1. Steve Bruce (1979-1984)

October 23, 2001

It perhaps says a great deal about the modest history of the Gills that the greatest player to grace the shirt in the last twenty-five years was never even fully capped by his country, but Steve Bruce is still fondly remembered by all the fans who watched the team between 1979 ad 1984. He was a favourite son and the genuine warmth of the reception he received when he returned for a testimonial speaks volumes – he was and still is a Priestfield legend. Last season saw him return as manager of Huddersfield Town and receive a standing ovation from the Gills supporters while the visiting fans just sulked in silence.

Steve Bruce came through the youth team at the Gills and made his debut at the age of eighteen on the opening day of the 1979-80 season. He immediately became a fixture in the side and remained a key member up until his departure at the end of 1983-84. From the very beginning it was obvious that Bruce was a quality player and destined to make it to the top. He was a commanding central defender, fearless, brave, intelligent and blessed with vision and intelligence during an era of, ahem, less sophisticated defending. He became the focus, a linchpin at the back, he had a physical presence which gave you a warm feeling of reassurance in a team not always noted for its defensive solidarity.

Steve also weighed in with a significant number of goals. Often they were towering headers which thundered into the net after he had barrelled his way through the mayhem in the box. I particularly remember his winner against Chesterfield in 80-81, an archetypal goal. However my favourite has to be his thunderous shot at the Rainham End in a famous 4-2 win over Sheffield United in 83-84. He even took (and scored) a few penalties during 83-84 but it was his strength, leadership and all-round defensive abilities that brought the talent scouts flocking to Priestfield.

He might even have left in 1983, rumours abounded but then bad luck struck in early April, and not for the first time. In a tetchy game against promotion-chasing Newport County (yes, that long ago!), Bruce got “involved” with one of their players. In the end he attempted to retaliate with a reckless tackle. Sadly it was Bruce that broke his leg, but it meant he stayed for another year. He returned to the side in September and was soon enjoying a magnificent season in a successful team. He might have notched a couple of comical own goals and seemed willing and able to break his poor old nose at every opportunity but it came as no surprise when in the summer of 1984 he left to go to Norwich City for the princely sum of £135,000 controversially set by a tribunal.

Gills fans closely followed his subsequent career, an own goal against Liverpool on his City debut, a winner against Ipswich to take them to the Milk Cup final, relegation, promotion and a dream move to Manchester United in 1987 where he remained until 1996. As their club captain he lifted plenty of silverware and enjoyed a solid partnership with Gary Pallister. A far cry from his early days at Priestfield but those who saw him play would not hesitate to make him the captain of any team of Gillingham “greats”. If you wanted a defensive header winning, Brucey was your man – every time. Shame about the nose though.

234 apps, 38 goals


2. Robert Taylor (1998-2000)

October 23, 2001

(Warning: Bristol City hat-trick not included)

When I am old and grey, my face as wrinkled as Andy Hessenthaler’s is now, my grandchildren will ask me what I had done with my life.

“Well, not much,” I will answer.  “I didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize.  I didn’t read the entire works of Shakespeare.  I didn’t see the sun rise in Easter Island or the sun set over the Serengeti”

“Did you do nothing exciting then, Grandad?” they will enquire.  “Nothing at all?”

“Oh, there was one thing,” I will smile.

“What? What is it?”

“I did see Bob Taylor play for Gillingham.”

And the amazing thing is he looked so graceless.  Running as though his knees needed to be loosened with a spanner, Bob Taylor forever looked as if he was five pre-seasons’ worth of training behind full fitness.  He had an expression of world-weary ennui permanently contorting his face, like he couldn’t believe he had been cursed with this footballing genius and was blackmailed into giving up his dream job cleaning toilets.  I’ll never forget his last home match against Darlington in the FA Cup.  Sure, his heart already belonged to Joe Royle, but though Bob scored twice in the match, he exerted roughly the same amount of energy that a snail does retreating into its shell.

But when Van Gogh painted Sunflowers, did it matter how he held his paintbrush?  When Bob scored all five goals at Burnley, did we refuse to celebrate madly and drunkenly because he looked so inelegant?

The trouble is, how do I list his strengths without this write-up blasting through the word-limit and taking up BMH of the season?  He could hold up the ball so effectively Godzilla couldn’t have wrestled the ball from him.  No striker since Cascarino was deadlier in the air.  His touch was so deft he could trap a ping-pong ball without denting it.  And only when Halley’s Comet collides with the Sun will this galaxy witness anything more spectacular than Bob Taylor scoring from 25 yards out.  Just as winning promotion to Division One makes the long-term Gill question whether football will provide as intense a thrill again, so watching Bob Taylor left you with the unsettling feeling that no striker will ever be as good again.  Not even Guy Ipoua.

But listen to me!  I already sound like a dusty-brained Grandad stuck in a cosily nostalgic time-warp.  But Bob’s memory turns us all into masters of melodrama.  There will be times, once we’ve sunk back Division 2, when your mind will float back to the autumn of 1999, and Bob’s frightening brilliance will transport you away from Gigg Lane or Boundary Park and into a footballing paradise.  But there will be darker times, too, when his memory won’t lead to recuperative escapism but simply bring the inadequacy of the team into sharper focus.

Show this article to a Man City or Wolves fan, and they’ll sniff dismissively.  But that just deepens our bond with Bob.  Brentford fans clearly acknowledge his ability, but it is only us Gills who know its full extent.  We’re a privileged cult among the disbelievers, evangelical in our conviction of Bob’s greatness.

69 apps, 39 goals

3. Terry Cochrane (1983-1986)

October 23, 2001

My first reaction on hearing Keith Peacock had signed Terry Cochrane was “Blimey, I’ve heard of him!”  An Irish international, he’d once scored against England at Wembley, and I could clearly remember him netting for Middlesbrough with a brilliant overhead kick on Match of the Day.

Cochrane had fallen out with Boro manager Malcolm Allison, who was not even picking him for the reserve team, and arrived at Priestfield unfit and sporting a rather nasty moustache.

He made his debut against Preston in October ’83 and, despite having a quiet game, managed to score a superb goal, launching a shot into the far corner of the net from way out near the Gordon Road touchline.  For the next three years Gills fans had the pleasure of witnessing his sublime skills as he patrolled the wing in highly entertaining fashion.

For Terry Cochrane was one of the last of a dying breed.  An out-and-out winger whose job was to stay out near the touchline, and attack with menace whenever the chance arose.  Not for him the forty-yard chase to tackle back, or tucking inside to help out in midfield.  Cochrane was there for one purpose and one purpose only – to supply the ammunition that would allow the Gills forward line to score the goals.  And for the three seasons Terry Cochrane galloped down the flank, the Gills scored goals in abundance.

Clearly Cochrane loved the game.  He liked nothing better than mercilessly destroying opposition fullbacks – something which he did with alarming regularity.  I can still recall fondly his display against Chelmsford City in the 84-85 FA Cup campaign, when he tormented the non-leaguers’ fullback to such an extent that the poor sod didn’t know whether he was coming or going.  It was almost too cruel, but also utterly compelling viewing.

Cochrane is probably best remembered for his goal against Bristol Rovers just after Christmas ’84 when he lobbed the hapless Pirates keeper from fully 45 yards (although the distance seems to get further as the memory becomes more distant).  However it would be unfair to remember him for this single moment.  Week-in, week-out Terry Cochrane provided us with moments of high drama and skill.  I don’t believe there has been anything in my 29 years of following the club than Terry Cochrane advancing down the wing, ready to tie another hapless defender in knots.  I doubt we’ll ever see his like again.

131 apps, 21 goals

4. Gavin Peacock (1987-1989)

October 23, 2001

At Gillingham, the Keith Peacock / Gavin Peacock combination should have meant as much as the Clough father and son partnership at Forest, but sadly Keith’s sacking came before we had a chance to reap the rewards.

The side was being rebuilt after the playoff defeat and a midfield of Quow, Shipley and Peacock had enormous potential but before we knew it a lack of patience (or common sense and decency) at the top level plunged the club into a crisis form which we took eight years to recover.

Gavin showed commendable attitude during his first season given the way his father was treated, and his ability was clear for all to see with a series of impressive performances topped by a sublime goal – an incandescent 25-yard chip on an otherwise gloomy afternoon at Brentford.

The following campaign was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish and I really hate to think what would have happened had Peacock not been around to hold the side together as best he could. He was head and shoulders above the rest of the team and literally had to take on opponents on his own at times. In fact, he was so much better than the rest of the team around him it was almost embarrassing.

A devout Christian, it was at times like this that his friend and saviour Jesus Christ came to the fore, although He may have been able to help Gavin drive on through shaky circumstances our Lord sadly could not plug the defensive shortcomings of the likes of George Burley and Alan Reeves and we were emphatically relegated. He inspired the team to a late surge (by which time we were on our 6th manager in little over a year), single handedly overcoming promotion-chasing Fulham at Craven Cottage (the last Gills player to score there in the League, in fact) but he deserved better and left for Bournemouth in the summer of 1989.

We should be grateful that he stuck it out to the miserable end. He went on to carve out an impressive career for himself at Newcastle and Chelsea, and quite frankly should not have ever had to prop up a side including the likes of Francis Joseph, Steve Walford and Jerry Williams.

81 apps, 12 goals

5. Andy Hessenthaler (1996-2001)

October 23, 2001

What can you say about Andy Hessenthaler? He still is Gillingham’s Mr. Perpetual Motion. He arrived in the summer of ’96 from Watford for £235,000 to add to the strength of the newly-promoted squad. His qualities are still on show to us all in conjunction with now being player-manager. He combines an almost child-like enthusiasm with boundless energy, passion and commitment. He typified the team built by Pulis, he was the heartbeat, the source of inner strength, a player to be relied upon when the going got really tough.

He does have his flaws, his confrontational style naturally brings him into conflict with opposing players, referees and fans on a regular basis. He also failed to really hit the heights in 97-98 ad his initial goalscoring stats were poor. All that changed in 98-99 where he blossomed into one of the really iconic figures at the Gills. His play upped a level, he began to break forward from midfield into goal-scoring positions and he started to put the chances away.

His three most famous goals sum him up to a tee. First, the only goal against Preston in the playoffs in ’99 which took the Gills to Wembley. He charged through onto an inviting ball to slam it joyfully into the net. It combined speed, opportunism and coolness. His second, a swinging long-distance goal at The Den towards the end of 99-00 was not typical but the philosophy of total determination and the will to win was. Likewise his last-minute bolt from the blue at Stoke when all looked lost in the 99-00 playoffs. It was an incredible moment where the irresistible drive of one passionate player dragged the Gills back from the brink.

Sadly his adventure in Division One was cut short at Bournemouth last season but it did give him the chance to concentrate on learning the managerial skills he will undoubtedly need now the Gills finding themselves battling against all odds in a division of wealthier teams. You get the feeling though that Hess wouldn’t have it any other way. Perhaps not the most eloquent of men, he lets his bone-crunching tackles, enthusiasm and guile speak volumes on the pitch. A true modern-day giant.

232 apps, 23 goals

6. Paul Smith (1998-2001)

October 23, 2001

Where there is discord, he brings harmony. Where there is despair, he brings hope. Where there is a rampaging striker bearing down on Vince Bartram, he brings a goal-saving challenge. Paul Smith can tackle with the precision of laser eye surgery, threading his legs through the busiest of midfield scraps. On form, he bosses matches with a wide-elbowed swagger, his snaky dummies and turns bypassing clay-footed opponents. It seems incongruous now that he faded from the climax of our promotion season, but how gloriously he bounced back to breeze through our (and his) first-ever season in Division One. Would be a Premiership player if his shooting matched the other aspects of his game.

218 apps, 16 goals

7. Tony Cascarino (1981-1987)

October 23, 2001

No matter how fondly we recall Cascarino from his days at Priestfield, the down-turn in his career after he left Millwall and the harsh public ridicule he was often subjected to at higher-profile clubs meant even many Gills fans regard him as a bit of a clumsy oaf who somehow went through a purple patch in his time with us. Well, anyone who has read his brilliant book (and that should be all of you) will have fallen in love with him all over again.

And some purple patch – he was one of the most consistent goalscorers in the club’s history – 110 goals in 269 league and cup appearances and his towering strength in the air contributing to many others. The book gives an insight into the gangly burger-munching beer monster that first ambled onto the Priestfield turf in front of the Match of the Day cameras, but he started scoring almost at once and only injury prevented him being the leading goalscorer in each of his five full seasons. He went out with a bang, scoring five times in the playoff against Sunderland and all who witnessed the era will have their favourite moments, such as the winner against Bolton to secure the playoff spot; a hat-trick of headers against Darlington, the fifth in the comeback against Brentford or being sent off for trying to throttle Phil Neal at Bolton. His goals were often little-remembered but crucial in low-key fixtures – one of my favourites came when he brokek through, rounded the keeper and slotted home in one of my early away games, a 1-0 win on a Tuesday night at Fellows Park which kept the promotion dream alive for another few days. By the 86-87 season he had matured into an accomplished all-round striker (and still our most capped international) and it was clear that once we failed to go up we would be hard pushed to hold on to him. Not bad for an unfit player wracked with self-doubt. And no need to mention a set of tracksuits or Neville Southall – Cas is a Gills legend.

269 apps, 110 goals