Ah, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Now in it’s 25th year, having evolved through various guises invariably sponsored by workmanlike vans or windshield replacement companies, it’s had a chequered history. But it’s now finally awakening from a slumber since it’s heyday of the late 1980s when it offered the only realistic opportunity for lower division clubs to reach Wembley. The play-offs undermined the cup’s sole selling point, and the exile in Wales could have spelled the deathknell for what I will always think of as the Freight Rover Trophy. However the new Wembley stadium has only been graced by three of the clubs competing in this year’s competition (Yeovil, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury) so the incentive of a day out in the London Borough of Brent should have lead to renewed enthusiasm, though you wouldn’t necessarily think it given the level of glamour among the regional semi-finalists, particularly in the exlusively League Two northern section.
For the Gills the cup hasn’t really brought many highlights (only two trouncings of Maidstone spring to mind). It’s brought plenty of lowlights (practically any away game played in front of paltry crowds before our elongated run in 1999; being stuffed 3-0 at home by Torquay; falling to Peterborough at Priestfield in front of well under 1000 disgruntled onlookers; and many many non-descript evenings that I don’t feel inclined to dredge up again from the memory banks). We’ve reached the regional semi-final three times before and each time it’s ended in dismayed heartache – consecutive defeats at Ashton Gate in the mid-80s, our downfall coming in less-than-fluffy circumstances on each occasion, and a gut-wrenching golden goal defeat at The New Den, not the sort of experience anyone has any great yearning for.
Rather than high or low moments, the competition is noted more for being utterly bizarre. There have been so many farcical fixtures, sometimes a result of brain-donorship by the organisers, sometimes a result of the weather which goes with the territory when a tournament is almost entirely played on wintry evenings. The first ever tie I attended – a 2-2 draw against a Colchester side we had demolished several times already in other competitions – took place on a dangerous skating rink surface at Priestfield solely to clear the suspensions of Dave Mehmet and Terry Cochrane for an FA Cup tie at Ipswich. Other ties have taken place in monsoon conditions – one at Brentford when we lost 2-0 with Mark Cooper playing at centre back, and one against Hereford at home. We lost that one 1-0, finally scoring a nanosecond after the final whistle which was a tad unfortunate, though not as unfortunate as spending the game marooned in a lay-by on the A2, a fate which befell a coach load of visiting supporters as their driver announced that his hours were up and legally he couldn’t drive any further without a break, which must have gone down a treat given that they were only a couple of miles away.
The more surreal moments were conjured up by the Football League, however. They introduced ever more convoluted formats, which is how we ended up losing 2-0 at Craven Cottage in consecutive rounds in 1992. And how we qualified in 1994 thanks to a Chris Pike goal at Griffin Park, a game in which we were annhialated but the scoreline wasn’t a problem as long as we scored one goal. It booked a tie at St Andrews where 17000 turned out to watch the home side obliterate lousy Gills in what was tantamount to a circus freak show. The League even enforced the replay of a round-robin group one year when all three teams finished level – imagine trying to fit in three extra fixtures these days! And the experiment of allowing the Conference teams to take part was short lived when it was realised that it just meant even more humiliation for Nottingham Forest, as they lost at Woking. Leeds might have faced a tie at Droylesden this season if they’d persevered.
Now of course it’s a lot more simple – no groups, no replays, no two legged ties, just a straight knock-out. And in our case it could not have been easier – a bye followed by two home games. Unfortunately the regional final is two-legged and so at some point we’re going to be forced to play an away game, but we’ll worry about that if we get past MK Dons.
MK Dons – everyone’s second team, revered across the land for the way they gallantly stepped in to rescue Wimbledon in their hour of need. They have a proud cup pedigree of course, having won the FA Cup in 1988 and managed by the magnanimous Paul Ince their set-up is without doubt a model to inspire the rest of us….no, no, no, minging wankers, the lot of them. Our longed for hope that the despised franchise scum would collapse without trace, their demise sealed with AFC Wimbledon clawing their way up to their level to beat them in a final indignity, tragically doesn’t look like being realised. Wimbledon seem to have settled somewhere below the natural level they occupied through the 60s and 70s prior to their promotion to the league, their crowds reaching a plateau of around 3,000. The evil Dons however have a new ground, have established a fan base in excess of anything Wimbledon would have ever achieved in League Two, and sadly have not run out of money – if anything they’re still bankrolling their way to success.
To see Winkleman’s muppets run out at the new Wembley would be the ultimate injustice – and that’s why it’s vital we stuff them. Even if we get found out on our travels in the area final, playing our part in ensuring they don’t get a big pay day at the shiny arch will be some consolation.
Given what we’ve endured in recent years I can’t even contemplate the potential joy of a return to Wembley, scene of such contrasting glee and misery at the turn of the century. But I am rather excited about the MK Dons game, partly to derive some satisfaction in smashing their undeserved dreams (please), but mostly because after the holiday fixtures I’m actually able to find myself looking forward to Gillingham games again….I’m even thinking of trekking down to attend in person having nurtured a growing hatred of midweek games in the cold….
The Morty Vicker