Saturday 12 January – Huddersfield Town 1 – 3 Gills
Anyone harbouring lingering doubts that the Stimson revolution really is beginning to bear fruit should have been at Huddersfield to see a side quite unrecognisable from the rabble that disgraced the Gills shirt earlier at Luton, Southend, Forest and Swindon. Okay so the starting eleven included the imperious Miller, the energetic Rocastle, the solid calm of Bygrave, and the chocolaty nuttiness of Nutter, all recent signings by the Priestfield Messiah but it still included seven players inherited from the Jepson shambles. The turnaround is mind-boggling.
I suppose it was always going to be a day to remember, for only the third time in 29 years I overslept on the morning of a match, causing much hectic rushing around and panicking as I lurched down to Canterbury East still discombobulated from the night before which had involved far too much Belgian beer and Russian vodka (toasts for everything) and gambling with card sharps from Krasnodar than is really sensible for a Friday night only six hours before an early start is required when a trek north is in the offing. I made the back-up train by three minutes and even had time at King’s Cross for a hot drink in a vain attempt to collect my scrambled thoughts. My travelling companions breezed onto the train fully equipped for a grand day our, more bottles of Belgian fruit beer than you could shake a stick at, which I couldn’t face with confidence until we were within belching distance of Doncaster.
On arrival in Leeds (early!) we were able to jump on the local connecting service populated by several Man United and Newcastle fans heading for Manchester and a six-goal thriller. We hopped off at Huddersfield at the stoke of one, everything having gone so smoothly and to plan since my early morning flustered bluster that I began to get a strange feeling that we weren’t going to lose. Matt led me away from the station half a mile the “wrong way” to arguably pub of the season, any season, the Grove Inn. Camra pub of the year for West Yorkshire, blah, blah, blah doesn’t do it justice, it had an enormous beer menu covering hundreds of bottled beers from more than thirty countries across Europe and beyond (Matt opted for a Mongolian beer for starters) plus unusual lagers and local bitters on tap. The guy behind the bar was friendly and helpful, chuckling to himself as we spied the unusual selection of snacks available to have with your bottle of Polish apple beer or Ukrainian lager. We decided to stock up for the journey home, opting for cheese and bacon flavoured crickets and barbeque flavoured larvets (think dried brown maggoty-things from I’m a celebrity get me out of here) before heading for the Galpharm Stadium.
Pre-match there had been plenty of justifiable grumbling from Gills fans because in their 100th year Huddersfield Town were marking the start of their Centenary celebrations by charging only £5 for all sections of the ground except, rather cynically, the away end. (Under controversial Football League rules clubs can do these “locals only” deals up to four times per season). A few people fleetingly considered saving £14 and infiltrating the home end but eventually 277 Gills bit the bullet and paid full whack, reasoning that they wanted to openly cheer and sing the Gills towards victory rather than having to sit on their hands should we score or heaven forbid clap politely should Town do the unmentionable.
After the deflating shoot-out defeat in midweek it was reassuring to see Crofts, Bentley and Miller return to midfield in conjunction with latest signing Rocastle, on loan with a view to a permanent move from Port Vale. With King, Bygrave and Royce looking solid at the back the biggest concern at kick-off was up front, the combination of the hard working but hardly prolific Mulligan with the occasionally inspired but all too often lumbering Facey didn’t promise many goals, although Huddersfield’s defensive record offered a glimmer of hope.
The opening half hour was quite even, individually Miller, Mulligan and new boy Rocastle all looked pretty good in midfield, we appeared to be pretty balanced with the right players playing in their best positions (revolutionary I know), Facey was perhaps the only bum note, looking slow and a bit clueless when it came to dodging the offside trap with all the finesse and guile of a drunken hefalump.
Royce did well to parry away one Williams free-kick but it was still a little against the tide when Huddersfield took the lead on 32 minutes, Simon King claiming an unwanted assist in an otherwise solid afternoon. Town attacked down our left side, a block tackle saw the ball spin dangerously towards our area, King looked to have the situation under control as he tracked back, but on a poor pitch tried to hook the ball away only to contrive an air-shot gifting the ball to a trio of Town strikers, they used their man over intelligently teeing up Brandon at the far post to slam home from eight yards.
Significantly the travelling fans refused to slump sullenly in their seats, they attempted to galvanize the team, to reenergize them, something must have changed if fans react like that now rather than heading for the exits and the pub or simply abusing the team. Gradually, incrementally, the players are rebuilding the shattered bond between themselves and the supporters and we, the poor bloody infantry, are finally responding, allowing ourselves to be sucked in emotionally again after months of wisely distancing ourselves mentally and in many cases physically from getting any more damaged…
The Gills equalised in added time at the end of the first half and it was no less than they deserved. Don’t laugh, but it really had a touch of “The Arsenal” about it both in terms of conception and execution. Again the catalyst was man of the match Windy Miller. His incisive movement and imaginative passing was a constant feature of the whole afternoon and with a willing runner like Mulligan to feed there was always the sniff of a chance to cut through a rather square Huddersfield back line. Miller seized the initiative in midfield burst into the space afforded him before sending a deliciously weighted ball inside the defender for Mulligan to race onto, take round the keeper and steer clinically into the net despite the distraction of two Town defenders on the line. You might need to sit down before re-reading that last sentence. We simply jumped about a bit in the away end… as you do – Bjorn gashed his shin to smithereens.
The second half was a triumph for the Gills, Town missed their one big chance, we took ours and ended the game chanting “we want four!” without any hint of irony – which doesn’t happen very often it has to be said. The defining moment for Town arrived just on the hour when they really should have scored and the majority of home fans in their highest League crowd of the season (11,212) in the stand to our right assumed they had. Beckett was played into the box following a swift counter-attack, with just Royce to beat and another Town player at his side, he drew back his boot and slammed it diagonally goalwards like he has done a hundred times during his classically nomadic lower division career only to see it scream past the far post by inches. We did the usual “sit down shut up you northern monkeys” at the home fans but inwardly were mightily relieved. My buttocks had clenched in anticipation of them making it 2-1.
The increasingly impressive Rocastle played Mulligan in for a one-on-one only for Town keeper Glennon to save with his legs but despite the miss you could tell the momentum was with the Gills and that we were finishing the stronger and that Huddersfield were creaking and groaning. The combination of better fitness, a more balanced side and new hungry players just out of non-league determined to prove a point and seize their second chance without any of the wobbly paranoia that has afflicted the club for four years on the road really showed.
With fifteen minutes remaining Miller again was the catalyst, Mulligan combined with him neatly and off Windy sprinted down the wing, on and on, into the box, he tempted the tackle from Clarke – which duly arrived late and down he went in a heap. Penalty. I couldn’t look, well I turned away swore quietly to myself, thought better of it, and duly watched with ghoulish silent fascination, buttocks clenched, mesmerised by the tantalising possibilities of scoring (euphoria, possibly a win) or missing (dejection, probable defeat). Up stepped Mulligan, nonchalantly he sent the keeper the wrong way and slotted the ball into the right hand side of the net as we looked, suddenly the calm evaporated as he divested himself of his shirt, revealing a black top before running joyfully towards us, hurdling the advertising hoardings and twirling his shirt round above his head in triumph.
The cherry on top of the icing on top of the fairy cake duly arrived with eight minutes remaining, the Gills won the ball in midfield, the ball was fed to the otherwise ponderous Facey and suddenly for twenty seconds he transformed into a fat Thierry Henry circa 2005. An attempted one-two failed, but Facey lost his marker and turned and charged towards us from just inside the Town half, like a demented runaway rhino, nearer and nearer he got, “great this will eat up some time” I thought, but then he decided to try to recreate Asaba’s goal against Manchester City at Wembley in ’99 poking the ball over the keeper from the edge of the box and gloriously, orgasmically into the back of the net. From our vantage point high up behind the goal it looked to be going over but then it rippled the net and we all went fucking bonkers. That was a clinching goal if ever there was one. Bjorn (not seen a goal away since April) danced like a German amid the melee of mental celebrations.
The steward that had engaged in witty banter with us throughout the afternoon (no really) shepherded him back from his spontaneously euphoric glory run down the aisle with a huge cheesy grin, obviously not a Huddersfield fan! The last few minutes saw the Gills pressing forward with genuine intentions of potting the fourth that we were jokily demanding, the Muppets who’d coughed up a fiver anticipating a ritual walkover streamed for the exits as we joyfully waved them on their way. Rarely has £19 been better spent eh chaps?
The only downer on a wonderful afternoon arrived in injury time and to be honest I missed it. Miller challenged for the ball on the halfway line, Sinclair attempted a nutmeg, Windy caught the ball between his feet and they clashed. The otherwise excellent referee Foster stunned everyone by pulling out the big red one, it was soft, it was bemusing, most of us didn’t have a clue why he’d been sent off (a two footed tackle is was not!). Thankfully the appeals committee agreed and it was later quashed…
The final whistle brought a repeat of the scenes at Crewe, the players looked thrilled and strolled over to accept the acclaim from the travelling fans, our first win by more than one goal on the road since Rotherham in the spring of 2005! It had been reminiscent of the second half display at home to Forest and we had won away again for the second time under Stimson. In the six away games prior to his arrival we’d played six, lost six, scored one and conceded eighteen. In the six since his arrival we’ve won two, drawn two, lost two, and one of those was to a last minute goal having lost our entire central defence!
We left the ground not only euphoric at winning, some poor souls having not seen us win away since Southend at Easter 2006 (Big Lee from Thanet at the thirtieth attempt), but convinced that the right man was at the helm and that for the first time since relegation Gills fans were looking to the future less in hope and more in genuine expectation. I can pay Stimson no higher compliment than say there is a touch of Pulis about him.
The mood at Huddersfield station was wonderful, some fans had gone many months without seeing an away win and the “disco coach” on the inter-city back from Leeds was expected to get messy. Instead it was mellow, happy mellow, drunken mellow, really satisfying, a warm glow of hope shone from the Gills fans for the first time in years. The bacon and cheese flavoured crickets and barbeque flavoured larvae were snaffled along with copious amounts of beer (some more exotic than others) and chocolate covered giant ants in a faintly surreal trip home. No singing, no boorishness, just happy football fans remembering what is used to be like following the Gills on the road and wishing it could be like this every fortnight…
Last time we won away we contrived to lose to the two bottom sides, now we’ve given ourselves a very real chance of moving into the top half of the table. We aren’t the finished article and sans Dickson the forward line still needs serious reinforcements (sorry Mr Facey, it takes more than a wonder goal out of the blue to convince us) but I have faith, we have faith that Mark Stimson knows what he is doing. There really could be cause for hope people!
Champagne Moment:- Aside from “Big Lee” from planet Thanet downing the remnants of the ants, crickets and larvets with a cider chaser on the way home it has to be Gary Mulligan’s goal celebrations after the penalty. Headless chicken doesn’t do it justice. It shows he cares, and so do we… so do we.