Tuesday 11 March – Doncaster Rovers 2 – 1 Gills
Given Gillingham’s away record, now beyond a joke and into the realms of a sad pathetic farce, and Rovers’ run of twelve wins and a draw in fifteen nobody really expected much from this historic first ever visit to the Keepmoat Stadium. In the end on a rather blustery day that would have had Winnie the Poor totally disconbobulated we very nearly brought back a point. Rovers could argue they edged the game but it wasn’t the walkover many had expected after our wretched surrender at Hartlepool three days earlier, and it was the home side left handing on for the points at the end.
It was always going to be a tricky week for both players and supporters, three away games in eight days, two long distance ones following on from the disgusting sham that was the Brighton game. I arrived at Doncaster station to find the weather not quite as bad as expected, squally rain and gusty winds rather than the end of the world as we know it, but wasn’t impressed to find the promised “shuttle” bus service to the new ground amounted to two buses closer to kick-off than another (exiled) Gills fan I met up with wanted to risk given the dire warnings of long queues at the one and only ticket office (turnstiles being of the cashless variety) so we hopped in a cab and trundled out to the now familiar edge of town development so beloved by developers, planners and global capitalism, but invariably soulless and not exactly fan-friendly unless you are a home fan arriving by car and don’t mind massive post-match traffic jams.
Usually at this point I would go into a long rant about bland, boring, identikit stadiums thrown up to give everyone a perfect view of proceedings but designed to suck the life, vitality and spontaneity out of the football experience… however this was different. Now aesthetically the new Rovers stadium is a simple single tier red bowl, a cut down mini-version of St Mary’s or the Walkers Stadium, it hold 15,000, it is unexceptional, but quite an improvement on the sad remnants of Belle Vue that staggered into the 21st century. For once the atmosphere was actually improved!
What really struck a chord though was the welcome. Not by the elements, I nearly made my entrance into the Keepmoat by being blown head first into it, a huge gust of wind momentarily lifting me off my feet, I had long enough to contemplate what a twat I’d look being blown across the walkway before mother nature relented and put me down again. The straggle of people in front of me make a brave if foolhardy diagonal bid for the social club door as fencing and anything else not nailed down was carried off in the direction of Rotherham. I arrived moments later feeling rather flustered, the guy on the door couldn’t have been more welcoming practically dragging all and sundry Gillingham fans inside and ordering them to buy a drink from the well organised bar (a fine queuing system like the post-office) and flippin’ well enjoy themselves.
The local fans were pretty friendly too, perhaps they can afford to be now, the best team in a generation, a club on the up, a new stadium, a wealthy benefactor, a far cry from the dark days of corrupt chairmen and arson attempts on the old ground, never mind near relegation from the Conference and sub 2000 crowds. They probably expected a simple win and having “been there, done it, got the t-shirt” when Donny were the whipping boys they were more sympathetic to our plight than the rather arrogant Brighton fans a week earlier.
We finally decided to brave the elements (still rather blowy) and trudge round to the away end, the turnstile operators we a jolly lot pretending to send Gills fans back round the ground before shouting back that this really was the away end, oh how we all chuckled, and once in the ground the stewards were friendly, chatty and non-confrontational. They allowed those that wished to do so to stand at the back unmolested (and Rovers fans in one block to our right) which is far more sensible than causing needless hassle – often a complaint in brand new stadiums where the stewards are trained to strangle the last vestige of fun a la Swansea.
The game began with our expectations pretty low and the mood buoyant amongst the near 8,000 home fans. The 141 away fans were soon feeling less than chuffed when less than four minutes in any hope of a clean sheet (apparently we have the highest goals against away from home in the entire country!) vanished, albeit in questionable circumstances. It was hardly the sort of move we’d expected from the footballing purists of Donny either, a simple lump over the top from Wellens down the middle of the pitch was too much for our defence and Coppinger latched onto the ball, he appeared yards offside, a subsequent viewing on television was ultimately inconclusive but did suggest it was either a perfectly timed run or the guy can run very fast indeed, or he was offside. Royce’s indecision didn’t help, rashly advancing from his goal, then retreating and ending up in no-man’s-land which allowed Coppinger to easily slide the ball across him into the far corner of the unguarded net.
There then followed a moment which summed up our season completely. We kicked-off, the ball was routinely passed back from the centre circle by the strikers, Rovers closed us down, the first player in question panicked and smacked the ball out to the wing where another Gills player who shall remain nameless tried to save the throw by sliding in resolutely, he did save the throw close to the halfway line, but at the expense of a corner! So in just four touches, without a Doncaster player even getting close to touching the actual ball we’d conceded a corner roughly six second after kicking off! Magic!
As you can imagine the early goal somewhat dented any last vestiges of confidence that we might have had and Royce was soon making amends for his earlier sluggish decision making. He had to be on his toes because we seemed wilfully unable or unwilling to deal with Rovers’ well rehearsed short-corner routines. Facey did go on one barnstorming run that culminated in a robust effort directed at the inside post but he’d gone too wide to score without the help of Sullivan, but at the other end we wobbled. Heffernan smashed one chance into the side netting, a clever corner clipped out to the edge of the box was hammered in on the volley by Wellens and soon after Stock crashed a fine shot against the post. It looked grim but then for whatever reason the Rovers storm blew itself out. Perhaps it was the conditions (blowing up a gale), perhaps it was too easy, perhaps they were over-confident or perhaps it was simply because the Gills had regained their composure and began to battle gamely, but the pattern of the match began to change – we were actually giving them a half decent game… The Gills even created a couple of chances, the second of which was missed by Crofts when it looked easier to score. Royce then denied Heffernan again to keep us in the contest at half-time.
Whatever stirring words were said at the break in the Gillingham dressing room were rendered somewhat redundant barely two minutes into the second half. I didn’t really see what happened but the home end screamed handball – apparently by Bygrave in an ariel challenge and Heffernan duly dispatched the kick. The goal was sponsored, the player was sponsored, even the announcer’s backside was sponsored, we took the piss a bit, but actually it shows the commercial department at Rovers are on their toes – if it moves sponsor it!
Oh dear then, game over… or so we thought but the Gills dug in, showed more than a little bottle given the wind, rain, baying crowd and two goal deficit. It wasn’t often very pretty, long ball, quite direct, but it got Rovers on the back foot. One run brought a series of corners from which the Gills scored. Miller crossed, the Rovers defence got in a right old mess and allowed Crofts to prod home – by jingo a goal (56)! Suddenly Rovers looked a bit twitchy, and everyone sensed it. The rain got even heavier forcing many Donny fans to our left to migrate from the front rows – moments earlier they’d been singing “Rovers ’til we die!” so it would have been rude not to respond with “Rovers ’til it rains” which we did.
The last half a hour saw us huff and puff but to be honest we lacked the quality, the cutting edge which would have brought us a point. For all our possession our best chance was a sweet Nutter pot-shop. Even with Jackson and Mulligan on our luck was out. The final whistle came with Rovers gallantly wasting time in the corners. Another loss racked up then, and with news of Cheltenham’s win at Leeds the mood was sombre but defiant as we trooped out into the teeth of the storm. I caught the official “Club Class” coach back to Kent, when I say coach I mean a poxy 30 seater mini-bus sans toilet with unpredictable lighting. Our long slog back to Priestfield wasn’t helped by the closure of the A1 in deepest darkest Lincolnshire which sent us on a long and winding diversion through villages and fields, down side roads and in the general direction of Peterborough. When we did reacquaint ourselves with the A1 we found the services to be closed which just summed up our luck. After many more miles of roadworks, diversions, speed restrictions and general frustration we finally got back to Priestfield at three o’clock in the morning.
It had been a long day, I spent the rest of the night on a mate’s sofa before heading back to Canterbury glad that the eight day marathon was over. Three games, three defeats, one missed penalty, two red cards, three goals by Crofts, two penalties conceded and ten goals conceded in total… Not a happy time to be a Gills fan but salvation can still be seized, with us only a point away from safety (we’ll ignore the goal difference!) but with four of our next five games at home and five of our next six against bottom eight sides the next few weeks will decide whether we go down with a whimper, with all guns blazing, or buck the trend of doom and gloom surrounding the club and actually beat the drop. I can’t say I’m confident, and we will most certainly require a change of our wretched luck at the moment (red cards, penalties, freak goals, mad referees), but at the moment our own destiny remains in our own hands. Whether we are up to the challenge remains to be seen, but if the performances at Brighton and Doncaster are anything to go by then yes, we’ve got a chance… any repeat of the surrender at Hartlepool though and it’s Accrington Stanley here we come…
Champagne Moment:- It just has to be our stunning four touch move from kick-off which donated Rovers a farcical corner… Top banana!