Monday 24 March – Port Vale 2 – 1 Gills
If the Crewe game was a “must win game” and we lost it then this was a “really, really, really must win game” and we lost this too. The mood at the end was pretty subdued and we strolled out of Vale Park and down the hill resigned to our fate. If you play the bottom club who are virtually down and lose it doesn’t bode well for the last seven games… the fact that we contrived to create a stack of chances (and proceeded to miss them including a pathetic penalty) simply underlined why, baring a miracle, we’ll be accompanying the Valiants into League Two next season. To be honest we deserve it too. The icy wind, hail and flurries of snow blowing bitterly into our faces tested even the most stoical of the 234 Gills in away end as the team failed to perform again.
You could claim a bit of bad luck with some of the missed chances and had this been a meaningless mid-table contest we’d have just had to shrug our shoulders and put it down to the footballing Gods not smiling on us, but it wasn’t, it was a relegation six-pointer and if you miss chances like that every week it stops being bad luck and starts becoming bad players… you make your own mind up!
The trip north was never going to be easy on an (early) Easter Bank Holiday, with a Sunday service running in the south east and no bloody trains at all on the west coast line meant a convoluted route via Derby was the only option (although it did give us a chance to have a nose round the magnificently refurbished St Pancras station), a reminder of last time we cut across from Derby to the Potteries in 2000, a play-off semi-final in the sunshine against Stoke due to more rail chaos saw a fleet of taxis commandeered and a mad dash to the Britannia stadium with only moments to spare… this time there was no sunshine, no promotion campaign, no optimism, no glorious goals hammered into the top corner by Hessenthaler in the last minute and fifteen times fewer Gills fans present. Scally wasn’t a pariah back then either although the bitter dispute with Pulis twelve months earlier was the beginning of things unravelling for many fans even with the Gills on the cusp of a historic promotion.
We disembarked at Longport and ambled towards Burslem, mostly uphill and to be honest through a depressing urban landscape of derelict post-industrial ruins, bordered up pubs, scabby looking shops and shoddy housing. It made the walk from Gillingham station to Priestfield look like a jolly stroll through Paris in the springtime… only the approach to Oldham’s ground is less mournful. We stopped at the regular haunt of darts start Phil Power for a beer (the Sagger Makers), aside from one lonely Vale fan and his son we were the only other customers… the streets were deserted, there were no signs of life or any suggestion that a professional football match was about to take place. Apparently the week before when 4000 Leeds fans turned up it had been slightly more lively.
We finally wandered into Vale Park close to kick-off, the place was virtually deserted, with nearly 20000 seats and barely 3000 fans the entire ground looked as packed as the Town End on a cold and wet night in January. I don’t think you could even call the crowd “sparse”, it was a scattering of lost sad souls in a sea of faded yellow seats, it was dead. A small clump of Vale fans to our left tried their best with a couple of renditions of “You’re going down with the Vale” and a bit of jolly banter of the gallows variety at the expense of their own team more than anything. We responded with defiance to begin with but by the end we could do no more than meekly agree (like the players) and go in search of a hot drink to thaw out.
With Royce, Cullip and Crofts out we had to make do and mend with Stillie in goal and Howard and Stone starting. There was certainly a decent tempo to our game and the slight but speedy Jackson looked lively but unfortunately we spurned our chances and the got caught cold by one of Vale’s sporadic sorties into our area. Vale’s own Richards struck on nineteen minutes, it was the sort of shoddy defending we’ve come to expect, two or three times we had the chance to clear but our indecision was final and he had time and space to hook the ball home from eight yards, unmarked in a crowded area.
Understandably our confidence is a little fragile away from home at the moment, but with Vale scuffing around to little affect we regained a modicum of control and began to create more chances. Jackson (low and hard, inches wide) and Miller both went close before the defining moment of the game arrived just past the half hour mark. Jackson darted into the box, Vale defender Hulbert barged into him sending the little bloke sprawling to the ground. Penalty. What a great chance to get back in the game. Sadly Jackson’s kick was as weak as a kitten, the keeper Anyon guessed right and so slow was the velocity of the ball that he was able to drop on it apologetically. That was the moment we suspected it wasn’t going to be our day… again.
This was confirmed just before the break when Miller’s decent shot was parried into the path of Bentley only for him to sky the ball from six yards out. We muttered darkly into our Bovril at the break. The temperature dropped further and the wind picked up, flakes of snow fell out of a bleak sky, even the weather knew that this was to be a contest between two dead men walking teams and in sympathy did a passable impression of a bleak mid-winter…
Our demise was underlined with another Vale goal, against the run of play, out of the blue really (well out of the grey) – King lost the ball, Whittaker seized the chance and slammed the ball into the top corner from twenty yards (53). Suddenly even a draw looked beyond us which probably wouldn’t be enough anyway. We slumped in our seats for the umpteenth time this season, there were a few catcalls at Stimson and Scally but nothing major, we were all too deflated to get worked up.
A thrilling two minutes of play midway through the half which saw Miller go close, Vale survive a mad scramble, Oli have a header cleared off the line and sub Griffiths crash a twenty yarder against Bentley confirmed the sad truth that we were going to be doubled by tail end charlies Port Vale. Jackson smashed one more decent effort into the side netting before, agonizingly, we did score on 78 minutes. Griffiths taking advantage of a loose ball in the box, steadied himself and belted it home from eight yards. Game on again, a sliver of hope returned, we continued to press but the final push failed to create much in terms of actual chances. We didn’t have the guile or the composure or the luck and contrived to lose a game we really should have won.
The final whistle felt like the end, not mathematically of course, Walsall equalised in the last minute against Crewe and should we win our home games against Carlisle and the fabled “game in hand” against Luton then the trip to Millwall next week could be pretty tasty. To be honest though only one of our returning party on the train really believed we had a hope in hell of staying up and after a fearful ribbing, plenty of cider and a corking kebab from Derby even he has the glazed look of resignation, the thousand yard relegation stare that will come to haunt us all before the end of the season by the time we’d got back to London. It is slowly sinking in that we really will go down, horribly, limply, without a fight. A turn of events that few could or would have predicted back in January…
We will continue to fight the good fight until the Fat Lady has done her turn, then it could turn very ugly indeed. If Swindon put us down at Priestfield it will get messy. Who do we blame? Well Scally in terms of the big picture but against Port Vale the management and players have to take responsibility. They might not all be great players but neither are they as bad individually as they appear to play collectively. They need to get their fucking act together now, not next week, not next month, not next season. To be honest I think it is too late now but strange things can happen in football so we just look to the Carlisle game and hope for a miracle.
Champagne Moment:- The kebab in Derby was nice.