St.Valentine’s Day nightmare

Tuesday 14th February – Swindon Town 1-1 Gills

After more than eighteen and a half years the Gills finally got to return to the County Ground Swindon. A Tuesday night in February was never going to be the most convenient time to make the trip and it coinciding with St Valentine’s Day meant many fans had other commitments that night that they really couldn’t really put off…

Those that did make the trip were left fuming for many reasons. They were left seething about the bizarre sending off of Darren Byfield, they were left dejected by yet another away defeat (not to mention the all too predictable failure to score) but most significantly they were left disgusted by the pathetic display by the collective rabble otherwise known as the Gillingham “team” (don’t laugh). To “here one day gone the next” journeymen footballers it was probably “just another game” on their effortless journey towards another free-transfer in the summer, but to Gillingham fans, especially ones aged over 30 this was the BIG ONE, the derby, the match we would love to win, the match we must not lose… Unfortunately somebody forgot to tell the players and they responded with a clueless, limp, scrappy, disjointed shambles that was simply unacceptable to the 600 plus travelling fans that left in sullen disgust at the end.

Pre-match and we arrived in Swindon nice and early, apprehensive about what sort of welcome would greet us as we disembarked from the First Great Western train (all Gills colours removed). We opted to head away from the station, away from the ground and any potential flash points and through the spectacularly ugly concrete carbuncle that is Swindon town centre. It truly is one of the most depressing and hideous places I have even – it makes Medway look like a sexy combination of Paris in springtime, Prague in the summer time and New York in the fall.

We opted to keep a low profile eating in the back of a pub all decked out for the evening’s romantic shenanigans whilst trying to not laugh too loudly at the local yokels’ genuinely comical local accents. Then it was time to run the gauntlet of Manchester Road towards the ground. Despite our best efforts to remain incognito the local lads that overtook us en-route we quick to make anti-Gillingham comments – perhaps because our efforts to remain “on the ball” for any possible ambush left us looking like Corporal Jones and Private Pike in Dad’s Army advancing towards the enemy in the end credits…

Thankfully we were soon making our way intact onto the old Stratton Bank that is now all-seater, but just a cheap terrace conversion with no cover and few facilities. At least the stewarding wasn’t too intrusive and those that wished to stand for the entire ninety minutes and sing we free to do so although it became a bit futile with the wind in our faces blowing any rude words about Ray McHale in the general direction of Didcot.

Having gone into the game on the back of an encouraging run, unbeaten in four and having won five and lost just three of thirteen since the Colchester debacle, hopes of getting something were high but from the very start the Gills just weren’t at the races. With the wind blowing strongly down the ground the game was never going to be a classic and the Gills were always going to have to weather the first half storm – literally – but it wasn’t just that, they seemed nervous and the passing was dreadful, bordering on the criminally incompetent. They couldn’t string more than two passes together and Swindon who had won four of their previous five home games dominated throughout.

The atmosphere wasn’t bad considering the pitiful crowd (5,530), and the home end brought back memories by singing old anti-Gills songs from the 80’s and the away end tried to respond but eventually had all the spirit and enthusiasm knocked out of them by the Gills’ disgraceful performance.

Swindon used the conditions to their advantage and caught the Gills defence flat footed repeatedly, every time the ball was hoofed forward the Gillingham defenders would contrive to get in a muddle and Cureton would be free to fire a shot just wide or lob the ball over an exposed Brown. The Gills by contrast could only attack sporadically, Mulligan worked tirelessly throughout, running into space, running into channels, leading the line valiantly but receiving fuck all support from his supposed “team mates”…

The goal when it arrived on 27 minutes was all too predictable, another long ball over the top from Peacock, the Gillingham defence hesitant and lumbering allowed Cureton time and space to carefully lob the ball over the exposed Brown and into the top corner. It was about third or fourth time lucky for the Swindon striker, it wasn’t as if the Gills had not been warned. The home fans cheered enthusiastically, the muppets in the new(ish) stand to our left began to fight each other and we stared grimly into the abyss.

The only other moments of note in a poor half saw “traitor” Paul Smith go off injured and Brown get booked for handling outside his area before the break, a real hearts in mouth moment although he wasn’t the last man and it wasn’t a goalscoring opportunity (right down by the goal line). Nevertheless we were more than a little relieved, happy to have limited the damage to just one goal. With the wind in our favour we all expected the players to give it a real go in the second half…

All our hopes of a revival ended on 48 minutes in controversial fashion. A high ball was lobbed in the general direction of the Swindon goal, their keeper Evans comfortably beat Byfield to the ball to catch but Byfield showed his petulant side by continuing with his challenge, it was childish, it was clumsy, it was unnecessary, but it was also not malicious, no elbows were raised and the worst we expected was a ticking off and perhaps a yellow. I have to say the possibility of a red card didn’t even cross my mind so a genuine gasp of stunned astonishment went up from around the ground when fuck-witted referee Mathieson sent Byfield off. This left us down to ten men with little relevant focus up front, no goal threat and with Swindon team scenting blood. Byfield might have been a twat but still the red card was very, very harsh. The enraged Gills fans voiced their disgust at the decision (whilst quietly bemoaning the loss of our only goal-scorer for four games) and feared the worst. Swindon swarmed forward and only Brown kept them from adding to our woes.

Mulligan showed a modicum of fight, passion and pride and Brown made some great stops, particularly when blocking efforts from Cureton and Miglioranzi, Peacock also missed an absolute sitter before Cureton was thwarted again. With three minutes to go plus injury time the Gills suddenly burst into life, for five minutes they contrived a frantic finale, a flurry of pressure, corners and lo and behold even an effort on goal! Unfortunately when the one big chance to steal a point arrived from Flynn’s cracking cross, Mulligan fluffed the opportunity heading weakly wide and that was that.

It had been too little too late, the players had let us down badly, the dodgy sending-off of Byfield might have added to the general disenchantment, it might have added to the long list of controversial red cards for Gills players in games between the two teams, but it shouldn’t be used to excuse the harsh reality of the evening. The Gills were pathetic and deserved to lose far more heavily than by one goal.

We then hot-footed it back to Swindon station for the last train that connected back to Kent. Unlike at Priestfield the police operation was well organised, there were a few locals out and about looking of a confrontation but nothing like on the scale of the Priestfield encounter. We stuck to shadowing some local police down Manchester Road until they got called away by a shopkeeper to deal with a rather incompetent shoplifter (the road was probably the most heavily policed in the country that evening). One Gills fan did get a punch in the face and some lads did come out of the pub opposite the station but melted away when they spotted the police. Likewise on the platform the police ejected some local yokels intent on stirring it up and we safely left deepest Wiltshire physically intact but mentally all washed out.

The train back to Paddington was late meaning a mad dash across to Victoria for the last train back to Faversham – which we made by four whole minutes. We were more fortunate than a couple of Gills fans that ended up staying the night at Swindon station before making it home… After eighteen years of anticipation it had been a complete and total anticlimax. I hope the players are proud of themselves. Wankers.

Champagne Moment: Making the last train back from Victoria to Faversham by all of, oh, four minutes AND intact!

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