouldn't miss a home match. I've supported them for 15 years, and I suppose it's in your blood.'

As we wait for Saturday's game against Cardiff to start, he talks me through the Gillingham team. You would expect him to slag the lot of them off but the worst Phillips will say is 'he has his moments'. He stoutly defends their miserable record, pointing out that the team have given away a lot of late goals (in nine matches they have conceded a goal in the last five minutes). 'We've got the makings of a very good side here. We just haven't had the breaks'.

Next to him on the terraces (no true fan ever goes in the seats) is Sharpley, who hasn't missed a game home or away for four and a half years. A Gillingham bank clerk, he fears that recent redundancies will force him to work later, thereby threatening his unbeaten run. 'I really fancied us for promotion this season. In pre-season matches, we beat Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Ipswich. But things haven't quite gone right.' You can say that again. But Sharpley takes huge pride in being a Gillingham fan. 'In September we took 350 fans to Walsall and they reckoned we were the noisiest away supporters they have ever had.' Not that it did Gillingham much good, they lost 1-0.

The fan with the most impressive record is Andy Bradley, who has missed just a handful of games over the past 20 years. 'You just get the bug,' he says as if supporting the Kent club is like contracting malaria. Though he believes that 'it's not footballing sides that succeed these days', he sees reason for optimism under the club's new manager, Glenn Roeder, who's taking all the players for individual coaching sessions. 'We seem to be turning the corner,' he predicts. I feel a little uncharitable suggesting that it may be the corner into the Vauxhall Conference.

Bradley, now assistant sports editor on the local paper and chairman of the Gills travel club, met his wife when the side played Darlington away in 1973. The supporters club has a better record for romance than Dateline. The travel club secretary, Dave Taylor (who took his PSV licence so he could drive the team coach), also met his wife while shouting for the boys in blue. They now have three children and Kevin, aged six, has been on the team coach several times. 'He's a very fortunate kid,' says Dave, as if talking about a child who has won an Eton scholarship.

Still, supporting the lowliest of Third Division sides does have its consolations. For a start, you can buy a cup of tea and a hot-dog, have a pee without needing gum-boots, and still be back before the sides come out for the second half. You can walk comfortably through the terraces without having Hillsborough nightmares, and always find your mates. Even an eight-year-old can watch without needing to sit on dad's shoulders.

Not that any youngster would necessarily want a good view. Lacking confidence, Gillingham concede a 'defensive nightmare' goal after 10 minutes and come close to giving away another on half-time. But for perhaps 20 minutes in the second half they played better and a couple of half chances go the wrong side of the post. 'It's gone like that for us all season,' Sharpley says resignedly. In the end, Cardiff are worth their 1-0 win.

Phillips, showing that indomitable spirit which will warm him and his mates right through to Saturday week at Northampton, says: 'We had quite a good spell for 15 minutes. You could see what we're capable of.'

Even the programme notes echo this Dunkirk spirit, saying: 'The disappointment of Gills going out of the FA Cup at Huddersfield was tempered somewhat by Liverpool's exit at the same stage of the competition.' I wonder if the Liverpool programme found solace in the fact that Gillingham were knocked out in the third round too. When you are a true fan, such tenuous links seem not ridiculous but logical as naming your children after the first XI. And if the unthinkable happened, if Gillingham celebrated their centenary playing the likes of Slough and Bromsgrove, you know that Michael, Rob, Andy, Dave and all the others would still be there on the terraces every Saturday. For the real supporter, football is much more than just a game.

(Photograph omitted)