Top 25 Cult Heroes 1954-1979: Number 17

Dave Shipperley – ‘Steady The Big Ship’

‘The worst thing I ever did as Gillingham Manager was to sign Dave Shipperley. He is a tremendous player’. A seemingly extraordinary comment from Andy Nelson until you understand the context. Immediately Gills got promoted back into the Third Division in 1974 Nelson signed Dave from Charlton. Nelson then was poached by Charlton to become their manager, leaving Dave with us. It took Nelson four years to get him back.

Dave Shipperley was a towering centre-half, built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and looked even more fearsome with the then fashionable long hair and beard. The sort of player that home fans idolise, and opposition fans target. Amazingly, Gills had got him from Charlton on a free transfer, where he had been in some dispute with them and gone on strike to work as a dustman. He dominated in defence with his heading and crunching tackles, was an obvious aerial danger at set pieces, and electrified the crowd when from time to time he decided to charge forward with the ball like a runaway tank. His only weakness was a tendency to go down with cramp late in the game, which occasionally cost us a goal. It was like the felling of a mighty battle warrior ‘Ship is down – oh no, Ship is down!’

Gills had a tough baptism back in the Third Division, and only won once in the first 14 games, leaving us three points adrift at the bottom. A win against Brighton closed the gap, and then came news that Dave would miss the Friday night game at Southend because he had been at All Saint’s Maternity Hospital all the previous night. Manager Len Ashurst wasn’t that sympathetic. ‘I’m pleased to tell the fans that there’s another Shipperley giant with us, and Dave plays. He’s got another mouth to feed so he needs the win bonuses.’ The new arrival was Neil Shipperley. Dave and the Gills celebrated by getting a 2-2 draw which gave us lift-off to mid-table security, and I celebrated by getting a parking ticket.

In the four years he was with us, Dave made 144 appearances and scored 11 goals. His first in December 1974 was probably the most satisfying – a towering header in front of the first all-ticket crowd at Priestfield which helped to sink Crystal Palace 3-1 – Big Mal, El Tel and a certain England Under-23 International called Peter Taylor. And a comedian called Ronnie Corbett, who sat a few seats along from me and certainly wasn’t laughing that day, storming out fifteen minutes from the end.

In December 1977 Dave got injured playing out a 2-2 draw with Swindon (just another fixture at that time) and Gerry Summers tried out a new central pairing of John Overton and Mark Weatherly. Andy Nelson saw his chance and paid £60,000 to take him back to Charlton. After he finished his football career, Dave joined the police, where he received a bravery award for disarming a gunman. The Big Ship was a hero in every sense.



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