Long ‘standing’ memories

I’ve been a regular reader of BMH ever since I became a season ticket holder back in the mid-nineties – and after enjoying the fanzine for so long I felt ‘inspired’ to contribute. I write plenty of stuff for print and online, so I thought, “I’ve been watching the Gills for long enough now, so why not contribute to one of the few remaining Gills institutions we have, Brian Moore’s Head?” Why not indeed?!

I sit in the rather comfy surroundings of the Medway Stand, but it was in the other Gills institution, the old Rainham End, that my love affair with the Gills first blossomed. I was somewhat of a late starter at the Gills – despite being born and brought up in the Medway Towns. I’d only attended a couple of games during my childhood and I vaguely remember one of my first games at Priestfield being a Gills v Maidstone clash, of which I saw virtually nothing, as we turned up too close to kickoff time and ended up stuck at the back of the Town End, right in the corner by the old Police box. I remember the old white-painted wooden Gordon Road Stand was there and I think, although I’m not sure, it was a 0-0 draw, because I barely remember anything of note happening. Certainly nothing as exciting as a goal, that’s for sure.

The only other memory I did have from that day was the stand all the way over the far side, behind the other goal. The one with the corrugated tin roof. It was absolutely packed – and it seemed all the noise was coming from there. How I wished I was in there, rather than stuck at the back of the open-terraced Town End, freezing my chads off and choking on cigarette smoke. I was stuck at the back of the Town End, but before I even knew what it was called, I wanted to be in the Rainham End.

Rather than watching football, I spent my formative years playing it, turning out for Hoo 80 and Phoenix 87 among others. Then, after spending 10 years playing the game, I decided to pack it in and start watching it instead. Me and a mate of mine decided that we’d start going to Priestfield on a regular basis. Some weeks there’d just be the pair of us, other weeks we’d be in a group of six or seven. But every time, we’d get into the Rainham End, take our regular spot two thirds back, just right of centre and roar the Gills on. I remember the first time I set foot on those hallowed concrete steps behind the goal, leaning on the barrier and thinking, “This is it. I’ve arrived.” It was to be my home for the next four seasons.

I loved the Rainham End. The camaraderie, the singing and the carnage that followed every goal was what had us coming back for more. We were “The middle, the middle, the middle Rainham End” – and we loved it. The abiding moment for me had to be the match with Fulham, when Pulis threw John Hodge into the fray to try and win us the game. His jinking run and cross in injury time was met by a flying Bob Taylor and the Rainham End went absolutely berserk. I jumped in the air and by the time I’d landed and everyone had calmed down, I was about ten yards away from where I took off! I’ll always remember the bizarre experience of being one of a couple of thousand football fans wandering back to their places trying to find their original place on the terraces (and their mates) again. My head hurt from the noise, my throat hurt from the singing, the screaming and the shouting – and my feet and legs hurt from the carnage that followed that goal, but I absolutely LOVED it.

Starting to go regularly to Priestfield at that time meant we also had the bonus of watching the Gills as they began their ascent towards the promised land of Division One, as it was called then. The forward line of Akinbiyi, Fortune-West and Butler was rough, tough and exciting to watch, as was the football.

There seemed to be more banter between the fans and the players on the pitch back then too. Nowadays, the overpaid prima-donnas we face on a regular basis take the stick all too personally and show little or no humour. Back then, it was different. I remember one particular match against Colchester when the Rainham End spent the vast majority of the match ripping into the U’s striker and former pineapple-haired Forest reject Jason Lee. The pineapple had gone, but it didn’t stop him copping plenty of stick from those behind the Rainham End goal.

Despite various chants taking the piss out of the beleaguered striker, Lee, who it has to be said was having a mare at the time, showed his class by reacting to the Rainham End in a way we see so rarely these days. While waiting for a corner to be delivered at the Rainham End, the crowd serenaded the striker with a chorus of ‘Jason is a rent-boy’, he turned to the crowd, pointed to his chest and said with a grin, ‘Me? Naaaah! Not me!’

The corner was then delivered, and in the ensuing goal-mouth scramble, he attempted a bicycle kick, where he completely missed the ball and landed on his arse to a loud cheer from the Rainham End. To his credit, he got up, dusted himself down, laughed and gave a big grin and a thumbs-up to the Gills fans before jogging back to the halfway line. He even applauded the Rainham End when he was substituted towards the end of the match. Top class.

There was always a good welcome for opposition goalkeepers, who either applauded back and earned our respect, or chose to ignore us and suffered our abuse for the following 45 minutes. Quite right too. If they’re going to be rude, why shouldn’t we?

Perhaps it’s because I’m not behind the goal anymore, or perhaps it’s because we’re playing at a higher level, where the players are more businesslike. Perhaps it’s true that there are less characters in football these days. Whatever it is, I miss those players who play with a smile on their face like Jason Lee did that day.

In those days at the Rainham End, the matches seemed more special too. Brazil we certainly weren’t, but there’s nothing like seeing your side battling to victory in a real blood and thunder match – and under Tony Pulis, that’s exactly what we got, blood and thunder.

Since then, we’ve played some pretty attractive stuff under Peter Taylor, then gradually reverted back to the more agricultural style of play under Andy Hess. Sadly, these days it’s been less blood and thunder, and more thud and blunder, but we have to remember how far we’ve come before we get too upset about our current predicament. Stan Ternent’s style of management reminds me a lot of Pulis – and I think a return to that style of play; aggressive, committed, but organised, may well spark a turnaround in our fortunes next season, regardless of which division we’re in. All we need to do now is convince him to stay…

Back to the Rainham End – and Lord Justice Taylor’s report post-Hillsborough meant the days of terracing were numbered. We clung onto the Rainham End for as long as we could, but eventually it was bulldozed and replaced with a gleaming new stand, which now houses the Rainham Enders of today. I spent our promotion season of 1999-2000 season at the back of the new Rainham End, but for despite the great performances out on the pitch, for me, the magic in the Rainham End had sadly gone, and I’ve since moved to the Medway Stand for the better view and as it turns out, some pretty humorous company.

Despite being happy with my lot at Priestfield these days, I do miss those days of the old Rainham End – and it does seem that the atmosphere at Priestfield is a million miles away from how it used to be. With the ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’ campaign, there is a faint hope that one day in the future we may see terracing make a return to football grounds in England. If done safely, I don’t see why it can’t be a huge benefit to the game, particularly those teams outside the Premiership. There is a growing concern that football is becoming too middle class and pricing out the working class. The re-introduction of terracing, and suitable pricing would surely help redress the balance, while improving gates and the general atmosphere in grounds.

I do sometimes wonder whether the team (and the atmosphere) would have benefited if Paul Scally had left the old Rainham End as it was and redeveloped the Town End first, but now, even in our all-seater ground, the Gills crowd can crank up the volume and produce an atmosphere to remember. This season’s home games with Forest and Wigan are the two most notable ones so far this season. The crowd was 100% behind the side and helped push them to victory. The Wigan game saw the official addition of The 12th Man to the Gillingham fold, but in truth it’s always been there. It was in its pomp back in the days of the old Rainham End – and hopefully, with a bit of effort from everyone in the ground, in whatever stand they happen to sit, that atmosphere will return in the remaining games this season. You never know, it might just make the difference and help to keep us up.

Keep the faith

 

Semyon

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