Surely the highlight of the Premiership season to date, at least for those Gills fans still bothering to follow it, was Jason Brown’s debut penalty save last weekend which laid the foundations for Blackburn to sneak a win over Wigan. Delighted though I was to see Jason gaining the exposure his talent deserves, not to mention kissing his goalposts and grinning assuredly in his post match interview on Match of the Day, it left me rather sad. A bit like seeing a beloved ex-girlfriend enjoying herself a little too much with a new boyfriend before you’ve had the chance to get over her. Sort of. Though it was certainly more uplifting than his last BBC appearance when, playing for Wales, he was lambasted by that vacuous globule Garth Crooks after a Trinidad goal.
Jason’s much lauded triple save painfully underlines what we’re missing. I said in the summer that I’d much rather lose Byfield than Brown (thinking naively that we might hold on to one of them) – 20 goal strikers at our level are relatively easy to find (not that we have) while a commanding goal-keeper that can have a calming influence over an entire team is much harder to come by. The gulf between such a confident keeper and a half-fit Kelvin Jack or a couple of no doubt promising but desperately inexperienced youngsters has been obvious for all to see through weepy eyes.
In my opinion, Jason Brown is the best goal-keeper Gillingham has ever had and it amazed me that he still received criticism from some quarters. I can only comment on the modern era and I never had the privelege of seeing John Simpson play, but no-one else comes close to performing with such all-round ability for such a long time, especially given that we were competing at the highest level in the club’s history for most of his career at Priestfield.
For me, the only one who comes close is Ron Hillyard. He was an unflappable goal-keeper with sound judgement, impressive handling and a fine shot-stopper, underlined by his unprecedented knack of saving penalties. I can only remember three errors* over an immense number of appearances, and these were generally through his kicking or odd lapse of concentration rather than the sort of repeated lapses some of our less accomplished custodians have suffered. Oooh Ronnie was consistently brilliant at a Third Division level, but probably lacked the stature and commanding authority to go any further. I always had the impression that Keith Peacock didn’t really rate him, but the legendary Yorkshireman always saw off inferior alternatives such as David Fry and Phil Kite.
Jim Stannard is an exceptional case. His record of 20 goals conceded in a single season is beyond reproach, but he was blessed with an uncompromising rearguard and a team that defended from the front. This is the Tony Pulis way, don’t forget. Stoke fans with over inflated expectations may moan at the lack of flair they’re currently witnessing, but they’ll always be too organised to be relegated under Pulis. Regardless of his team-mates, Big Fat Jim was outstanding, as much responsible for the commanding defensive displays as the tactics employed, and capable of quite stunning saves of breath-taking agility, the parry low to his left through a ruck of players at Mansfield standing out among many. Had he not suffered a catalogue of injuries (of which the only silver lining was the beautiful sight of Mark Harris between the sticks at Peterborough one dank night) then he would have a greater claim.
And then there’s Vince Bartram. Undoubtedly a quality keeper, he starred in our most successful ever season and held his own in the Championship until Brown became established, but for me he was prone to too many errors that were a fundamental flaw in his game. I’m not talking about the calamities like the dribbled header that went through him at Fulham or the unfeasibly soft Stockport goal he let in during that daft 3-3 draw in 2002, but his habit of not totally saving shots, invariably parrying into the path of unrushing forwards or dropping efforts he attempted to catch. Many disagree with me and rate him as our best ever, but I always felt he was slightly out of his depth in the Championship, and that had an unnerving affect on defence and supporters alike. Steve Banks was similarly afflicted – probably the best “shot-stopper” we’ve had, but susceptible to indecision over crosses and often suffering from poor decision-making when sweeping.
Stannard and Bartram were hugely and rightly popular, with a great rapport with the supporters, but of course this isn’t something Jason Brown lacked either. He always made a point of making his way to the Rainham End after home games, regardless of the result, and was entertaining in legally winding up opposition fans as well, particularly in away games on the odd occasion that we were defending a lead. He even received a sympathetic backing – which must have done wonders for his confidence – when he trod on the ball early on against Forest in his second appearance, gifting them a goal in the process. But then the Gillingham crowd has always been pro-goal-keepers, even the opposition until they do something evil. Those Gills fans who felt he lacked a certain something – height, generally – point to the Eugene Bopp goal which undid us at The City Ground on Relegation Sunday and I think this is a source of a lot of his criticism, but at 5ft 11 he certainly isn’t small, and made up for any perceived lack of size through immense strength and presence. It’s inconceivable that Neale Cooper’s intention was to start him second to Bullock last season which was by far and away the clearest indication of any flaws in Cooper’s judgement. I’m sure we’ll all be monitoring Jason Brown’s career with interest tinged with jealousy…at just 24 he’s not the finished article but he’s set for mighty things.
The Morty Vicker
*For the record, I remember Ron Hillyard
- Spilling a low cross against Oxford in 83/84, which presented someone like Trevor Hebberd or Wayne Biggins with a tap-in
- Kicking weakly into an unholy wind at Eastville and seeing the ball hoofed back into the net from about 50 yards
- Mis-controlling a dribble to the edge of his area against Aldershot, allowing Glen Burvill the chance to nick it and score
Thinking about it, there was a weak punch which gave Brentford a last minute winner at Griffin Park, and he misjudged a Scarborough pot-shot in the performance which cost him his place once and for all…ok, Ron Hillyard was crap.
Other things I remember about Ron Hillyard :
- His rather putrid looking lime green jerseys (always replaced by vibrant red when Plymouth were in town)
- Rescuing an injured bird at Elm Park, and then making a wonder save from Kerry Dixon on the day that Robert Maxwell came up with his Thames Valley Royals wibble
- Getting booked for hoiking down Alan Mayes in THAT match with Swindon, the first time I’d ever seen a goal-keeper receive a yellow card
- Wanting to cry with joy when he saved a last minute Fulham penalty in 1980. He saved another penalty at Craven Cottage in 1987 despite having several broken ribs
- Getting crippled by Billy Whitehurst in a promotion clash with Hull in 1984. We played Bradford the following Saturday, both teams fielding reserve keepers thanks to Whitehurst’s “enthusiasm”
- Knocking Ray McHale’s head off in an act of uncontrolled thuggery while waiting for a corner to be taken, and belching Jona Lewie’s “Stop the Cavalry” into the hole. Actually, I made that last one up