Saturday 19 April – Bristol Rovers 1-1 Gills
We had to win this game, we could have won it, perhaps should have won it and did more than enough to win it but didn’t. When the final reckoning is done for this most crappy of seasons this won’t be the sort of game that got us relegated, the damage was done by all the gutless, shambolic, cruddy away defeats we‘ve endured since August. The shoddy nine-man debacle at Cheltenham on the opening day set the tone somewhat and only an inspired Royce prevented total annihilation at Luton (1-3), Southend (0-3), Forest (0-4) and Swindon (0-5). We got our act together a bit better under Stimson performance-wise away but still lost eight on the trot, the 4-0 tonkings at Northampton and Hartlepool showing that our team sometimes has all the backbone of a chocolate teapot.
The trip to Bristol was always felt to be a crucial opportunity. Rovers were safe but not on great form, especially on their own (cabbage) patch. We needed a win, anything less and we’d be left grasping at straws and dreaming of beating Swindon AND avoiding defeat at Leeds just to give us a mathematical chance. There was certainly a frisson of anticipation mixed with nervous energy as our train pulled into Temple Meads. With time running out on the Gills we all knew the score… We jumped a cab and spent a pleasant enough pre-match session in the Robin Hood’s Retreat, a tad poncy perhaps but Leffe on tap and many of the usual suspects made for a welcome preamble to the main event.
The Memorial Ground is set for a total makeover sometime soon, Rovers are due to move out to Cheltenham for eighteen months whilst an all singing all dancing 18,500 stadium is constructed (with student accommodation in the corners to help finance the ambitious scheme a la Orient) but at the moment it remains a quirky rag-tag assortment of stands and terraces. The Gills were given a couple of blocks of the temporary stand behind one goal (think garden party tented structure) plus some open terracing down one side in the corner. I much prefer terracing and standing at football and all that goes with it, but the timing wasn’t great for such a treat (not many terraces left in League One for away fans) the South West weather got rather damp. Okay, it fecking pissed down and we got drenched. My programme ended up an illegible papier mache lump and to add to the general gloom at the final whistle we didn’t win.
Fair play to Stimson and the players, they played quite well at times given the weather and the pressure they were under. It wasn’t always pretty and passes went astray, shots were muffed and tackles missed but in terms of effort, commitment and the fundamental task of looking like a proper football team it was mission accomplished. It wasn’t enough though and well all knew it.
For the first half an hour we looked nervous and Rovers got on top, we didn‘t look capable to getting anything from the game during a ragged period which saw Rovers create several half chances. We really started to worry when they began to contrive proper whole chances but the much maligned Stillie made partial amends for his Swansea debacle with two saves, one was absolutely brilliant, denying Lambert from close range, parrying the volley when a goal looked certain. On the half hour he was at it again tipping a Lambert header onto the bar. At that point the Gills looked a little forlorn and we felt it, having given the team plenty of vocal backing our reward was hardly an attack, let alone a shot worthy of the name. They did know we needed to win this game didn’t they? To cap it all we were getting an absolute soaking on the terrace.
Jackson raised the spirit’s a little with our first meaningful effort but his finish was lacking in oomph. It did usher in a change in momentum and the Gills then enjoyed their best (and most creative) spell of the game. Some measured play saw a splendid cross into the box, Ba connected well enough but his header crashed against the bar and the rebound was smuggled off the line. Southall also pulled an effort wide but suddenly the Gills were lively and Rovers on the back foot. On 38 minutes Southall found space on the wing and curled over another sublime cross for John Nutter lurking at the far post. He duly, (ahem), nutted it into the net before setting off on an understandably excited old school glory run taking in the seats before curving round to us on the terracing. He really rather looked like he wanted to be in with us as we moshed about, clattering into each other with gay abandon.
The Gills nearly made it 2-0 before the break but Lewis and Crofts were both denied. Unfortunately the Gills opted to shoot when they had men over and pass when a pot shot would have been potentially successful. Nevertheless having battled back into the game and taken the lead they all received a rousing reception before we all scuttled off in search of shelter or hot drinks.
The second half was not nearly as open, it was scruffy and messy and scrappy but whilst we were winning we didn’t really care. A single goal lead is always vulnerable and we began to twitch and worry on the away terrace but Rovers failed to really create much. Lambert did get one great chance out of the blue but the ball got stuck under his feet delaying his effort enough for Stillie to save. We breathed a huge collective sigh of relief whilst eagerly keeping in touch with the other scores on the doors.
We huffed and puffed, slogging our way towards potential salvation, no question the players cared and were committed but once again Lady Luck was not on Gillingham’s side because six minutes from the end Rovers scored from nothing. In keeping with the cliché of things not going for you when you’re scrapping about down the bottom, a midfield tussle saw the ball squirt free twenty five yards out into the path of Elliott who took one step and then slammed the ball hard and high into the top right corner. Stillie didn’t even smell it. We were shattered.
The Gills tried to find a second goal, piling forward but to no avail, the spark of inspiration was extinguished by the rain, the muddy strength-sapping pitch and the simple panic-inducing pressure of needing a goal immediately. Subs Mulligan and Griffiths tried but failed to produce something as the seconds ticked down. We urged them forward but without conviction, we knew our chance had gone.
The final whistle brought resignation that relegation was virtually certain, even four points against Swindon and at Leeds would leave us grasping at straws and relying on Cheltenham losing their last two games. Not impossible but if we were really destined to accomplish the “Great Escape” we’d have won one of the last three games we’d taken the lead in rather than taking just two points.
I’m still willing to back Stimson and what he is trying to do in a short space of time on a meagre budget and had we played like this away from home all season we’d already be safe but we haven’t. In the thirteen games the Gills played before Stimson took over they won fourteen points. In the subsequent thirty one games they have taken thirty one points. A virtually identical record. We might have reduced the games conceded per game by 50% but the bottom line is bleak – three wins in twenty games is relegation form and if we lose to Swindon on Saturday that will indeed be all but confirmed.
Nutter’s goal. It caught one of our number mid-piss in the temporary toilet block just behind the terrace, the roar caused our friend who shall remain nameless to dart across from the back wall to the front trough so as to be able to peer through the convenient head-height window at all the palaver whilst continuing to relieve himself… it had been a very convivial pre-match session after all!