Saturday 9th September – Doncaster Rovers 1-2 Gills
Going into this game the Gills had managed just one point from five games culminating in a rather careless loss at home to Scunthorpe where they spurned numerous chances, contrived to let in two soft as shite goals just before half time and despite huffing and puffing with all their might were unable to reduce the deficit. The Priestfield crowd subsequently took out their frustration on a certain Mr Scally – his eleven year honeymoon finally ending in a chorus of discontent, most of it rude and all of it heartfelt.
The appeal of the following fixture was distinctly limited – it was one for the ever so slightly insane loyalists. We had travelled to Belle Vue twice last season losing limply on both occasions by the score of two goals to nil. The “Earth Stadium” (don’t you just love sponsorship deals…?) as it is now known is just months away from being replaced by a shiny bland all seater arena straight off the Lego assembly line which will no doubt please those not wishing to stand on shallow open terraces in what ever the South Yorkshire climate wishes to throw at you, but will appal the old gits amongst us that remember when football grounds (not stadia) didn’t all look alike…
At least the trip north on GNER was quick and direct, a pleasant contrast with the shambolic and increasingly prohibitive Virgin “trains” serving the north west, and the sun shone and we made our home in the Salutation pub with the pleasant combination of various real ales, the Liverpool derby on the television and some sociable Donny fans. Nevertheless our mood was pessimistic, probably something to do with being 23rd, above only Rotherham due to their ten point administration penalty. To be honest I was pretty disillusioned with the whole watching Gillingham lose again thing, so in a fit of pre-match misery I announced to our invariably thirsty party that should we win (ho ho!) the first round of beers would be on me back in London. Foolhardy? Nah. We weren’t going to win were we…
With Donny doing “kid a quid” we were moved from the usual away end round to the paddock in front of the increasingly decrepit Main (only) Stand. It was a throw back to the early 90’s when we had previously stood there, including a couple of games that were “desegregated”. Barely 250 Gills did shuffle reluctantly into the away section, the presence of “Big Rich” – the biggest Jonah in Gillingham history (he hadn’t seen us win away since 2003 despite going to most away games) – didn’t bode well and he was enthusiastically threatened with cheery promises of a gruesome demise should we lose as the gallows humour of watching a shite lower division club a long way from home began to lighten the mood.
The one thing that did suggest it wouldn’t be a formality for Donny was the unexpected departure of their manager Penny only the week before. It seemed a strange one after he had dragged them back from the depths of the Conference to League One respectability, they appear a club on the up, stadium and all, but despite rumours of an approach for Kevin Keegan of all people it was Sean O’Driscoll who was to be their new boss come Monday morning, we just happened to play them whilst they were in managerial limbo – and it showed.
The minute’s applause for Charlie Williams (ex-Donny as well as 70’s comedian) was well respected before we got down to the serious business of evaluating the quality of yet another goalkeeper – this time 20 year old Scott Flinders from Crystal Palace. With both Jack and Randolph crocked we were certainly missing the reliable top quality of Jason Brown. Finally though we appear to have unearthed a worthy, albeit temporary, replacement in the form of young Mr Flinders who looked assured and agile from the off.
Nine minutes in and the Gills took the lead in promising fashion. We were still digesting our beer and quietly sunning ourselves when Jarvis moved into the danger zone, he was blocked and the ball was fed to the ever enthusiastic Sancho who momentarily transformed into Stanley Matthews with a twinkle-toed overlap and dance into the box to the byline and a delicate cross clipped back into the danger zone for the “really rather good in the air” Crofts to stoop and head home.
Cue plenty of enthusiastic jumping about and cheering of the “I don’t bloody believe it variety” – the less tipsy fans dutifully reminded us all of what happened at Bradford but what the heck, we were winning in the sunshine, why not enjoy was would inevitably be a temporary state of affairs.
With something tangible to hang on (a goal!!! My God a goal!), and confidence surging through the team we all began to take proceedings a little more seriously, and soon we all began to realise that the referee, a short-arsed pedantic inconsistent moron from the planet Zog going by the name of Andy Penn was a complete and utter arse. He was petty, erratic, one-sided and clearly not happy with any tackle or challenge, legitimate or otherwise, by Gillingham players. Jackman picked up a harsh booking amid the spirited action which also saw Sancho injure his knee…
With two enthusiastic sides swapping chances it developed into an entertaining lower division contest, Thornton was wide with one chance, Jarvis denied by keeper Blaney with another. Nsumbu-Ndungu then flashed one effort across the face of the goal and at the other end a speculative Donny effort rattled the bar and Thornton missed the rebound – what a sitter!
The game then flared up just after the half hour, a dangerous ball was played towards the Gillingham penalty area, Jackman looked well placed to intercept but it reared up awkwardly off a length and struck him on the arm. Handball, perhaps unintentional, but a second yellow saw him making the walk of shame, harsh but I’m sure referee Penn was thrilled with his own personal contribution to the afternoon…
Jepson reshuffled the pack taking off Nsumbu-Ndungu for Easton and adopting an ultra defensive 4-4-1 approach (more like 8-0-1 at times) with Jarvis ordered to plough a lone furrow up front exploiting his pace and enthusiasm with sporadic counter-attacks. Five minutes later one of those Jarvis runs saw him bundled over in the box by Roberts, penalty! We could barely dare to look but captain Flynn took the responsibility and absolutely smashed the ball into the roof of the net. Was it an attempt to break the net? The Donny keeper made the right decision to dive out of the way. 2-0 up, 39 minutes, we were dancing with joy but the “Bradford debacle” tempered our euphoria with the harsh realism of what could go wrong. We really needed to survive until the break. Flinders saved superbly to keep the score at 2-0 despite referee Penn finding six minutes of stoppage time from his own vivid imagination. “Are you Halsey in disguise?” we chanted… in his dreams!
The second half was invariably an epic backs against the wall operation. The team defended deep. With Sancho off they all just showed more passion and commitment to the cause than they had done all season. It wasn’t always pretty, it was fairly hairy at times but Flinders was absolutely magnificent and the Trojan efforts of the defence and midfield edged the team towards victory. At the other end Jarvis harried and ran, he even fashioned one glorious chance for Flynn to seal it but it was deflected wide.
On the away terrace Big Rich grew increasingly tense as other Gills fans called for him to leave the ground, I began to calculate how much a round in De Hems would cost and from a silly day out to get drunk it turned into a serious one of chasing a crucial victory. With twelve minutes to go we scored a spectacular third, unfortunately it was in our own net after one of the most farcical own goals I have ever seen. Even Breen and Butler at their most creative never managed this…
It began with a routine shot from Coppinger, Flinders saved confidently and parried the ball out wide, the rebound was blasted towards our goal but the inspired Jupp was there to manfully boot the ball off the line. Unfortunately it was directed straight at the chest of the unsuspecting Clohessy and rebounded smartly into the net with no Doncaster players remotely responsible. This stirred the previously morose home fans and the inevitable last few minutes of hell. We hung on but it wasn’t easy going, down to ten men, a famous victory hanging by a thread, a loose cannon of a referee, it was all designed to cause us maximum mental cruelty. Big Rich was almost lynched when five, yes five minutes of stoppage time were announced, eleven in all, “Are you Halsey in disguise” was sung again, this time with more rage and less humour as we ranted and swore our way through the final moments. Eventually Penn blew for time, Big Rich was engulfed by delirious fans and people began to put their orders in for De Hems.
The team looked nearly as pleased as we did as we said farewell to Belle Vue (FA Cup permitting) – it had been a classical away win, backs to the wall, injustice, a bad referee and a late onslaught from the home team. We made our way back to the station feeling rather more happy with life than when we’d arrived. It lifted us out of the drop zone to 19th, but more importantly it rewarded the stupid buggers mad enough to go to Doncaster with a first away win of the season.
The trip back on GNER was lively, much alcohol was consumed with great gusto, it got a bit messy back in London but hey, who cares, we won. Gillingham Football Club reminded us why we bother in the first place… oh yes, I did get a round in too… no really I did.
Champagne Moment: For comedic value given there was a happy ending it has to be Clohessy’s freak own goal. Quite spectacular!