Saturday 29 December – Gills 3 – 0 Nottingham Forest
Well I have to admit none of us saw this coming. After a careless pair of losses to the bottom two sides, the second in abject style at Bournemouth and having escaped with a lucky point after 80 minutes of dross against Southend on Boxing Day we expected more of the same really. With Dickson gone it was hard to see where any goals would come from and the fact that Forest were second, had conceded just twelve goals in the League all season and thrashed us 4-0 earlier in the campaign suggested a tough afternoon was in order.
With the team adopting a more logical 4-4-2 formation from the off the intent and intensity was clear from the belligerent opening moments. The Gills showed more threat up front in the first ten minutes than they had in the entire Southend game. It roused the crowd and with Nutter looking comfortable at fullback and Bentley returned to his natural position in midfield with Bygrave at centre-back it all looked far more promising. In fact the whole starting eleven played their part in a tough but tight first half. Royce was excellent again, but then you could say the same about most of the players except perhaps Facey who once again looked cumbersome at times.
Forest created several chances but had clearly left their shooting boots back at the City Ground because their efforts were largely erratic and tended to fly high, wide or both all afternoon. They didn’t look like title contenders, but then the division is mediocre and if you can grind out the results you’ll find yourself at the business end come May.
The best Gills chance fell to a rejuvenated Mulligan; his effort created by some intelligent play by Southall was blocked at close range. Royce denied Clingan and Holt at the other end and the teams went in level. The atmosphere amongst the home fans was significantly less poisonous than the Southend game, “so far so good” summing up the mood after a pretty even first forty-five minutes. Then the real fun began.
Four minutes into the second half and attacking the Rainham End the Gills surprised everyone, not least themselves by taking the lead. The Forest keeper Smith, who had looked a little nervous in the first half, slicing one attempted clearance wildly was partly at fault although television pictures partly exonerated him because Crofts initial shot actually took a slight deflection on its way through a crowded box. The goal actually topped of a delightful move consisting of tight, neat passing along the ground (no, really, honest), Miller and Crofts combined sweetly, the ball was played into Facey in a central position just inside the box with his back to goal, he simply cushioned the ball invitingly into the path of Crofts who thumped it hard towards goal, perhaps a bit too directly at the keeper but it took a slight nick forcing Smith to parry the ball (technically known as “doing a Bartram”) straight out to Mulligan who happened to be lurking in the right place at the right time and took his chance with the minimum of fuss before bowing theatrically to the delighted Rainham End.
The goal seemed to give the Gills team a shot of confidence and an adrenalin surge, perhaps it was the fact that the crowd were doing their bit, perhaps the system suited the players better, perhaps it was just one of those days but the team really clicked led by the effervescent Miller, the ever willing Mulligan and an enthusiastic Bentley. They made Forest looked ordinary, the visitors continued to make chances too but their finishing was woeful, Royce would have been quite busy had most of their efforts not ended up in the Town End without requiring his close attention. Smith made partial amends six minutes after his “assist” with a stunning save to deny a point blank Crofts header whilst at the other end Cohen finally got one on target from an acute angle having got free only for Royce to deny Forest an equaliser.
With sixty one minutes on the clock and Priestfield was again in raptures, “Windy” Miller the hero again with a magnificent effort drilled into the net from outside the box with Smith stranded motionless on his line. Forest won’t have been happy with the defending that led up to the goal, a free-kick was pumped into their box, only half cleared out to Facey who swung it in again, it was partially cleared, bobbled about on the edge of the box before Miller seize possession, took a touch to tee the ball up and then spanked it cleanly and effortlessly into the bottom corner before rushing forward to receive the acclaim of some very happy Gills fans. “Windy” then ensured his nickname would stick by whirling his arm round a la Mick Channon circa 1979 as he jogged back for the restart.
Forest looked rattled and the Gills refused to let them wrestle back the initiative, with the crowd baying for more (still no love lost after their apparent glee at relegating us in 2005), it really did become a question of how many more goals the Gills might score. Agogo missed comically at the other end for the umpteenth time just to add to the general air of gaiety before the Gills scored a third. Mulligan had gone off to a standing ovation and had been replaced by Griffiths who it has to be said hasn’t quite looked up to the job of League football thus far but he took his chance with panache when it came. With nine minutes remaining a long kick down field by Royce was allowed to bounce, Forest defender Wilson attempted to head it back to his keeper, failed to get enough on it, Griffiths nipped in to intercept, rampaged into the box and smashed the ball high into the far left corner of the net. Cue pandemonium around the ground, our biggest win of the season and arguably the best half of football this year.
The final moments saw the Gills in control, the home fans chanting “we want four” and the Forest section emptying to accompanying waves from the Rainham End. Come May they will be there or thereabouts in the promotion shake up and we won’t, but for any neutral at the Gills on Saturday you wouldn’t have guessed that to be the case. It makes the “performance” against Bournemouth even more mystifying, how can we be so bad against the bottom four (played four lost four) and yet against the top seven win three, draw two and lose only two thus far… weird.
It was certainly a welcome boost to the flagging morale of the Gillingham support. Good riddance to 2007 really, not a vintage year, let’s hope 2008 brings a few more afternoons like that one and the smiles return to the faces of us all.
Champagne Moment:- Hmm, decisions, decisions, Mulligan bowing to the crowd after the first, Miller’s arm whirling for the second, Griffiths’ mad man impression for the third? I think the champagne has to go to the whole team this time but Windy gets to hold the champagne for his strike that left keeper Smith absolutely motionless on his line.