It was once my club, ok our club, at our lowest ebb it was depressing, it was grim, it was a slog through mediocrity, flirting with oblivion, but I still felt it was my club. There was the stubborn defiance, the pride in keeping the faith, the gallows humour, the unshakable loyalty, the alcoholic awaydays and the fact that the 3,000 left standing were in it together, united in furthering the cause of Gillingham Football Club. When we risked relegation in 92-93 the passion and fervour was still there, in 94-95 it was all hands to the pump with us in receivership over debts of less than a fifth of what we owe the bank now…
I appreciate over a lifetime support for a club can be cyclical, other priorities come and go, but I have never known such disillusionment at the club. Perhaps because we’ve all had a taste of the high life and we’re less keen on bread and water, but more likely because we feel helpless. We feel disconnected, stuck in limbo unable to do anything positive to alleviate the crisis slowly enveloping our club. It is like seeing a tsunami on the horizon, you know it is approaching, you know the sort of damage that is about to be wreaked, and yet you stand transfixed, rooted to the spot staring at the seabed because all the water has been sucked out to sea.
Back in 1992-93 the crisis was on the pitch and it was traumatic but the solution was simple, dig out some crucial results when it counted. We just about did it thanks to a famous 2-0 win over Halifax Town. Them or us, to the death and Tony Eeles and Paul Baker brought ultimate salvation at the expense of the Shaymen. Two years later and we were in receivership. Tony Smith could no longer stem the haemorrhaging of cash although it later transpired he left a large sum in the club interest free to be paid back over several years and made plans to sustain the club as far as Christmas if a suitable buyer did not appear… which brings us to the Scally years.
Where do you start? Well when he rode into town we needed a shake up, we needed to be energized and inspired and shaken from the doldrums. He did that all right with the help of Tony Pulis who build a non-nonsense team for nothing from the ruins of the old team including the meanest defence in all of history… The crowds came flooding back and we rode the wave of euphoria all the way to Wembley 1999 and the Manchester City game. By then relations between Scally and Pulis were in tatters, Pulis left and I was left absolutely devastated. I’ve disliked and distrusted Scally ever since that day. Nothing personal Paul, just from that point on I wished you would leave us be.
Obviously further success under Peter Taylor brought us to the promised land and I like most fans ignored your rough edges, your controversial vindictive side, the banning of Alan Liptrott and Tony Hudd was symptomatic of not all being well behind the scenes. You fell out with various supporters groups (well all of them actually) and your own Membership club caused the greatest ticketing cock-up in the club’s history over the Arsenal debacle. We had 6,300 tickets and 6,000 season-ticket holders. Normal best practice at every club ever means season ticket holders get priority. This time it was a free-for-all with once a season glory-hunting member with the result 6,000 fans spent a day queuing inside Priestfield unnecessarily and many hundreds of season ticket holders missed out on the second biggest cup-tie in our history. You had been warned long and hard that it was wrong and unfair but you ploughed on regardless.
The same goes for the huge price hikes in the Championship when you should have been “doing a Charlton” hovering up all the floating supporters, packing out Priestfield every week and turning as many of them as possible into lifelong fans rather than screwing them for every last penny and turning them away in their droves. But then things began to unravel and having showed no public relations skills in the past and having pissed off virtually everyone at some time over the last twelve years you are now reaping what you sowed, a cynical, dispirited, shrinking support with no sympathy for your current situation.
Unfortunately calling for Scally’s head is futile unless somebody is willing to take on the horrible mess at Priestfield. It is beyond the scope of your average local entrepreneur, the debts are of Champions League proportions but the club is heading in the opposite direction. What can we do about it? Well that is the other thing that is so depressing.
The Gillingham support is not huge, it can be passionate and supportive but at the moment it is split into too many little cliques. There is no one focal point. With the destruction of the old Supporters Club and the marginalization of the well meaning but ineffectual unofficial remnants we are left with a virtually dormant and uninspiring Supporters Trust (they’ll never be the answer anyway, the debt is too big, just ask Bournemouth) and the Friends of Gillingham who were set up to unite fans but have simply polarized factions further and have now lost momentum.
The tetchy and downright obnoxious tensions between various groupings and individual fans is soul destroying. We should all be united in pressurising Scally into giving us some substantive answers or campaigning to oust him, not getting all sanctimonious with each other over piddling little differences. It really is the Kentish version of the Life of Brian sometimes! SPLITTERS!
On a more mundane level watching football is also getting more difficult and more expensive. Gone are the days of cheap group booking on the trains via Big Al, spending hours chasing the ever dwindling cheap (less fecking expensive) train tickets round the internet and having to plan each away trip three months in advance does somewhat squash any spontaneity out of the day and of course you have the cost of tickets themselves. Clubs are now finally beginning to react to a three year plateau in attendances nationwide, even Chelsea are freezing prices, but English football is still the most expensive in the world. £22 to turn up on the day and sit in the Rainham End is a scandal.
The home end, behind the goal is traditionally the place for those wishing to sing and dance, to give vent to their emotions. It is where the next generation should be learning to hate Swindon, and it is where the cost of entry should be affordable for all. It is not, for the shite we’ve had to watch for three years it is a sick joke. Gillingham aren’t alone, there are worse offenders in our division, most notably Brighton and Nottingham Forest but still if we want to attract more fans then the price will have to drop. Football is fantastically popular in this country, people want to come and watch, but not at any price, either because they don’t see it as value for money or because they simply can’t afford it.
Back in the early 90’s you could always take your mind off the Gills by taking in a Division One game in London, six quid to get in, pay on the day, stand on a terrace, great. Now the seats cost at least £30, often £40-50, unless you are a member you struggle to even buy a ticket months in advance and if you do it is the last one left down by the corner flag. It would be wonderful to bring back safe terracing as an option, it would be great not to be the most over-regulated fans in the world, it would be nice to have stewards that weren’t brain-dead malicious scum on a power trip and it would be nice to see some atmosphere injected back into our increasingly sanitized stadiums.
I’d never want to go back to the bad old days of the 80’s with squalid stadiums, huge fencing and antagonistic policing but some of the zest and joy and spontaneity have been squeezed out of the game. It can still be vibrant and life affirming and truly brilliant, but when it isn’t you are left feeling ripped off, exploited, spied on, controlled and wondering why you fucking bother.
Gillingham used to be a brilliant antidote to the rest of the reality, a place to let yourself go, to share joy and experiences, to make friends and live life to the full. I’ll never forget 78-79, 81-82, 83-84, 84-85, 85-86, 86-87, 92-93, 95-96, 96-97, 97-98, 98-99, 99-00, 00-01, but at the moment I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel Just a miserable slog towards an uncertain future, the only certainty being it will be less fun and more expensive. It feels like 1980-81, 1988-89 and 1994-95 all rolled into one. Not a happy combination I’m sure you’ll agree! See you all at Carlisle then!