Brian Yeo – ‘Goal-poaching Legend’
What can we do to get the passion back at Priestfield? Easy – install floodlights. The first floodlight matches at Priestfield coincided with Gills being unbeaten Fourth Division leaders, and squaring up to some tough opponents – Bury, two divisions higher, were seen off 3-0 in the League Cup, then second-placed Carlisle 2-0, and three Wednesdays later sixth-placed Torquay came calling. Another 15,000-plus crowd was in, and the place was bouncing. Gills were short of strikers, and so a 19 year old kid who we had signed from Portsmouth in the close season made his debut. In the fourth minute, the kid beat the offside trap and was through. He drew the keeper and confidently slotted the ball under him, and we were on our way to a 2-0 win. When the jubilation died down a bit, my dad turned to me and said ‘He’s not bad is he – Little Yo’.
What no-one knew at the time was that we had seen the first of 149 goals from Brian Yeo (136 league 13 Cup) over 345 appearances which would span twelve years – a record of scoring and loyalty to the Gills which will probably never be surpassed. Brian was what is currently known as ‘a fox in the box’, he was quick, brave and accurate. He almost always forced the keeper to make a save, and so many of his goals were down to placement and timing. A photo of a Yeo goal often sees the keeper’s hand covering the path of the ball, but it is already behind him and on its way to the net.
For the first two years of his career, Brian played mostly in the reserves, but when he did get called up by Freddie Cox he usually bagged a goal or three – his first hat-trick for Gills being in a 5-0 demolition of Luton in October 1964.
By 1966 he was a regular in the Basil Hayward teams, and must have become more and more disillusioned as those teams drifted closer and closer to inevitable relegation back to the Fourth Division. It is remarkable that someone who clearly had a goal-poaching gift wasn’t snapped up by a higher club. Brian certainly was able to score when it mattered. He scored the winning goal five minutes from time when Gills won 2-1 at Bribane Road in the last game of the season to save themselves from relegation in 1970, and, until Mark Saunders, Thommo and Trigger, he was the only Gills player ever to score in the Fifth Round of the Cup (a 2-1 defeat at Watford). Sadly, so often at that time his goals couldn’t stave off yet another defeat. Then with Gills relegated in 1971 and Hayward sacked, Brian enjoyed three golden goal-scoring seasons under Andy Nelson’s management. At 27 years of age, he was the finished article, and Nelson built around him a team of players who could centre the ball to him, pass the ball on the ground up to him, or crash in fierce shots themselves which would enable him to whip the loose ball into the net. Brian’s greatest ability was to spring an offside trap and go on and score in the one-on-one – probably one of the most reliable Gills players ever in this situation. If he had a weakness, it was his inconsistency from the penalty spot.
In the three Nelson years he scored nearly 70 goals, 31 of them in the 1973/74 promotion season, equalling the club record set in 1954/55 by Ernie Morgan. Although at 5’9’ he was not as little as my dad thought, he still was able to easily out-jump six-foot-plus defenders, to thrilling effect as for instance on Boxing Day 1973 when a hat-trick of headers beat Northampton 3-1. That followed up the hat-trick in September in the 7-2 demolition of Scunthorpe. All season there was the excitement of Brian pouncing on loose balls after a David Peach shot or a mazy Alan Wilks run had caused havoc, getting on the end of high or low crosses from Dick Tydeman, or hooking in knockdowns from Damien Richardson. In April 1974, it came that Gills needed two more points to ensure promotion, and we got them with a 2-0 win at Colchester, thanks to two trade-mark Yeo close range efforts.
With Gills promoted Andy Nelson moved to Charlton and Len Ashurst took over. Confidence for the new season was high, when suddenly there was a bombshell. Brian Yeo announced his retirement to concentrate on his newsagents business. Fortunately Ashurst talked him back for one more season, and he helped Gills to consolidate at the higher level, playing a supporting goal-scoring role to Damien Richardson, and a remarkable mid-season burst from ex-Chelsea Peter Feely (16 goals in 27 appearances). At the end of the 1974/75 season Brian Yeo retired, at the early age of 31. His final goal was in the last home match, against Grimsby. The other goal in a 2-0 win was by 17 year old Mark Weatherly, a sort of symbolic hand-over of the torch of one-club loyalty from one generation to the next. Somewhere after Mark the flame went out and the torch got lost.
‘Yea-Oh! Yea-Oh! Yea-Oh! Yea-Oh!’ was idolised by the crowd. He was the first player to have his own personal chant, which has had a pretty good airing while I’ve been writing this column! And my dad always called him ‘Little Yo’.