Bill Brown – ‘Everybody Had An Opinion’
Who was the most controversial Gills player ever? Who could divide opinions better than Moses did the Red Sea? Junior Lewis? Marcus Browning or Guy Ipoua? Possibly, but did they have people getting so worked up about it in the Rainham End that they actually started fighting? Bill Brown did.
He was the first of seven signings that then new manager Basil Hayward made from Bedford, a tall, slim centre-forward who was good in the air and had a decent shot. We were promised that we would be signing him for weeks, but we had to wait until Bedford were out of the Cup. They reached the fourth round before they lost to Everton. Bill Brown’s debut was in mid-February 1966, in a home friendly against Ipswich. No-one knew why on earth we had arranged this game, but Bill scored a hat-trick – a header and two strong shots – as Gills won 4-2. Then the following Saturday at Bournemouth he cracked a low shot into the corner to put us ahead after only four minutes. Blimey, this is the stuff!
After the game the younger ones on the coach (which at the time included me) were raving about our new forward, but the older ones thought he was rubbish. Eh? OK – one of his passes went astray which led to the Bournemouth equaliser but come on. Four goals in two games for goodness sake. And so it went on, and on – for two and a half years.
Maybe Bill took the brunt of a disappointing season. Gills at this point had games in hand which if we won would put us right up there with Hull, Millwall and QPR, who were beginning to break away. We didn’t – from March to late April 1966 we went through a bad run, and someone had to take the blame.
Sadly Bill became the target of the boo-boys, which was ridiculous. He was scoring, as were the other forwards, we were losing badly because we were letting in a lot of poor goals. Although at the end of the season we put together a run of 7 wins out of the last 9 games, including a really satisfying double over Rodney Marsh’s QPR, to finish sixth in the Third Division, we were well off the pace of the front three.
And so for the next two seasons the supporter battle lines were drawn. Besides being a traditional target man, Bill would drop back and try flicks and passes which didn’t always come off. That was the core of the controversy. ‘Brown is rubbish, get him out the team. Always passes to the opposition.’ ‘Brown is the most intelligent and skilful player we’ve got, the rest of them are too slow and too stupid to read his game.’ Strongly worded letters started appearing in the papers from both sides of the argument, and rows between supporters were a regular feature of home games. In October 1966, with Gills having just taken Arsenal to three games in the League Cup, someone for some reason organised a ‘Brown Out’ demo for the home game against Brighton. We won 2-0 and Bill played a blinder, which somewhat spoilt things in certain quarters, and towards the end a lively fight broke out between the Brownites and the banner-wavers. Several got arrested.
In 1967 and 1968 Gills started to become Third Division also-rans and crowds dwindled. Many excused themselves by blaming Bill Brown. People wrote letters in the local papers to that effect. I remember being in the supporters’ hut one Saturday lunchtime when the phone rang and someone said ‘Is Brown playing today?’ ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘Well I’m not coming then!’ Clearly, the Directors felt they had to do something and at the end of the 1967/68 season they gave Bill a free transfer, and he signed for Portsmouth. It was rumoured that Hayward retaliated by giving a free-transfer to Dennis Hunt.
In 104 appearances, Bill Brown scored 33 goals, not a bad return in a deteriorating side. And where did I stand in the Bill Brown controversy? That would be telling.