The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World. (As told to his grandson)
January to February 1908
Whenever the older generations recount stories of the great days, there are always one or two memories that crop up time and time again. We had now reached Edwardian times, and I knew that once again I would hear the tale of one of the most famous victories of them all. But for the completeness of my own memories, I needed Grandad to fill in the missing years. With difficulty, I started him off continuing to talk about 1899/1900.
“The 9,000 crowd that packed the ground in January 1899 for the cup tie with Southampton convinced the directors that we needed some ground improvements, so in the summer of 1899 we built the Gordon Road Stand. And a fine building it was too – 500 seats, superb view of the pitch, right on top of the players so you could un-nerve the opposition by mouthing off right in their faces, and it’s still standing nearly 100 years later. The oldest surviving stand in the Football League!”
“But what baffles me, Grandad, is how they managed to put up a stand like that when the club had no money”. “Ah well, there are ways and means, SunBoy. For a start, it was built by the New Brompton supporters who worked in the Dockyard. Us Mateys were quite happy to work for nothing, as long as beer and fags were provided. It was a hot summer. As for all the timber and corrugated iron required, well of course the club paid up front in full for that!!” He grinned. “Mind you, I did hear rumours that certain stuff got put on the train from the Dockyard up to New Brompton goods yard, and Bert, Slogger and Alf, who all worked in the yard, used to make sure that the wagons were put in sidings right by the fence, and it’s a very short cart trip to Gordon Road, and “HMS Pembroke” stamped under some of the seats is mere coincidence. But that’s all pure rumour and conjecture, of course!
“Anyway, whatever the…err…financial arrangements for the Gordon Road Stand were, it didn’t keep the bank manager happy for long. The first of many serious financial crises came in April 1902. Although we could get crowds in for a big Cup game, generally the crowds for League games just weren’t good enough. There was even talk of the club folding, and so we had to make a short-term decision that has probably haunted us for the rest of our history. We sold off a chunk of land on the south side of the ground for £2,500. It was immediately built on and extended Gordon Road right alongside the pitch, hemming us in on that side for all time. The only plus was that the building and excavations provided us with a plentiful supply of earth, stones and rubble to make a bank behind the west goal, which later became known as the Gillingham End.
“On the playing side, the striking feature was the turnover of players we had in Edwardian times. There were a high number of players from the early days who lived or worked locally, and so stayed with us for most of their careers. The players we recruited now were often players from Football League clubs who were coming to the end of their career and stepping down, or players who were recruited locally from the military lower ranks. Officers would never play in a professional football team of course. As a result, you’ll find very few players who stayed more than a couple of seasons, or who played more than 50 first team games for us. It was why our results swung all over the place during those times.
“The new breed of professional footballers were not always the “gentlemen” that the Directors had been used to. We often heard stories about players negotiating their wages rather than taking what was offered and doffing their caps. I remember Checksfield moaning to me once about one player – “He’s insisting we pay him weekly £1.15s in the summer, and £2.10s during the season, Charlie. Ridiculous. Where’s it all going to end?” The club was flush with £2,500 from the land sale at the time, so you couldn’t blame the players for trying. They were having to pay players signing on bonuses too – £10 was more or less the going rate.
“The Directors recouped some of it on disciplinary offences though. New Brompton players getting drunk and fighting, sometimes with each other, wasn’t that rare. I was highly embarrassed personally because two of ’em started fighting at my wedding when I got married in 1903. One got suspended and the other got fined £1. There was a five bob fine for being late for training and being, as they quaintly described it, “in drink”. I don’t know what it was like at other clubs, but there were regular stories about players turning up p*ssed, and on more than one occasion the problem was even discussed at a Board meeting. Bit of a joke if you think about it, because most of the local publicans were ON the Board!
“On the pitch, we were unpredictable. In 1900/1 we finished 12th out of 15. Our away record was awful, losing twelve of the fourteen games. Our only away win? 3-2 at Swindon. The following season we didn’t get an away win at all, but we won ten of our fifteen home games, to finish just below halfway. In 1902/3 Groombridge brought a new trainer in, a chap by the name of Lofthouse who was a bit of a disciplinarian. He knocked them into shape and we finished sixth and for the first time we had an average gate of over 3,000.
“The next season, we couldn’t score goals. In seventeen home games, we only scored 18, drew ten of them, and finished third from bottom. But 1904/5 season was a good one. The local people suddenly woke to the fact that they had a football club to support, and the average gate was 4,800. We only lost twice in front of them, and finished just above halfway. 1905/6 was a disaster. We couldn’t score goals again, an abysmal 20 from 34 games, and shipped them like they were going out of fashion. We got thumped 5-0 at Millwall, 5-0 at Plymouth and 6-0 at Tottenham. We avoided bottom place by one point, Northampton were below us. We were much better in 1906/7. We scored 47 goals and although we finished fourth from bottom two points separated seven clubs and with one more win we’d have finished halfway.
“But as ever, the real buzz was for the FA Cup Ties. The record-breaking tie with Woolwich Arsenal had really captured everyone’s enthusiasm. We were still having to start in the Third Qualifying Round though. In 1900/1 we got past Grays before losing at West Ham 4-1 in a replay. The following two seasons we battled to the Sixth Qualifying Round until we lost at Walsall and Glossop North End respectively. In 1903/4 we got a bye to the Sixth Qualifying Round and had high hopes of getting to the First Round Proper, but we were drawn against Bristol City, who were a Football League Second Division side. We held them 1-1 at home, and had a 1-0 half-time lead in the replay, but with their superior fitness and organisation they ran out 5-2 winners. The following season we did get to the First Round Proper with a 6-2 away win at Clapton, but we lost 1-0 at home to Brighton.
“For the next two seasons we got a bye into the First Round Proper. The first one, 1905/06 was the season we couldn’t score goals and only Northampton finished below us. We drew them at home in the First Round, and beat them 2-1. Our first ever Second Round Tie was against Southampton. The best we could hope for was a 0-0, which we got, and a 1-0 defeat in the replay at The Dell. In 1906/7 we battled past Burton United after three games, beating them 2-0 at Fulham’s ground after two 0-0 draws. We got drawn away to Bury in the Second Round. It was the first time we had played a side from the First Division of the Football League. We held them until deep into the second half, before going down 1-0. But the following season…Well!”
I knew what was coming. The tale of a true New Brompton legend and one of Grandad’s greatest heroes. “Charlie McGibbon. Centre Forward. He only played one season for us – 1907/8. He was a Sergeant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, based at Woolwich, so he played for us as an amateur. But there was nothing amateur about him. All told, he scored 22 goals for us that season, but it was the eight he scored in the Cup which were unforgettable. We drew Shepherds Bush at home in the Sixth Qualifying Round. Charlie sunk’ em with a hat-trick out of the four goals we got in the first half and we ran out 6-0 winners. We could not believe our ears when we heard the draw for the First Round Proper – New Brompton will play Sunderland.
“Sunderland. First Division giants. One of the biggest and wealthiest Football Clubs in the land, and they were coming to play us. The excitement built through Christmas and the New Year, and at 2.00pm on Saturday 11th January 1908 the huge expectation became reality. A crowd of 10,620, the biggest so far, crammed in. I don’t think a lot of them could see much, but I made sure I could. I was in the Gordon Road Stand, with your Gran and Aunt Eleanor. Sunderland took us apart in the early stages and it wasn’t a surprise when they went in front. But the crowd went mad when Charlie soared for a centre and bulleted the ball into the back of the Sunderland net. 1-1 at half time. Game on. In the second half we got more and more on top, Charlie scrambled one in from a goalmouth melee with about twenty minutes left, and with Sunderland pushing forward for an equaliser he charged through the middle on the counter and smashed the ball under the goalkeeper as he came out. The place erupted. People were dancing on the pitch, hats were being thrown in the air. We easily negotiated the last few minutes as darkness closed in, and when the final whistle confirmed our 3-1 victory we swarmed onto the pitch and carried the players shoulder high to the dressing room. I lost Aunt Eleanor and your Gran in all the chaos, but we met up later all right. Everyone was on an incredible high. All sorts of celebrations of that victory went on all over the town – and long into the night too I can tell you!” There was a twinkle in his eye as I looked at him quizzically. “Well I don’t need to spell it out, do I SunBoy? You’re supposed to be the smart accountant!” No, I don’t think he did – my dad’s birthday was in October 1908.
“In the Second Round we were away to another First Division side, Manchester City. They were third in the table, so it was a colossal ask for a team from the Southern League. Bert really worked the oracle with the train warrants, eight of us first class all the way on a tedious train journey which we started well before dawn. City were playing at Hyde Road then, and what a trip from the station across Moss Side to get there. Slums like you couldn’t imagine. The crowd of 16,000 was the biggest that had ever watched us play, and City ripped into us right from the off. Up front Charlie McGibbon hardly got a touch and when City went ahead we thought it was the start of an avalanche. It wasn’t. We stood firm and slowly ground them down, reducing them to long range efforts that John Martin dealt with comfortably. Then, in the second half Charlie got our only chance of the game, and he buried it. We couldn’t believe it, and nor could anyone else. There was stunned silence, before things started to get a bit nasty. The thought of getting back to the station in one piece now became a priority, so when the final whistle went we melted away with our 1-1 draw. The team was on the train home, and, needless to say, there was real confidence about turning them over in the replay four days later.
“It was not to be. The replay on Wednesday afternoon, 5th February broke the ground record again. The town more or less closed down as 12,000 crammed in. Schools shut for the afternoon, and the kids were allowed to sit cross-legged along the touchline. Unfortunately, the game was a bit of an anti-climax. City showed their First Division pedigree, closed us down well and probed for the openings. Goals either side of half-time pretty well sealed it, but we had a chance when one of their defenders handled in the box. Up stepped Charlie for the penalty, and he crashed it home. We lost 2-1, but it had been a great run. Charlie McGibbon – eight cup goals, two hat-tricks, one big First Division side rattled, and another beaten. Top that!”
And the truth is, it took an incredible 92 years before New Brompton/Gillingham DID top it. They didn’t beat a side from the top Division again in ANY competition until 1996, when Premiership Coventry City were beaten at Highfield Road 1-0 in the Football League Cup – 88 barren years. In the FA Cup itself a new century had dawned before these triumphs were equalled, and then, like waiting for a bus, two came along at once. In 2000 Premiership Bradford City were beaten 3-1 in the Fourth Round, and then Premiership Sheffield Wednesday 3-1 in the first Fifth Round tie ever to be played at Priestfield. But even then, neither were sunk with a hat-trick. I could see why Charlie McGibbon’s shirt (and I dared not doubt its authenticity now) and the photograph of Charlie being carried shoulder high by Grandad, Bert and their mates, were his ultimate football treasures.