Damien Richardson – ‘Paddy The Magician’
For anyone who has supported Gills for less than 20 years, Damien Richardson was one of a string of poor managers in our slide to almost total oblivion, probably memorable only for excusing yet another defeat on the grass being too long. For anyone above the age of 40, with 30 years Gills-supporting on the clock, Damien Richardson was one of the finest players we have ever had. He had everything – strong shot, good header, silky skills, knew where the goal was, and had an excellent football brain.
He joined us at the age of 25 from Shamrock Rovers, where he had just become an Eire International. Quite how Andy Nelson convinced him to make the move to Fourth Division Gillingham is a mystery, but it was a brilliant coup. In his first home game, against league-leaders Mansfield in November 1972, after only twelve minutes he drifted through the middle of their defence and smashed a twenty-yard shot right into the top corner. Nelson, usually a calm man, leapt out of the dug-out and punched the air. He knew he’d got a winner, and so did we.
In the first few months, ‘Paddy’, as he was inevitably called by everyone, struggled to go the ninety minutes, but once he was totally match-fit the signs were clearly there that Gills now had all the ingredients to go up. There was too much ground to make up in 1972/73, although we had some humdingers to relish – for example a 2-0 win over a thuggish Hereford (including Ronnie Radford) where we saw that ‘Paddy’ could throw a bit of a paddy, smashing one past David Icke and then nearly decking the self-styled Son Of God in a post-goal rough-house. Then came 1973/74, when Gills stormed to promotion on a tidal wave of goals.
What a strike force! Tall elegant Damien Richardson, strong in the air and on the ground, with goal-poacher Brian Yeo and the mercurial Alan Wilks either side of him. Add the explosive fire power of David Peach, and George Jacks and Dick Tydeman chipping in goals from midfield, and you’ve got week after week when Saturday just can’t come quickly enough. When Damien cracked a low shot into the corner to set us on the way to beating close rivals Colchester 4-1 in early December, it was our fiftieth goal. That season we scored 97.
Back in the Third Division in 1974/75 with Len Ashurst as manager, Damien had his finest season. He was magnificent, scoring 21 goals in total, using the whole repertoire of his skills. In a portfolio of magnificent strikes, without doubt his finest goal, and one of the best Gills goals I’ve ever seen, came in 3-1 home win at Christmas against fancied Crystal Palace – a mazy run into the box, side-stepping two challenges, and from the corner of the box curling the ball into the top corner. It brought the house down. Quite how Gillingham managed to hang on to him at this point was another mystery. There were persistent rumours that West Brom were about to sign him, but it never happened. It was widely rumoured that he was Gills highest-paid player, but that doesn’t usually mean much in the final analysis.
With Ashurst gone and Gerry Summers as manager Damien moved to a different role – these days it would be playing in the hole (behind Danny Westwood and Ken Price). The goals didn’t come so regularly for him, but his clever football brain laid on plenty for the front two, and he chipped in himself, often from the penalty spot. Except in April 1978, when in the third minute of the match with Port Vale he put one out of the ground. Not as spectacularly as the Crewe full-back at the Gillingham End in 2002, this strongly hit effort soared onto the Rainham End roof and bounced along it several times before disappearing over the back close to Redfern Avenue. We drew 1-1.
Then came 1978/79, the year of Gills closest near miss, the year we should have made it to the promised land. Everyone has a theory as to why it didn’t happen (most of them involve Swindon). My own is that Damien’s leg injury at Hillsborough lost us the services of our most influential player for the last 17 games, and if he had played in them somewhere along the line we would have got the point we needed.
Back for the start of the 1979/80 season, Damien wasn’t really the same player, and his slow decline matched that of the team. His only goal that season helped beat Mansfield 2-0 in March 1980, when he became only the third player to score 100 goals for the Gills. His final season saw Gills in a relegation struggle, and him spending a lot of the time on the bench, excepting when Gerry Summers decided to infuriate the crowd by having him run up and down the touchline for twenty minutes and then getting him to sit down again.
In May 1981, Gerry Summers caused uproar when he announced that Damien was being released. With a further contract he would have completed ten years and qualified for a testimonial. Supporters were incensed and the local papers had their biggest ever post-bag on a Gills matter until Keith Peacock was sacked. As one, the demand was for Damien to given a new contract. The defence put up by Summers was that he had been the highest paid player for many years, so in effect had already received sufficient from the club. Summers obviously thought he himself was staying to rebuild, but suddenly he wasn’t being offered a new contract either, and left in acrimony as well. The whole thing left a pretty bad smell, which got stronger as you turned towards the Boardroom.
So that is why Damien Richardson the player is a cult hero. A loveable Irishman with a bit of a temper who could enchant the crowd with magical skills and wonderful goals, and who was the first Gills player to win a full international cap for 48 years. Damien Richardson the manager, sadly, is another story. Never Look Back? Never Go Back!