Monday, 25 May 2009

Gills Wembley Day in Pictures

Gillingham 1 Shrewsbury Town 0

Match 67/08/751 - Saturday, 23rd May 2009 - League Two Final

Gillingham (0) 1 Jackson 90
Shrewsbury Town (0) 0
Att. 53,706

Entrance: £56
Programme: £5
Mileage: 100/8,843

Match Report

At the end of the line of players who had each taken their turn to receive their medals and lift the Cup to the fully deserved adulation of the 32,000 Gillingham supporters, Mark Stimson lifted the trophy and duly passed in on to his chairman and people actually cheered. It was almost a cathartic moment when in the eyes of their fiercest critics perhaps they had reached redemption. For the fair-minded among the throng and the people that have witnessed the weekly politics show that became Gillingham Football Club 2008-09, Stimson, at least, did not need any absolution and perhaps Paul Scally might even be given a ha’pence of credit for the achievement.

Eighteen months ago, our club reached its lowest ebb when a dreadful performance resulted in an FA exit at Barnet. The manner in which they departed the competition left a bad taste in the mouth, the club stank. Stimson was in charge that day, had recently started his reconstruction with a clutch of non league players and despite the shortness of time since his appointment he took the wrath of the fans squarely on the chin. As the situation failed to improve and Gills slipped to relegation, from the mouths of the loudest, no matter what had gone before, two men alone stood guilty of taking Gillingham into the basement of the Football League, Stimson and Scally.

As the men hugged before Stimson turned to bring the trophy back to the field of play, I would loved to have heard the brief conversation between the two. If the chairman had said, “well done Mark, now go and give them the finger,” I would not have blamed him. Thankfully, Stimson recognises that there is more to Gillingham’s support than the mouthy minority.

The game might have been settled in the last minute, Shrewsbury might have a bone of contention that the corner from which Simeon Jackson headed the winner should not have been awarded, but from 1 to 11, Gillingham were better than their opponents for virtually every minute of the contest. Simon King produced an immense performance alongside Garry Richards to reduce Grant Holt to a bit part. In the centre of the field, Curtis Weston and Josh Wright combined to give Gillingham a huge percentage of possession. That the territorial advantage was not turned into goals was mainly down to the brilliant keeping of Luke Daniels and the doughty defending of Graham Coughlan.

Once the pyrotechnics and Football League bigwigs had left the stage to the two teams, it was Shrewsbury who settled into their stride first and the larger percentage of the crowd breathed a sigh of relief when skipper Barry Fuller was forced to clear under pressure. Once this scare had been passed, Gillingham took complete control of the first half. Dennis Oli started to make an impression with his surging runs and John Nutter encouraged as he got forward on the opposite flank forcing Daniels into a good save on the half hour.

Daniels made an even better save on the stroke of half time pushing away a Josh Wright shot that came through a crowd of bodies. It had been Gillingham’s half by a country mile but they had no scoreline to reflect the dominance.

Although Shrewsbury carried a greater threat in the second half it was still the Gills that made most of the running although significantly Simeon Jackson was being successfully shackled by the powerful Coughlan. Andy Barcham had a shot saved at the near post by Daniels before the Shrews had their best two moments of the game and Kent held their breath. Ben Davies was through on goal before Barcham superbly got back to get a toe end on the ball to clear and Kevin McIntyre steered a free header well wide of the post when it seemed easier to score.

Were the Gills were beginning to flag in the hot sunshine? It was time to reassert their authority on the game and so they did, but a winner refused to come for all their dominance. The clock was ticking down and the 53,000 odd attendance were readying themselves for extra time and a dreaded penalty shoot out.

Andy Barcham skipped inside a tackle and took a return pass from Curtis Weston to the bye-line from which his cross was blocked for a corner, let’s not dwell on the fact that it rebounded off Barchy! Josh Wright sent in the corner, Simeon Jackson came back from his original starting position a yard, rose and headed the ball towards goal, on the line Neil Ashton’s arm could only help the ball into the roof of the net with Luke Daniels clawing the ball back from a yard over the line. The goal brought the explosion of noise from the thousands of Gills fans as Wembley rejoiced to Simeon Jackson’s dance of celebration. The lad had no joy for 89 minutes against Coughlan, but with one chance, one header, he had catapulted Gillingham back to League One at the first time of asking. He can be totally anonymous for large periods of games, but he is a goalscorer and a match winner.

Three minutes extra on the clock enabled Shrewsbury to throw one last effort at Gillingham and the man that has left Gillingham with some bad memories in regular season, Grant Holt, had one last header that was steered wide before Clive Oliver brought proceedings to a rapturous end.

The scenes of jubilation with the lifting of the cup, the spraying of the champagne, the lap of honour and even the feeling of sympathy for the Shrewsbury side laid out, desolate, on the pitch (don’t forget we’ve been there) were what has taken us through the past nine months and through the bad times, no more so than the 7-0 hammering at the ProStar in September.

But the champagne moment that I personally will take with me was the exchange between Stimson and Scally, a moment of vindication for both men.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Gillingham 2 Rochdale 1

Match 66/08/750 - Sunday, 10th May 2009 -
League Two Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg

Gillingham (1) 2 Jackson 13, 58 (pen)
Rochdale (1) 1 Dagnall 38
Att. 9,585

Entrance: £22
Programme: £4
Mileage: 45/8,743

Match Report

It is much easier to write this blog when matters have gone horribly wrong. The words and spaces give an opportunity to vent your spleen, to get it off the chest. Looking back at the away day postings from Shrewsbury and Exeter I used words such as spineless and embarrassing, the words came easy as anger flooded the mind. But the emotion of joy is so much harder to describe.

The two legs shredded the nerves as two teams with a fag paper between them sought to give their respective supporters a Wembley day out. It did not take a Hansen-like sage to predict that this tie could go all the way to penalties, it didn’t, but it took the nerves of steel that supporters no longer possessed for Simeon Jackson to coolly put a spot kick away to ultimately seal their place in the Final. Earlier in the day, Bury with home advantage and a goal lead from the first leg, buckled under the weight of parallel tension as they missed a regular time penalty and then a shoot out to allow Shrewsbury Town to become Gillingham’s opponents on 23 May 2009.

Four times during the second half the stadium announcer made a plea that supporters should stay off the pitch at the end of the game, words that were never going to be heeded as the emotion of joy took hold and a good natured pitch invasion took place. It is possible in the cold light of a couple of days later to have every sympathy with the travelling contingent of Rochdale supporters who took defeat in an exemplary manner. The turned up on a Sunday evening in large numbers relative to their disappointing home attendance in the first leg, they gave their side every encouragement and contributed greatly to the vibrant atmosphere of the night.

The evening began with stirring renditions of Home of the Shouting Men and The Last Waltz before the teams took the field to a crescendo of noise. Priestfield had got itself ready to rumble.

After the couple of early exchanges when the awkward Lee Thorpe was unable to direct a header on target, Gillingham took the lead after 13 minutes. A pacey run from Andy Barcham ended on the bye-line from where he slid a pass inside to Simeon Jackson who guided the ball home from close range with a smart finish. The lid came off the Rainham End as it became a sea of movement.

Another Barcham run had Rochdale defenders struggling in his wake but his failure to pick a pass rather than a shot kept the scoreline at just the single goal. This was changed within a couple of minutes as Dale brought the game back to parity. It was an unfortunate chain of events for the home side. Barry Fuller made a block but the ball rebounded to an unmarked Chris Dagnell. He steadied, cut inside John Nutter and blasted past Simon Royce for what could not be considered an undeserved equaliser.

The goal was, of course, initially greeted with silence, but within seconds Priestfield was responding with another wall of sound to drown out the celebrating visiting support.

Attacking the Rainham End, the second half was to prove there is a lucky 13. After their 13th minute first half goal, in the 13th minute of the second half a surging run from Nutter was ended with a reckless challenge by Rory McArdle. Two seconds seemed like an eternity as eyes focused on referee Michael Oliver, who seemed to consider, reconsider and then his finger pointed to the spot.

While the necessary paperwork was completed, hearts leapt to mouths, memories of Jackson’s penalty miss at Wycombe were rekindled, Bury’s heartbreak from the spot hours earlier, please Jacko please. No such worry, the little man has the bottle when it counts and calmly sends Frank Fielding the wrong way to restore the home side’s lead.

The ensuing half-an-hour might have been made a lot easier to bear had Garry Richards header been inches lower rather than smacking against the bar. Rochdale, now with nothing to lose, through caution to the wind and efforts came from Jones, McArdle and Buckley, all wide and on another day would have seemed not to too close, but in this situation the margin of difference became millimetres. One last corner and keeper Fielding joined the attack but when Simon Royce safely gathered we knew it was over and the Wembley date was ours. Mr Oliver obliged with the whistle and as the Rainham End emptied itself onto the pitch, Coffin Dodgers hugged and shook hands as their blankets tumbled to the ground. Yes, we know how to celebrate in the Gordon Road Stand!

As I said in the opening paragraph, this type of elation is the hardest to describe. I read a Chelsea fan describing winning at Anfield in the Champions League as feeling that something had just exploded inside his head, I think I know what he was trying to say. Momentarily I think there was relief that it was all over before the onset of the undiluted joy that thankfully can still be experienced by a seen-it-all fan of 50 years.

The play-offs were never invented to enjoy and Gillingham fans will testify to that almost as much as those loyal Rochdale people who suffered a second year of heartbreak. For us there is the opportunity to attempt to enjoy our day and should fate look kindly upon us there can be no better place than Wembley to exorcise the memory of 13th September 2008.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Rochdale 0 Gillingham 0

Match 65/08/749 - Thursday, 7th May 2009 -
League Two Play-off Semi Final 1st Leg

Rochdale (0) 0
Gillingham (0) 0
Att. 4,440

Entrance: £20
Programme: £3
Mileage: 568/8,698

Match Report

It was very fitting that my 2,000th game was reflected by a game of massive significance and at League Two level there is only one notch higher than a Play-off Semi Final, the Wembley final that Gillingham now have home advantage to attain.

At the end of this absorbing goalless draw, I sensed that the majority of Gillingham fans, about 700 I would estimate, were cautiously optimistic, but very much aware that this was a job half-done and not a time for premature celebration.

Perhaps my slightly biased viewpoint would be that had this been a boxing match, we would have taken the points decision by the slenderest of margins. On this I base only the fact that Frank Fielding’s save from Stuart Lewis’ shot was the best save of the match, eclipsing Simon Royce’s stop from Chris Bagnall, low at the right hand post.

A bull that had managed to adventure onto the M60 lengthened the journey considerably and by the time we parked the car we had very little change from six hours travelling time. Parking behind the first Rochdale supporter that was very ready to offer a friendly word and on to a lengthy fish and chip shop queue that not only produced the best fish and chips on the road this season but also another hospitable chat with a Dale fan, who was quick to agree that the least that both sides needed was that the tie was still alive going into Sunday’s second leg.

It must be quite disheartening for these very fair-minded folk that such an occasion can only produce an attendance of 4,440 with 15% of those coming from the visiting side. At Gillingham on Sunday, it will be disappointing if the crowd number was not doubled, even without the help of a sizeable away following.

Mark Stimson picked a side that appeared on the face of it to be defensively minded. He left Mark McCammon on the bench and went with just Simeon Jackson upfront.

The first half produced a cagey affair with the sides largely cancelling each other out. Rochdale had much the greater of the efforts on goal, but they hardly forced Royce into a save of any difficulty. The home side did have the ball in the net seven minutes before the break, but I had long since seen the flag and was not disturbed at the sight of Will Buckley stabbing home. What was a trifle more worrying was the clear handball that had been missed in the build-up, shades of the Norwegian the night previous.

Andy Barcham wriggled along the touchline on the stroke of half time and forced Fielding into the best save of the half.

Some of the shackles came off both sides as the second half took on a far more offensive nature. A Gary Jones 30 yarder brought a decent save from Royce, one for the cameras we joked, but a good stop nonetheless. Curtis Weston was beginning to take a grip on the midfield and a weaving run ended with a pass to Barcham when all around thought a shot was a better choice.

Rochdale continued to create half chances, but for the most part only endangered their terraced fans behind the goal. After the introduction of McCammon and Albert Jarrett, Gillingham, and Stuart Lewis in particular, produced the big moment when they might have returned to Kent with a priceless lead. A poor Fielding clearance was seized upon by Lewis, whose thunderous 25 yard drive was brilliantly turned away by the Dale keeper.

This was the precursor to Rochdale also producing their best moment in the game and Simon Royce was equally magnificent with a fine low stop from Bagnell to keep the scores level going into the second leg.

For the Gills, an excellent defensive display with Richards outstanding in the centre of defence alongside the ever-impressive Simon King, Curtis Weston was both hard working and effective in the centre of midfield and the Ginger Cafu produced another performance to warrant his inclusion in preference to other midfielders who have previously claimed the shirt.

Spotland is a stadium that is unrecognisable from my previous visit some years ago. It is B&Q-ish in shape and character, but comfortable and functional. The Gillingham fans were given the best stand in the ground according to the bloke in the chip shop queue and with the help of good acoustics kicked up a supportive din from start to finish. Now it is up to the home support to see the job through to the finish.

Make no mistake, this tie is far from over, but the pendulum has swung very slightly in our favour. Thursday night was no time to celebrate and given that most of us will have work to do on Monday morning, Sunday night will hardly be better, but perhaps we can be excused the slightest of hangovers should we be contemplating a Wembley visit in our places of employment at the start of next week.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Kent 1 Birmingham 2

Match 64/08/748 - Saturday, 2nd May 2009 -
FA County Youth Cup Final

Kent (1) 1 Cliff 40
Birmingham (1) 2 Johnson 4, Doyle 82

Att. 992

Entrance: £3
Programme: £2
Mileage: 45/8,130

Match Report

In the extreme likelihood that Gillingham were to return to Rochdale within the next week, I decided to give today’s game at Spotland a miss and with Tonbridge failing make the Ryman Play-off Final, I had to a choice of matches to go to.

In the end, a familiar journey and a seducing £3 entrance fee took me to Gillingham for the FA County Youth Cup Final between Kent, who were playing their first final for 27 years and Birmingham at a sun-drenched Priestfield Stadium.

The event had all the trappings of a FA Final with the teams being presented to FA dignitaries and the national anthem being played before kick off.

In amongst the near-1,000 attendance were a raucous bunch of friends of Bromley’s Pat Taylor, singing out his name. Unfortunately, within four minutes they witnessed an error from the central defender that allowed Birmingham to open the scoring. Taylor recovered from the setback to enjoy a reasonable game.

Dartford keeper, Deren Ibrahim, small in stature but with an impressive kick, launched one such punt forward that left Ebbsfleet’s Sam Cliff one-on-one with a much taller Birmingham central defender who badly misjudged the flight of the ball. Cliff ran on to finish clinically to leave the scores level at the break.

The hot sunshine took its toll in the second half and the pace and skill level of the game dropped accordingly. A stalemate looked favourite until four minutes from time when Kent were caught out by a set piece winner for the Brummies.

There was enough time for a reckless challenge by Harry Harding to spark a brawl and a sending off for his trouble. It was a sad and unnecessary way for Kent’s final to end.