Saturday 8 September – Southend United 3 – 0 Gills 0
& England 3 – 0 Israel
I walked out ten minutes early. For the first time in my life and twenty-nine years of watching the Gills I walked out early… Okay, so I had an ulterior motive, to hotfoot it to Wembley for the England vs. Israel game (kick-off 5p.m.), but still the Gills did the decent thing by being utterly wretched and three-nil down as I made my way out. I’d expected to be dreadfully torn between staying on and gambling on making it to back to Liverpool Street on a later train, but having watched Southend slam the ball against the post, I upped and left. I felt nothing. The afternoon had numbed me; the whole season had numbed me. I was beyond caring because to be honest there was nothing worth caring about.
It was sadly the same old story. We weren’t unlucky (although referee Hegley was a twat), Southend were neat and tidy and Leon Clarke had a stormer, but the most telling fact was we created nothing going forward and were cut apart at the back. Not a combination that tends to bring positive results…
The near 800 Gills fans that turned up for the early 1 o’clock kick-off were in a realistic mood (resigned to defeat if the truth be told), but determined to make good use of the excellent Roots Hall acoustics and make a racket in support of the under-performing wankers in the Gills shirts on the pitch. The honeymoon period last seven minutes. Thereafter it was damage limitation.
Southend’s opening goal was a slick move, slicker than you usually need to get through our “defence”, after some pretty swift and nifty inter-passing in midfield Bailey darted forward, deftly exchanged passed with the aforementioned Clarke, the return a sublime pass inside Sodje for Bailey to drill across the exposed Royce. Ho hum. We slumped back in our seats in grumpy realization that once again on our travels it was going to end in tears.
Thereafter you can probably guess the rest. We tried, not too hard, but we did try. We even managed a few attacks which culminated with either powder-puff efforts dripping wide, complete Facey air-shots or rushed snap shots that cleared the dinky double-decker at the far end. We weren’t actually getting taken apart, but Southend were in cruise control, they’d endured a poor start to the season after relegation and the departure of Eastwood but looked far too good for us. Royce was kept on his toes and amid the shambles King defended with gusto and enthusiasm but to little effect due to the lack of help he was receiving from his hapless colleagues.
Just as we were contemplating the break and a chance to regroup Southend struck again with an almost carbon copy of their first. More sweet one-twos bamboozled our defence with Clarke, Bailey and eventually McCormack slicing through our bewildered team to slam home a killer second. It was at that point that the mood turned a little ugly. The fans had had just about enough of the same old shit and responded with “We’re going to win the League”, “Scally thinks we’re going up!” along with the inevitable “Jepson out!”
The second half saw more of the same, toothless Gillingham attacks that often broke down before they’d even got started because those at the back had little option up front. Mulligan tried hard, Facey lumbered about like an excitable dinosaur and we looked a pretty shoddy outfit; relegation certainties to be sure.
Southend wrapped the game up just beyond the hour with a spectacular third, Clarke was allowed to run unmolested into the danger zone before unleashing a stunning chip which beat Royce with ease before dropping unerringly into the net. A stunning piece of skill, but a bit unnecessary really, salt and wounds came to mind.
By now the disgruntled inhabitants of the away end were making their own entertainment, “Ronnie and Scally are taking us down!” getting a particularly poignant airing… it was all a bit much really with heartfelt booing of Armstrong and Lomas as they were substituted. For three and a half years hundreds of Gillingham fans have travelled thousands of miles to watch the away games and have been rewarded with a series of total debacles. The season is only just into September and already our away record showed four games, four defeats, one goal scored, ten conceded, one missed penalty and two red cards – the only thing missing a comedy own goal.
With the clock ticking on my early escape I meandered out, pausing briefly to watch one last attack that culminated in Southend sending the ball crashing rather artfully against the post. It was time to go. No time to pause or reflect, just walk briskly away, half an ear cocked for further signs of a goal at either end before catching the slow train from Prittlewell back to London and on to Wembley.
People that know me will appreciate that I get a bit twitchy getting to games if any sort of delay gets in the way of my mission to make kick-off. Now by trying to do both Gillingham’s game and England I had deliberately opted to put myself under stress, a bit of a mad dash which went according to plan meant I took my seat at Wembley, on the upper tier and with the escalators out of action with fifteen minutes to spare. Another Gills fan who opted to watch the final death-throws of the Southend debacle (they hit the woodwork again, we didn’t have a shot, fans started arguing with each other and booed them all off apparently), was less fortunate getting stuck on a tube train that broke down at Farringdon… a madcap cab ride to Finchley Road and a dash up Wembley Way later he was puffing his way up the steps when he heard the first goal go in…
I have to say watching England ping the ball round with grace, intelligence, verve and imagination was a treat after watching the Gills. I think McClaren is a complete twat and hate him more than I’d ever hate Jepson, but a for the first time in a competitive game at home under his wretched leadership he actually picked a balanced side in the classical 4-4-2 formation. All the right players in all the right positions – fucking radical! Heskey was superb in place of the angular freak that is Crouch as was Wright-Phillips and Richards. There then followed seventy minutes of splendid football, far divorced for the usual England fare under “ginger Sven” let alone Gillingham.
Wright-Phillips notched the first, Owen curled home a sublime second and Richards buried the third. For the first time this season I’d seen a team I care about play well, score goals and win with a bit of panache and zest and passion and intelligence and remind me why I fell head over heels in love with the beautiful game back in 1978. The simplicity and sophistication of the flowing moves, passing and inventive genius on display just emphasised how far the Gills have fallen. We were never going to be world-beaters, never going to scale the heights of genius but so far this season Gillingham have been totally, utterly and indescribably shit even against fellow League One teams. Not unlucky, not stitched up, not anything. We’ve deserved what we’ve got. Nothing, which is why it was such a relief to hear Jepson had resigned on Sunday morning. I take no pleasure in his departure, we’d all have loved it to have worked out but it didn’t and so we now await our fate. Who will be next to inherit the poisoned chalice? Many fear Iffy could tarnish his spotless reputation as an all time Gillingham legend and would prefer an experienced man, perhaps Micky Adams or Martin Allen, some more pragmatic and mischievous fans would even like to see “Colin” Warnock ride to the rescue on his tractor. Whatever happens next it can’t be worse than the last month can it? Well let’s hope not. A £12m debt in League One is bad enough, in League Two is could prove fatal.
Champagne Moment:– On a personal note making kick-off at Wembley. In the long term the departure of Jepson before it was too late, but at the time only the gallows humour could raise the spirits… “We’re going to win the League” brought a cynical smile to most on a fucking crap day out at the seaside.