Saturday, 13 June 2009

Season Review 2008/09

In July 2007 I began writing this blog That’ll Be The Day. It was so entitled because the first game to be covered was England’s opening match at the new Wembley against Brazil and I dreamed that its first season would end back at the national stadium with Gillingham, that’ll be the day was the sign-off remark. Of course, it didn’t happen, quite the reverse as Gillingham were relegated, but this season that day did come and, of course, nobody needs reminding of the outcome.

A poor pre-season had left very little optimism. New arrivals had been thin on the ground. Mark McCammon was the headline signing from Doncaster Rovers, Alan Julian had arrived as competition between the sticks and Curtis Weston started the season as a loanee from Leeds United. Defeats were suffered at non-league outposts such as Grays and Dover and the prestige friendly at Priestfield against Birmingham was also lost. McCammon failed to make an appearance, so any hope of his partnership with Simeon Jackson hitting the ground running was lost.

The season’s opener at Bournemouth was beset with problems for the travelling Gills support with one of the coaches not arriving until half time. They missed a half of Gillingham dominance but falling behind to a Darren Anderton goal, but everybody should have made it in time to see Gary Mulligan’s injury time strike for a well-deserved point. Our Carling Cup run lasted just one round as Colchester United left Priestfield with a single goal victory and when the heavily points-penalised Luton Town left Priestfield the following Saturday with all three points black clouds were already gathering.

The first four months of the season was traditional fare for Gillingham supporters with a solid home record being undermined by poor away performances. Despite winning on the second of their travels at Darlington, there was no joy for the travelling faithful until November when a single goal victory was picked up at lowly Macclesfield. During this period the shocking experience at Shrewsbury was suffered alongside desperately poor performances at Exeter and Lincoln. A different, altogether more disturbing set of problems were encountered at Aldershot were the home support has had a notorious reputation during their stay in non-league and they seem intent on furthering it in the Football League. Unfortunately Gillingham’s support was not blameless on a day that resembled a throwback to the 1980s as ugly scenes were witnessed outside the Beehive pub. Despite playing for a large part of the game with ten men following McCammon’s sending off, Gillingham put in a much improved performance but lost to a late goal.

During this period their top half position was almost entirely due to a home run that stretched from that first game defeat against Luton through to late January when Lincoln finally broke an unbeaten sequence of 12 games.

September brought about the first turning point of the season. Charlie Daniels had enjoyed a largely successful month-long spell on loan from Tottenham, highlighted by a superb free kick goal against Grimsby and it was viewed with much disappointment when he opted to return to White Hart Lane to fight for a first eleven spot in the Premiership. In his place (although they played together for one game against Port Vale) came another loanee from Spurs, Andy Barcham, who was to play a significant part in the manner in which the season unfolded.

With no indication that the away form was about to turn, it suddenly did so. The scruffy, single goal victory at Macclesfield was followed up by a far more impressive and surprising FA Cup win at Bury. When Rotherham were swept aside at Priestfield, Gillingham moved into the play-off places. But it was back to earth with an almighty bump as Bury avenged the Cup defeat with a 4-0 thumping at Gigg Lane and when a very good Rochdale side took away a point from Priestfield, Gillingham were heading back in the direction of the middle of the table.

Its was the FA Cup 2nd Round that produced the second turning point of the season. A good home performance against League One Stockport went unrewarded with a goalless draw and elimination seemed inevitable but a well deserved win at Edgeley Park with two goals from Barcham earned a lucrative tie at home to Premiership Aston Villa. The Christmas period brought promotion rivals Brentford and Wycombe to Priestfield, both matches ending in draws when the home side deserved a lot more, but a thoroughly unsatisfactory performance at Dagenham ruined the fans’ Boxing Day.

A capacity crowd and the ITV cameras welcomed Aston Villa and Gillingham did themselves proud. Simeon Jackson scored a superb equaliser and for a while the Premiership giants were rocked but a late, disputed penalty saw the visitors into the fourth round.

With a little national acclaim ringing in their ears Gillingham went back onto the road and won twice in quick succession. A hard fought single goal victory at Morecambe was backed up with a 3-1 win at Port Vale. Meanwhile in the League the unbeaten home record was continuing and when Exeter were beaten the run was extended to 12 games without defeat. Unfortunately it was unlucky 13 as Lincoln came away with injury time winner to complete a double over the Kent club.

A third successive victory on the road was earned at Chester, but after the long unbeaten run, two defeats on the trot was suffered at home when Bradford City were well worth their 2-0 victory and Gillingham slipped back into the middle of the table following a 2-0 defeat at Rotherham.

An amazing 4-4 draw at Priestfield with Aldershot was good spectator viewing but did little to enforce any optimism that Gillingham were to make up the ground on the leaders. But such was the congestion at the top of the table when successive home wins against Macclesfield and Bournemouth were achieved they were back in the play-off places. A hard fought goalless draw on an atrocious night at Luton was followed by a two goal win at Accrington and when a 94th minute penalty won the home game against Darlington it appeared Lady Luck was also beginning to give Gillngham the glad eye.

Revenge was about to taste so sweet as Gillingham took a 2-0 lead against Shrewsbury but their tormentor-in-chief Grant Holt’s two goals denied that satisfaction. On another cold night in a particularly cold winter at Notts County a Simeon Jackson goal was enough to secure a seventh away win and suddenly Gillingham were sitting in second place in the table. Such was the unpredictability of the Division that having reached the dizzy heights a 3-0 pasting at relegation threatened Grimsby was almost inevitable.

At a bad time in the season to enter into a string of poor results, a good performance at League leaders Brentford was only rewarded with a point and another relegation threatened side Barnet won a bit too easily at Priestfield. Another reasonable performance at Wycombe went unrewarded and saw an element of Gillingham’s support turn shamefully on Adam Miller.

Easter Monday’s fixture against play-off outsiders Dagenham resulted in a late Dennis Oli winner to leave Gillingham six points inside the play-off spots with only three games remaining. This was all but rubber-stamped with a win at Chesterfield. A final home victory against Bury, themselves in with a similar chance of automatic promotion, was needed to remain in contention for a top three place, but a draw satisfied neither party and ultimately both had to settle for the play-offs. Fate had dealt its hand that Gillingham’s final opponents, Rochdale, would also be their play-off adversaries, so both managers elected to play weakened sides for the fixture that was won by Gillingham by the odd goal securing their ninth away league victory of the season, who would have guessed that figure going into November with that solitary victory at Darlington.

A cagey first leg affair at Spotland saw Gillingham earn a well-deserved goalless draw and in the return leg a Simeon Jackson penalty saw Gillingham through to Wembley with the opportunity to finally exorcise the memory of the nightmare of September 2008. It is interesting to note, and a credit to Mark Stimson, that the side that faced Shrewsbury at Wembley contained eight of the team that had been hammered 7-0 at the ProStar and two of the remaining three were on the bench for the Final on 23 May 2009 and, of course, That Was The Day.

As the phrase goes “it’s not the way you start it’s the way you finish”. For Gillingham this produced a successful conclusion, for Tonbridge it was all about the finish with a play-off heartache and off the pitch a worrying scenario unfolded.

Dover left everybody trailing in their wake in the Ryman Premier while Staines and Tonbridge occupied the leading play-off spots throughout the season. A home play-off fixture was attained by virtue of their third position finish, but there was always a suspicion that the inconsistent home form throughout the season might negate the supposed advantage and so it proved. Tonbridge lost on the night to a far superior Carshalton Athletic side that had been well beaten by the Angels twice in quick succession in February/March. Staines went on to win the play-offs defeating Carshalton by a single goal.

Sadly, in matters that pale football into insignificance, a situation behind-the-scenes had begun to unfold in March. Garry Pass, co-chairman and benefactor to the club, suffered a heart attack which necessitated that he take a backward step from club affairs. By the end of the season his health dictated that he step down completely. Alongside Nick Sullivan, Tonbridge had made great strides during the Pass time of office. The main stand had been fully seated and when a player (or two) was needed for a final push by Tommy Warrilow, money was found to bring in Steve Ferguson, a player with pedigree.

Following the play-off defeat, but with no indication that it was of a consequence, Nick Sullivan also decided that it was time to call a halt to his tenure. A new board was assembled but the club was in a state of uncertainty as Warrilow was told that he would have to work within a much reduced budget for the coming season.

New chairman Steve Churcher has held a public meeting to openly speak of the club’s situation and the mood has become guardedly optimistic. Some players have left the club and more may follow but the basis of a side that will be competitive is in place and the manager has pledged his future to the club.

Gillingham’s success meant that I did not see Tonbridge nearly enough during the season. But what I did see produced a couple of memorable occasions. Firstly there was the 7-1 demolition at Ashford, Middlesex and then in the return fixture a remarkable comeback to win 3-2, one of the best games I saw during the season.

At the time of writing last year's review Fabio Capello had had a couple of uninspiring friendlies in charge and I was commenting that time would be needed to shake up England's over-paid ego-ridden stars. Twelve months later, one foot and a few toes are most firmly in the door as England march towards the World Cup Finals in South Africa. The Wembley viewing has not always been great, but a stunning away victory in Croatia followed by easy victories in Belarus and Kazakhstan has seen the national side on the threshold with a seven out of seven group record. We had a very cold, but enjoyable trip to Berlin for the 2-1 friendly win against the old enemy at the charismatic old Olympic Stadium.

On a personal basis the 2,000th game was passed fittingly at the Play-off Semi-Final at Rochdale. Eight new grounds pushed the total to 230 with new League grounds visited at Morecambe and Accrington, plus new stadiums at Shrewsbury and Darlington and a temporary home for Rotherham. Berlin provided the highlight of the visits and Bly Spartans the most humble.

End of season totals: Games 2,003. Grounds: 230

Thursday, 11 June 2009

England 6 Andorra 0

Match 68/08/752 - Wednesday, 10th June 2009 -
World Cup Qualifying Group Six

England (3) 6 Rooney 4, 39 Lampard 29 Defoe 73, 76 Crouch 81
Andorra (0) 0
Att. 57,897

Entrance: £24
Programme: £6
Mileage: 100/8,943

Match Report

The stadium announcer unusually made the announcement of the attendance during play and made reference to the FA’s thanks that 57,897 had made it to Wembley despite the best attempts of Bob Crowe and the RMT tube strike. This was a fantastic effort by England supporters especially given the offer of refunded money on tickets for people that were unable to travel.

On the pitch the fans were rewarded with a easy victory over the Group Six minnows from the Pyrenees. England now stand on the threshold of World Cup qualification, one more victory from their final three games would suffice, but there is even a possibility that they will be South Africa-bound before their next game against Croatia.

Previous fixtures against the tough, and frequently foul, tackling Andorrans has seen England struggling to break down a 10 man defensive formation that sees the furthest player no higher up the pitch than his own 18 yard box. This time around England started like a runaway train so lacking on the Bakerloo line, an early Rooney chance had been saved by the retiring Andorran keeper Koldo Alvarez before the Manchester United striker headed home a Glen Johnson cross to open the scoring.

Johnson went on to earn the man of the match award for a fine attacking display which included laying on four of the goals. The best part of 25 minutes elapsed before Robert Green had a first touch of the ball and only had a further five touches in the 90 minutes. All the while, David Beckham strode around the midfield with a majesty reserved for a sovereign king. Hollywood passes were sprayed forty and fifty yards, left and right, with unerring accuracy, in all over a ton of passes were made accurately. Beckham will never enjoy an easier quarterback role with acres of space in which to perform, but it did make admirable viewing.

Frank Lampard added a second, the best goal of the night, following a Theo Walcott cross in a move begun by Johnson and when Rooney volleyed a third from another Johnson cross the only bets were on how many England would score.

Fabio Capello sent Rooney and Steven Gerrard on their holidays replacing them with Jermaine Defoe and Ashley Young. Defoe cashed in with a couple of goals and Peter Crouch benefited from comedy defending to run in a sixth, much to the humour of all around, none more so than Fabio himself.

So my season that had started on 12 July 2008 at Bly Spartans finally came to a close 11 months later with the national side all but secure in World Cup Qualification to add to Gillingham’s promotion. It’s been a good one.

The tube strike meant a first-ever drive to Wembley and for us it worked out fine. A free parking space was found on Hanger Lane and the walk of a little over a mile took us past a biker’s cafĂ© called Ace, where the food was enjoyed much more than the plastic fare on offer at the Stadium.

So season two of the blog comes to an end, only four weeks to pre-season three!