I’m going to subtley tempt fate and suggest that for the third time in my thirty years of watching the club I’m witnessing a relegation season. It would only be the fourth in our 115 year history, which isn’t such a bad record though we’ve ridden our luck with re-election a few times, got booted out of the league before the war and would have been demoted in 1993 if the current rules applied. But it’s not as though we’re Oxford (relegated more often in the last 20 years) or bouncy yo-yo clubs like Southend or Palace, so we can’t simply shrug it off as one of the perils of hitching your life onboard one of the country’s less glamourous clubs.
For me though, things are very different now to previous calamities in 1989 and 2005. The 1988/89 season was a disaster from start to finish (ok, a few similarities in that respect) but the team was a lop-sided mix of quality players (Hillyard, Peacock, Lovell) not quite able to carry the deluge of has-beens (Burley, Williams, Joseph), underperformers (Haylock, Cooper, Smith) and inexperience (Lillis, Docker, Beadle). Two farcical runs without a win (September – November, January – April) sealed our fate. Our support was resigned to the drop from October onwards despite tinkering with the management (more has-beens in Burkinshaw, underperformers in Taylor and inexperience in Richardson) and we accepted our poison with barely a wimper. There was a complacency running right through the club but relegation could be traced to a single act of madness – the sacking of Keith Peacock and his replacement with Paul Taylor the previous Christmas. Some argue that Peacock had taken the club as far as he could – a bit like Curbishley at Charlton and Allardyce at Bolton – but I think it’s fair to say that relegation was unthinkable under Sir Keef. There were a few protests against the hapless board led by Roy Wood, and Priestfield was understandably not a happy place to be, but I don’t recall any rabid dissent other than in the immediate aftermath of Peacock’s nonsensical dismissal.
2005 is much fresher in the mind, and in fact for me the pride in the fight we made of things during the run-in makes it one of the most memorable campaigns in recent years. The belief instilled by Stan Ternant (and, dare we suggest, Ronnie Jepson) galvanised a club on its knees (a sharp contrast to the previous season when we limped clear of the trapdoor on the final day at Stoke) to such an extent that we actually believed we could go anywhere and get a result. One defeat in the final eleven games bore that out, and the vibrant atmosphere at Priestfield for those final few games against Ipswich, Wigan, Stoke and Cardiff was simply fantastic. We were again undone by damage inflicted during the Autumn as Hess ran out of ideas. We could have basked in the glory of five years punching above our weight, and accepted that relegation was inevitable for a club like ours mingling with lofty brethren able to routinely pull 25,000 for every home match, but the gut-wrenching disappointment at The City Ground was simple to explain : we were bloody unlucky. Had we not fallen to that horribly loopy Eugene Bopp effort out of nowhere, then Stan would have stayed, he would have continued the revolution despite the forces working against him and things may just have worked out differently.
So – relegation was simple to explain in 1989 and understandable three years ago. And what we’re currently going through shouldn’t be so much of a shock – you only have to look at Grimsby, Stockport, Walsall and Rotherham to see what can happen to the little clubs when we paddle in the Championship pool. We can fluster West Ham, humiliate Leeds and beat Wolves with ten men, but they’re all one off cup ties – in the long run you need to either have a backer and go the way of Fulham, Wigan and Reading, or simply be shrewd and consolidate like Burnley and Preston.
To be honest, no club of our size has survived in the Championship for more than five years in the modern era – gone are the days when Shrewsbury, Carlisle and Cambridge could scramble on for decades on sub-3,000 crowds. Scunthorpe and Colchester are learning the lesson far more brutally than we did.
But we all know it could have been different. Our squad from 1998-2001 was the strongest in our history. It had to be to get out of Division 2 (as I believe it was then) when competing against Manchester City, Fulham, Reading, Preston, Wigan, Stoke and Millwall. Our supporter base surged to a regular 8,000+ and should have been nurtured for the longterm. But the club slowly but surely morphed from Hess and King and Asaba and Paul Smith and Jason Brown and Hope in the top half of the table, to Ipoua and Iwan Roberts and Sidibe and Henderson and Cox and John Hills and Pouton and Leon Johnson scrabbling for their lives. The decline was imperceptable to start with, but then we were riddled with increasingly panicked acquisitions (Gary Wales, anyone? Trevor Benjamin?) and before you knew it we were in a downward spiral. And if the 88/89 side was held together by the genius of Gavin Peacock, you have to wonder if we would have found ourselves in the basement before now had Matty Jarvis not emerged at exactly the right point.
But Christ we’re in a mess. This division is awful. Pitiful in its quality. Northampton, Leyton Orient and Walsall are flirting with the play-offs, sides that would have been blown to smithereens in 1999. So when exactly was the turning point and who’s to blame? You know what’s coming. And I think I can pinpoint the moment I knew the game was up.
Prior to the lunchtime kick-off against Manchester City in our second season in the Championship, a televised 3-1 defeat, the 2002/03 season ticket prices were announced to – at best – disgruntled dark mutterings. An understandable reaction to a horrific price hike. That particular pricing cock-up cost us a significant chunk of our core supporter base, and it co-incided with the ITV Digital collapse. It co-incided with the point when everyone knew (for it was always obvious) that the League did not hold a watertight contract with ITV. It co-incided with the need to redevelop the Town End. And crucially it co-incided with it dawning on Scally that he’d fucked up the finances in completing the Medway Stand. The decisions made over the next 18 months stalled the upward momentum and shaped our destiny, but it was way too late – everything was already pointing downwards as soon as Scally oversaw the spending that took the club crashing into a £12m debt. We didn’t receive the ITV Digital money, true, but even if we had it would have offset only a fraction of the overspend. It’s a smokescreen that Scally’s peddled so often that it receives it’s own chant when we’re getting hammered.
The quality of the players accumulated through the late 90s carried the Gills forward the following season to our highest ever position, but the writing was on the wall. Pennock, Ashby, Hess and Smith could no longer perform miracles. The knock-on effect on the squad was noticeable, as our lack of depth was highlighted by our reliance on Jones Awoah, Edusi and even Nyron up front for the closing months of the campaign. Gates were down. Prices went up. We were left with a temporary stand at one end of the ground. Within 18 months we sold the two players that were essential for survival – Paul Shaw, our last remaining creative talent, was despatched for peanuts before the Bosman rule got him. Marlon King, our last remaining player who could snaffle a half-chance even when we were playing poorly, was out of the nick and off to Nottingham Forest. Patrick Agymang came in and helped shore up one more season, but it was futile. Less than a year on he was sold on for profit as well as the debt got out of control.
Hess was out of ideas and time. Stan almost performed a miracle through sheer bloody mindedness, sound organisation and a few contacts in the game. Then…Tom Williams…Neil Harris…Scott Flinders…Cox and Sancho…Paul Shields….Duncan Jupp…Bas Savage…Clint Easton….before we even get on to the genius of Steve Lomas and Dennis Oli. 6-0 at Bristol City, 5-0 at Colchester, 5-0 at Carlisle, 4-0 at Forest, 4-0 at Hartlepool, 4-0 at Northampton, 3-2 at Burscough…months between away wins, months between home goals….
The pre-Scally era ended with a goalless draw at Priestfield against Hereford in front of 4200. Last weekend we got duffed in a nob-gnawingly crucial relegation six pointer at Priestfield against Crewe in front of 4900. The performance was pitiful, the crowd was spiteful towards the players, towards the manager, towards each other. This mess isn’t the result of a rash decision by a bumbling chairman following a freak result at Aldershot. It isn’t a result of running out of steam in a division full of big city clubs with big city resources. It’s a result of gross mismanagement and the frittering away of a once-in-our-history position.
That once-in-our-history position was largely achieved by Paul Scally’s drive, commitment, bottle, inspiration – call it what you like. Many others played massive roles but Scally was at the helm and he took the plaudits. We are once again in a once-in-our-history position with respect to the debt and no longer owning our own ground. Scally’s programme notes on Saturday said that he was “generally encouraged and pleased with the way things are going on the pitch”, with talk of “outstanding performances” on our travels. In a typical defensive backlash against those not holding his view of events, he expressed disbelief at the numbers jumping ship and the negative vibes coming from supporters.
After Saturday’s wretched display, he still spoke of being “disappointed, disenchanted, disillusioned and disgusted” with the reaction of the crowd to an afternoon that provided less entertainment than a steaming pile of donkey shit. I think he got off lightly. He is accountable. He has overseen this mess. He has not once admitted the error of his ways. There is no way he should be suffering any physical abuse, as happened after the Crewe game, but if he’s in any way surprised that the dwindling few are turning against him in increasing numbers, then he really hasn’t got a clue. I can’t believe he’s avoided the flak for so long. Gillingham fans are angry. Angry at what they are seeing week in week out. And angry that Scally doesn’t seem to think there is even a problem to own up to.
The Morty Vicker