Tuesday 1 April – Gills 2 – 1 Luton Town
So this was the fabled “game in hand” then… on the way back from Port Vale some of us had teased a fellow Gill about his touching faith in the team’s ability to win this game and get themselves back within touching distance of safety. It wasn’t exactly win or bust because even a win would leave us in the drop zone but lose and even the most optimistic of souls would have probably succumbed to the tide of resignation already threatening to overwhelm the club. It was more of an “eliminator”, defeat and you could start making plans for a wet weekend in Morecambe, draw and a Tuesday night at Gigg Lane Bury was looking more than likely, but win, well win and we would live to fight another day putting the wind up Crewe and Millwall into the bargain.
Before the game I was genuinely nervous, we were running out of time, games and excuses, the 0-0 draw with title-chasing Carlisle had been promising in terms of a solid performance but missed chances, most notably by young Simeon Jackson (plus some bloody bad luck when his 25 yard screamer nearly broke the bar) meant we really, really, really needed three points – not another draw and more tales of woe or whatever… This was more like a cup-tie with Luton the potential fall-guys. Now Luton were one of the few teams below us, even before their ten point deduction for going into administration they were not having a happy time of it, an away record even worse than ours and the departure of some key players meant their position was even more desperate than ours. Lose and they were goners. This gave the whole evening an intensity and vibrancy so often lacking from games over the last three years.
The game had originally been scheduled for Tuesday the 12th of February but a thick Medway pea-souper rather caught everyone off guard and it was postponed. It had been a “friends for a fiver” game and so with tickets still valid and the significance of the result all too apparent to everyone a decent crowd of 6,142 turned up to watch and they were rewarded with a thriller… eventually.
It began where the Gills had left off on the Saturday against Carlisle, passion, commitment, energy and most notably really fervent backing from the stands. Whatever supporters’ personal feelings were regarding our esteemed chairman, rookie manager or new players that was all shoved to one side in the understandable hope that we should and could roar the team towards what would be a defining moment. The mentality of the fans has changed since the Crewe debacle, perhaps it was the slap round the chops that the most complacent fans needed, but it is now clear that all the Gills fans appreciate the seriousness of our League predicament and that unless something happens now we’ll all be back where we started in 1995 minus £12.6 million or Priestfield.
The opening moments saw the two teams sparing, Luton didn’t look anywhere as bad as their position suggested, Oli caught the eye for us launching a couple of efforts at their keeper but Brill who’d had a brief loan spell at the Gills was more than up to the job. The visitors knocked the ball about to little effect beyond the aesthetic before out of the blue they scored with a bizarre looking goal. It stunned Priestfield and left both King and the edgy Stillie looking like plonkers. With nineteen minutes on the clock Asafu-Adjaye launched a long high hopeful ball in the general direction of our box, Stillie was standing off his line not expecting a direct threat, King was shadowing Parkin, they both went for the dropping ball on the edge of the box, King appeared to get his timing wrong allowing Parkin to get his head (top of) to the ball and divert it goal wards. Had Stillie been nearer the goal he would have stopped it with ease but he was left somewhat flat-footed and marooned by the ensuring looping deflection and a funereal hush descended upon Priestfield as the grim realisation began to dawn on everyone that it might not be our day and that all our intricate calculations and hopeful predictions for the run-in would be left rendered hopeless.
To their credit the supporters refused to give up and neither did the team. It was a bit hectic, our best chance so far saw a smart run into the box by Jackson but his cut-back was missed by Miller and the danger snuffed out. At the other end the Gills creaked and groaned alarmingly, was it nerves? Was it that Luton were playing without the same pressure of expectation? In one mad minute the Gills nearly conceded again twice which would have meant curtains for sure. With barely 25 minutes gone a cross was clipped into a congested penalty area and yet the Gillingham defence contrived to let Parkin (centre forward target man, known for scoring goals, with his head etc.) stand unmolested eight yards from goal. Amazingly he headed the cross wide when it looked easier to score. The Rainham End were still berating the dozy defending when an over-hit cross from Asafu-Adjaye sailed over the nervy Stillie and clipped the bar. It wasn’t looking good.
The final significant action of the half saw Jackson and Miller combine well, Miller’s cross was met first time by Oli but Brill pawed it round the post brilliantly. Half time saw much shaking of heads and solemn exchanges – all the hopes pre-match looked like being dashed. It would take a grand old-fashioned charge towards the Rainham End echoing the vibrancy and power of the late 90’s to save the day which, unlikely as it sounds is exactly what the baying masses got…
The Gills came out a different team, as if we’d all been transported back to 1999, there was an urgency and intent that helped galvanise the crowd. Jackson was to be the focal point of much of what eventually transpired but not before three moments when he must have thought his luck was out again. The first chance saw Bentley neatly teed up on the edge of the box but his drive hit the unwitting Jackson as he tried to jump out of the way. The second big moment saw Jackson put through on goal, a one on one with Brill, Miller’s lovely hooked pass over the top of the defence left him with plenty to do, two defenders for company, but he took the ball on before lashing it low and hard at the goal only to see Brill save it brilliantly with some part of his anatomy, his shoulder? His face? It didn’t matter, the Rainham was almost hysterically frustrated.
The third missed opportunity was even closer, another through ball, this time the slight but speedy striker got clear of the defence and even managed to deftly flick the ball over the keeper but it didn’t have enough power on it and when he tried to finish off the chance with the goal seemingly at his mercy Luton defender Davies appeared from nowhere to block the ball wide. That we thought was that. Time was running out and despite all the frantic pressure our old failing of not scoring was coming back to haunt us… With Griffiths on for Nutter and debutant Ba on for the struggling Miller (his hernia inhibiting his usual influence), the intent was clear. The Gills were going for it. Ba immediately fashioned a half chance for Jackson (foiled by Brill) whilst at the other end Parkin reminded everyone of the danger of a counter-attack by curling one effort just wide.
With fifteen minutes to go the Gills finally scored and it was fitting that the luckless Jackson should do the honours. It was a crazy scramble set in motion by Ba’s cross, it was only partially cleared and eventually fell to Jackson, he was foiled on the line, the ball was half hacked away, Griffiths sent the ball back in and amid the carnage the ball popped up via defender and keeper three yards out and Jackson bravely stooped amid the flying boots to nod the ball home, cue old school carnage in the Rainham End, it was bedlam but bedlam tempered with the knowledge that we now had to go for the win.
Griffiths missed with a header soon after but Stimson was not to be denied throwing on another debutant striker Simmonds into the mix, with seven minutes to go. The atmosphere was electric, really passionate and fervent, but the minutes were ticking by. The earlier time wasting by Luton meant there would be several minutes added but I, like many were beginning to run out of faith until with three minutes to go Jackson scored again. Much of the credit has to go to Southall, he hasn’t had the happiest season but having returned from injury appeared to have rediscovered some of his old zest and crucially his ability to deliver a cross. Some smart approach play saw the ball out wide, Southall rolled back the years and delivered an absolute peach of a cross to the back post. Cross of the season, perhaps pass of the season, and there was Jackson, standing all alone six yards out, he couldn’t miss once the ball cleared Brill and he nodded the ball home to send Priestfield absolutely fucking mental. It was chaos, carnage, all the frustrations of the last few months were unleashed in an orgy of hysterical frenzied celebration.
We were left to hang on a bit for the last five or six minutes, it was more mental than physical, but when Spring launched a late Luton free-kick into the Town End we knew the mythical game in hand had indeed been won. It was only one game, three points, and our position is still perilous but it must have done the confidence of Jackson and the whole team, not to mention the fans a power of good. We will only know the significance of this evening come May but should the Gills somehow contrive to dodge the bullet this game will be identified as the moment it changed. A defining moment indeed. We live to fight another day, which is about as much as we could have asked for.
Champagne Moment:- Jackson’s two goals. After all the missed chances it was great to see the little chap get his reward.