Tuesday 31st January – Swansea 1-2 Gills
At last, VICTORY away from home! We hadn’t won away in all competitions since the 5th of March 2005 at Rotherham (3-1), we’d won just three times since Kevin James lashed one in the top corner at Millwall back on the 28th of December 2003… in the intervening two and a bit years we’d played 51 away games in all competitions, winning three (2-1 at Milton Keynes vs. the Franchise scum, 2-1 at Burnley and 3-1 at Millmoor), drawing 16 and losing 32, scoring 37 goals and conceding 88.
We were the only team in the Coca-Cola League not to have won away all season (sharing the dubious distinction with just one team in England, Fulham of the slightly harder to get results in Premiership), we had gone 19 games without a win (21 in all competitions – managing nine draws), we had the worst away record in League One which was inevitably putting pressure on our home form, we hadn’t taken the lead away from Priestfield since the 29th of August at Brentford and in the eight League games that followed the 2-2 draw at Tranmere on the 24th of September we had managed just one point and scored two goals.
Add to the mix the fact that it was a rearranged game on a Tuesday night in mid-winter, a matter of weeks after hundreds of Gills had got as far as Leigh Delamare services on the M4 for a midweek game in darkest, deepest South West Wales against a side riding high in the race for automatic promotion who had only ever lost once at their brand new spanking Liberty Stadium (back in August to Doncaster) and you had a game that only the most masochistic loyalists (plus the odd groundhopper) were going to attend.
Still over 200 Gills did make it down to Swansea and most were quite impressed with Swansea’s new stadium. The outside was light, white and elegant, the only problem being the lack of obvious parking unless you arrived early and the lack of genuine boozers (we had to settle for an Italian-cum-American theme bar-cum-restaurant). The view from the away end was excellent in the single tier bowl, the only niggles being over-officious stewards continually badgering people for having the temerity to stand up and sing at times of high excitement (yes there was some high excitement in this game), the dreadful food, the expensive beer and the enormous Matchday programme which was different but hardly what you’d call practical.
Pre-match and we were delighted to hear that Lee Trundle, the one-man Messiah at the Swans was out injured, that one-man wind-up merchant Tom Williams was suspended for getting sent-off at the weekend (snigger) and that Darren Byfield was lining up for us after the Gills had turned down a cheeky late transfer window deadline day bid from Southend for £100,000.
It was a good job that the Gills kept hold of Mr Byfield because he went on to have an excellent game leading the line and generally causing Swansea no end of bother. At the other end Jason Brown was having yet another of his impeccable games, Ian Cox was winning the physical battle with new City signings Fallon (boo – ex-Swine) and Knight (boo – diving little shit) not to mention showing plenty of composure, Crofts was energetic and passionate about doing the ugly stuff in midfield and with such a strong spine the rest of the team slotted into place.
The crucial moment came on eighteen minutes, after such a poor run away from home confidence was always going to be fragile, scoring the first goal was crucial and so it proved. After a promising spell of fluent play by both sides that hadn’t actually resulted in decent attempts on goal Darren Byfield scored a right ripsnorter. A flowing move of slick passing culminated in Spiller feeding the ball to Flynn, he took it on before slipping it into Byfield with his back to goal on the edge of the box, he promptly twisted one way and then spun and thumped the ball over the keeper and into the far top corner for one of the Gillingham goals of the season (hey, I know there aren’t many to choose from!). Down the other end and the Gills fans celebrated with barely believable glee, it was grazed shins and big hugs all round. “Will you ever qualify” echoed round the Liberty stadium as we all took great pleasure in being able to taunt cocky opponents whilst being in the lead…
The first half continued in a promising fashion, Brown caught everything he needed to, the Swansea shooting was wild (neither Knight nor Fallon impressed) and we counter-attacked with some neat movements of our own even if the final ball was lacking. Black grew in confidence and influence and even the much-maligned Harris was looking lively. A great last-ditch block by the increasingly solid Johnson ensured we went into the break still a goal to the good.
The second half saw the home crowd grow increasingly restless and the away fans more optimistic as it became abundantly clear that without Trundle to inspire them Swansea were not having a good night – they had been unconvincing since before Christmas. The 14,000 home fans grumbled and moaned to themselves, I was expecting a big passionate noise from them, but our plucky 2-250 were often the only ones singing despite the cold and the stewards (even the drumming wasn’t too overbearing).
Our hopes, well fantasies, of actually securing the elusive win appeared to have come unstuck on 69 minutes when Flynn was sent off for two needless booking by a referee who appeared determined to book every Gills player if they so much as sneezed. The first card was picked up for time wasting at a throw-in, Flynn hesitated just too long and then threw the ball to Clohessy to take it at the last moment.
Thirty seconds later and he didn’t even wait for the inevitable red card after a clumsy and rather daft challenge on Monk on the halfway line. It was needless and left us facing a tough last 21 minutes.
Two minutes later and a goal did arrive, but amazingly it was scored by Harris – his 100th career goal. Black had found time and space on the wing and drilled a low cross to the far post, it eluded the keeper and two defenders, Harris neatly controlled the ball and deftly poked the ball over the line before any flailing defenders could block him. The Gills players understandably went mad and so did we, a famous victory was on the cards, we were 2-0 up with 19 minutes to go – what could possibly go wrong?
Well our reputation for throwing games away and conceding late goals away from home is legendary and we knew we would have to survive a late onslaught and there were certainly some hairy moments. City had a goal ruled out for offside, Brown denied Knight from point-blank range and then the cheating little shit did what he was known for at Brighton, took the ball into the box, invited a challenge from Johnson, entangled his own limbs and flung himself to the ground. The referee bought it (although the linesman on the left hand side was even less competent) and Robinson thumped home the spot-kick with six minutes remaining. Those six minutes became ten as four minutes of added time were signalled, we groaned, the home fans tried to up the noise levels but we finished strongly keeping the ball down their end, winning a couple of corners and creating a great chance for Grant to seal it but he missed it.
The final whistle brought total joy at our end, after such a long wait it was just reward for the fans that had kept coming back for more. Wolfie was almost in tears, it wasn’t quite on the same level as the win at Carlisle (also 2-1, also with ten men) in 93-94 which ended an eighteen month run without an away win in the League (we won two in the Cups during the run) but it felt fantastic. It sent us up to the dizzy heights of 12th – our highest placing since August 29th at Brentford but more importantly it had broken the jinx.
We might have been only five points above the drop zone even after such a notable victory but to many Gills fans it was a significant moment. We beat title challengers against the odds at their own ground with ten men, we showed grit, determination, passion, commitment, an ability to take our chances for once, plenty of resilience, confidence and at the crucial moment looked both organised and refused to panic. Since the Colchester debacle our record now reads played 11, won 5, drawn 3, lost 3, points 18 which if sustained for a full season would realise 75 points and a play-off place. That is perhaps something to hope for in the future, for now we just hope the team have turned the corner and that we won’t have to wait ten months for the next away win. The fans deserve better – for once the received their reward.
Champagne Moment: Naturally it was just winning the flippin’ game. Byfield’s goal was a brilliant individual moment and the singing was good but the funniest moment of the night occurred on the way home. We were bombing along the M4 when we spotted a silver luxury Kings Ferry coach, ah ha the Gillingham player’s coach we thought and tooted, waved and flashed our lights as we went past, only to realise as they signalled back that it was the Millwall team coach heading back from Cardiff. Oh the shame of it!