Mike Burgess – ‘Ave ‘im Spider!’
Standing outside the players entrance before one of his 109 appearances for the Gills, chatting and signing autographs, Mike Burgess looked like he could actually be the Queen’s Equerry. A muscular 6’2” with fair hair impeccably groomed, sports jacket and trousers immaculate, here surely was a true Corinthian. But somewhere between the players entrance and the pitch, Mike transformed into the legendary cult hero ‘Spider’, the tall fair-haired assassin and ruthless conqueror and destroyer of centre-forwards.
Mike’s football wasn’t exactly fit to be served up to Her Majesty, but Gills fans who wanted to see the team win were royally entertained for two years with some of the most tough and brilliant defending that we had ever seen. It was the rock on which Gills built ‘Fortress Priestfield’ – 52 consecutive home games without defeat – a club and Football League record.
Freddie Cox signed Mike from Halifax in February in the middle of the big freeze of 1963. The fans didn’t take to him immediately, as it appeared that he had been signed to replace popular centre-half and captain Harry Hughes, so we were in critical mood when he made his home debut in March against Tranmere Rovers. Playing for them was Dave Hickson, a rough tough centre-forward who had played for both Liverpool and Everton in the Fifties. What a battle that was in pouring rain – boots, knees and elbows flew between them all afternoon. Late in the game and near the Gordon Road Stand, Burgess kicked Hickson yet again. Hickson spun round and threw a punch, and then they wrestled each other to the ground for a lively fight in the mud. None of the twenty-man brawls that happen these days, everyone stood around while the referee gave them a good talking-to and told them to get on with the game. It was a punch-up that was talked about and laughed about for years, and we realised at once that here was someone quite unique.
Like all great managers, Freddie Cox made sure that every member of his team knew exactly what their role was. Mike’s was simple. He had to clamp himself onto the opposition centre-forward, and make sure that he didn’t cause any threat. And that’s what he did – brilliantly. His long legs got in hard, crunching tackles, or brought someone down when they were through. His long arms enabled him to climb a little-bit higher for headers, or tangle up an opponent if danger threatened. Tripping over and pulling down someone who was through on goal was a speciality. Hard boney elbows were used to good effect to soften up his opponent early in the game. The nickname ‘Spider’ was perfect. He was at the centre of a defensive web, and with his long arms and legs and in the way he climbed all over and wrapped himself around players and snuffed them out the game, he actually played like one. The first visiting attack was usual greeted with a roar of ‘ ‘ave ‘im Spider!’, and Mike usually did.
Mike committed Gills’ first televised foul. In November 1963, the pre-Match Of The Day thirty minute Sport Special on BBC featured our First Round Cup Tie at Loftus Road. The grainy ten minutes of cine-film was the first time Gills had been presented to a national audience. Three years before Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered the immortal ‘They think it’s all over’ line, came the slightly less immortal ‘So Queens Park Rangers start this match – and straight away that’s a foul by Burgess’.
By 1964 football purists in Fleet Street were getting a little concerned at rugged and cynical play creeping into the beautiful game, particularly from the likes of Revie’s Leeds, and so the Daily Mail, as ever in the forefront of truth and justice, launched The Daily Mail Fair Play League. ‘In every match, Daily Mail reporters will mark your team as to how sportingly they apply the laws of the game’ they blared, with prizes for each of the divisional winners. What a hoot! Gills sunk to the bottom of it straight off, and officially became the dirtiest team in Britain. Who cared? The players certainly didn’t, writing “The Foul Play Calypso”, set to the theme of the then hit-TV series ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’. The first verse went:-
This is the story ‘bout a winning team,
To win the Third Division is our dream,
But their centre-forward was the finest in the land,
So big Mike Burgess kicked him o’er the stand.
. . . . . . . . . . .Boo! Dirty! Send him off!
Kicked him o’er the stand? Can’t say I remember that, but about fifty centre-forwards did get sorted out one way or another that’s for sure, some within the laws, some not. There were goal-machines like Carlisle’s Hugh McIlmoyle, who scored 41 goals in our Championship season, but didn’t get a kick (of the ball) in front of a crowd of 17,500. There were fancy posers like Torquay’s Robin Stubbs who was fearful all game of a Spider elbow ruining his glamour-boy looks. There were really skilful ones like Workington’s John Swindells who, with a crucial promotion clash poised at 1-1, brought down a clearance from his goalkeeper and turned Mike all in one movement, giving himself a clear run on goal. Spider got booked for bringing Swindells down from behind with a rugby tackle worthy of Twickenham. There were famous ones like Derek Dougan, then with Peterborough after storming out of Aston Villa, who Spider bottled up for the whole game and still found time to score one of only two goals he bagged for the Gills.
And then there was Arnold Mitchell of Exeter. He wasn’t a centre-forward at all, he was a bald and ancient right half and after thirty-one minutes of the match on Saturday 10th April 1965 he found the Gillingham defence uncharacteristically backing away from him. He got near the corner of the Rainham End penalty area and took a shot. It didn’t look as though it would have gone in, but Johnny Simpson was struggling for it, and Mike, standing near the penalty spot aimed to head the ball over the bar. He mis-timed it and the ball flew back across goal and into the net, accompanied by a mighty groan from the Rainham End.
Try as they might, Gills couldn’t pull that goal back and at its fifty-third defence ‘Fortress Priestfield’ had fallen. What irony! As with Troy, a great fortress had been brought down from within, and by one of its bravest warriors. Freddie Cox was livid, and at the end of that season he pulled the team apart. Mike had a knee operation during the summer and never really recovered from it, drifting off to Aldershot later in the year.
There have been more cultured defenders than Mike Burgess, there have been more skilful players than Mike Burgess, but in one of the greatest periods in our history there is no-one who more represents the dogged determination, defiance and siege mentality of Gills winning-against-the-world than him. For two whole years when he stood before us ready for battle – with tough tackling full-backs Geoff Hudson and Dennis Hunt and the dependable John Arnott beside him, the legendary Johnny Simpson guarding the goal, majestic captain Alec Farrell ready to feed the ball forward for Brian Gibbs and Ron Newman to crack home, other good, solid, steady pros all around ready to play their part, a packed Rainham End at their backs belting out ‘Glad All Over’ and roaring them on – our Championship-winning Gills truly were unbeatable. It was the ultimate Gillingham Football Club experience. And if anyone wanted to make something of that – well, Spider would ‘ave ‘em.