The M&D Bus Driver – ‘Striking A Blow For The Masses’
Here’s a couple for a footie trivia quiz. Question – what have Paulo di Canio, a 47-year-old supporter and the driver of the number 19 bus got in common? Answer – they’ve all decked the referee. Question – who is the odd one out? Answer – Paulo di Canio, the other two did it at Priestfield.
January 1961, and Gills were home to Oldham. It was a typical January day, damp and dark, and the pitch was an oozing mud patch. These days the game would probably have been called off. Gills were trailing 3-2 to a good side, and there were only a few minutes to go. With no floodlights it was getting really murky, but everyone could see a cracking equaliser from Gills right winger Fred Morris, and celebrated accordingly. But Mr Rowbottom, one of the most incompetent referees ever, saw something else – no-one knew what – and theatrically disallowed it. There was uproar. Players gathered round arguing and pointing – common now, but then very rare – but he would have none of it. The goal would not stand.
Then from just by the Gordon Road Stand, someone started running across the pitch. It was a well-known Maidstone and District bus driver, complete with his raincoat and badge. He ran up behind Rowbottom, and pushed him firmly in the back. The referee wasn’t prepared for it, fell flat on his face, and then skidded several yards in the thick Rainham End mud. The bus driver ran off, and was over the wall before the police could react. The crowd closed behind their new hero, with the police making little real attempt to catch him.
The cheers and roars of approval then turned back to boos and jeers as a mud-stained and humiliated referee attempted to get the game back on track and play out the last few minutes. Gills lost 3-2 and as the teams came off Rowbottom was pelted with apple-cores and orange peel and goalkeeper Johnny Simpson told the referee exactly what he thought of him. It was right out of character, but it showed how high feelings were running.
Needless to say, the FA took an extremely dim view of the whole affair. There had been several recent incidents of crowd trouble, and Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall had warning notices posted. But someone really had to be made an example of, and sure enough it was Gillingham. In early March it was announced that Priestfield would be closed for 14 days, and Simpson would also be suspended for the same period. Gills could not play any home game within 10 miles, and so the game against Wrexham was to be staged at Stonebridge Road. That led to a further row, because some blazer at the FA got the AA book out and decided that Gillingham/Gravesend was not 10 miles. It was pointed out that the ground was actually in Northfleet, and qualified.
Gills lost the ‘home’ match 3-0. With Johnny Simpson suspended, and reserve keeper Alf Bentley out with a broken arm, policeman Terry Friday played in goal. Referee Rowbottom was a one season disaster area, coming close to another riot several weeks later at Brentford. The bus driver became a cult hero. There was always a buzz in the queue when his bus showed up. And the 47-year-old supporter mentioned in the trivia question above? Well, he decked the referee in a match against Swindon – but that’s a story for another day!