Tuesday 9th December 2008 FAC2R. Stockport County 1 Gills 2.
On the face of it this trip to Greater Manchester was “futile” – we had only beaten a higher division club away from home in the FA Cup once since the First World War – Bristol City (2-1) in 1946-47 when we were on our brief sojourn in the Southern League! Our previous away game had seen a wretched 4-0 thumping at Bury and with the team having perhaps missed their big chance having dominated the first half of the game at Priestfield any hope appeared to evaporate with the Cup draw – at home to Aston Villa… well County were bound to be up for that weren’t they… no resting of players or complacency when a date with the team of the moment not to mention a live appearance on ITV was up for grabs…
Still we left Canterbury with a modicum of hope, otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered with such a slog up north on a Tuesday night in December, but the consensus was that we were all quite “utterly mad” for even contemplating the trip. Mention must go to Big Lee who was suffering badly from the flu-like bug that was decimating East Kent pre-Christmas but still jumped aboard the Gemma-express for Edgeley Park.
The trip north was pretty smooth except for hitting the start of the Manchester rush-hour, the pre-match drink saw Lee fall asleep sitting bolt upright in his seat, pint of soft drink untouched on the table, as the adjacent locals confidently chatted about their chances albeit aware that their home record was decidedly patchy compared with their away one. You’d think the lure of Aston Villa coming to town in the next round would have tempted the locals out in force, you could understand only 149 Gills fans heading north at short notice on a seemingly suicidal mission, but the inhabitants of Stockport couldn’t be tempted, perhaps it was the freezing cold, perhaps we aren’t the most glamorous of opposition, perhaps the moderately reduced prices were still too high and people were choosing to spend their pre-Christmas dosh on presents, grub and booze, perhaps the FA Cup has lost some of it’s lustre but it did mean with only just over 3,000 home fans in the stands (half their usual average) the atmosphere was less than hostile.
Well what happened next was potentially very significant indeed. No, not the win, not the getting through to play Aston Villa and pocket £260,000 plus of unexpected income, but purely and simply the performance was outstanding. Every player contributed to a superb team display, undoubtedly the best of the season, the best of 2008 and a terrific confidence boost to a team including several young players and those a little older still keen to grab a second chance of League football having dropped into the non-league soup. I think the most telling revelation was the style of play, confident yes, committed, yup, but we kept the ball, on the ground, we monopolized possession, when we had it we were calm, unhurried to reduce any panicky errors but pacy on the break, when they had it we look organised, defended as a unit and with both bravery and tenacity from front to back. The plaudits went to Barcham but so too Miller who having been on the receiving end from the noisy ignorant minority of mong-like boo-boys and girls at Priestfield received excellent support from the away fans who perhaps are more likely to back their players, foibles and all, especially on a Tuesday night far from home.
The display was pretty relentless, post-match the Stockport management were honest and gracious enough to admit the better side had won on the night rather than hide behind the usual sour grapes, we could and should have won by three of four but missed chances, a theme that would dominate the game and our thoughts after we’d gifted County the lead with a little help from the officials… So we began brightly, Barcham saw his first chance saved, Jackson flashed his first across the face of the goal, we could sense the Gills were up for it, but after 17 minutes County rather stole the lead. King was left poleaxed in midfield after a messy clash, he was clearly fouled (hint of elbow?) and received a head injury, the linesman prevaricated, the referee casually waved play on as the distracted Gills defence momentarily hesitated, County made the most of the man over and the space left by the prostrate King, Gleeson took advantage as the defence backed off and beat Royce at his near post with a low shot that the Gills keeper would have not been happy about. We’d seen this happen before, after a bright start give away a soft goal, Shrewsbury sprang to mind, but the perceived injustice served only to fire up the Gillingham players and within another 17 minutes we were rather unbelievably in the lead…
Barcham scored the all-important equaliser in the 25th minute, a King long ball from a free kick on the halfway line was headed down by Bentley into the County box to Jackson, with his back to goal he tried to turn but the ball bobbled away from him into the path of Barcham who confidently fired the ball into the corner of the net despite the close attention of several County defenders. We were still jubilantly texting mates when Barcham did it again (34), although this time it was one of the team goals of the season with a brilliant counter attack slicing right through the heart of County. It began with a Stockport cross into the box, it was headed clear decisively and then turned smartly into the path of Miller who ran and ran and ran from midway in our half deep into County territory before, with home defenders converging rapidly, slipping a clever diagonal ball left into the path of Barcham who took it on before cleverly guiding it back across the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Cue bedlam in the away end, well as mad as you can go in a sparse uncovered terrace converted to seats…
Suddenly we felt the Gills really could do it, it just felt like destiny, with County out of sorts and the home fans grumbling we cheered them on in search of a killer third which should have come three minutes before the break but having done the hard part out-muscling and then eluding two big defenders Jackson found his angle too tight and fired straight at the keeper. The half-time Bovril tasted great on an increasingly chilly evening despite the long queue. Would we be able to sustain the performance for the second period? Well thankfully the answer was a resounding yes! With the Gills leading the game opened up as Stockport pushed for an equaliser which enabled us to hit them repeatedly on the break with some slick and imaginative moves. It was pretty exciting stuff really, with County huffing and puffing and causing occasional moments of total panic in the away end but in reality Royce, King et al looked solid and determined although Royce did have to come off his line pretty smartish to smother one effort. At our end the chances continued to come and go, one low Jackson cross was sliced across the face of his own goal by a defender and then even more tantalizingly Jackson blocked a goal bound effort six yards out, Weston smashed the ball through a ruck of players, it would have screamed into the net after a awesome move but for the blameless Jackson who did his best to take avoiding action leaping out of the way but the ball caught the heel of his trailing leg and went wide. Fuck, fuck, fuck-ety fuck. That would have been game over, we could have relaxed and cruised into round three but having muffed one too many golden opportunities to clinch a famous win we had to endure the inevitable late rally from County.
In reality they didn’t create much in the way of genuine chances but every time the ball was lobbed in the general direction of our penalty area we collectively had kittens. Mullins headed over with the goal at his mercy, Nutter dived in to block one shot and in the last minute Royce had to be alert and block and then cling onto a dangerous loose ball, but he did and the final whistle brought euphoric scenes as the players came over to salute the delirious away fans. We couldn’t quite believe it, arguably our most enjoyable win away in the Cup since the extra-time drama at Fulham back in 94-95 which earned us a visit from Sheffield Wednesday.
We’d deserved to win despite the sporadic alarms, some of the counter-attacking play had been sublime and throughout defensively everybody had harried and chased and closed down and flung themselves in the way of any danger. To win and earn a visit from The Villa was one thing, to “click” as a team something else with potentially very significant ramifications of a positive sort for the rest of the campaign… Having negotiated some gobby local urchins the car trip back was understandably buoyant, at long, long last something rather wonderful had happened to our slightly battered and beleaguered football club… splendid stuff.
Champagne Moment:- The final whistle, having missed so many chances to put the result beyond doubt and having had to repel a late flurry of pressure, clinching that date with Villa was fantastic.
The Elated Binman.