Gillingham went on a breakneck journey in the late 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in three upper mid-table finishes in what is now the Championship, from 2000-2003. However, had a game on the first day of May in 1993 not gone their way, it could all have been very different for the Gills. Tom Simmonds looks back six months away from its 25th anniversary.
The early 90s were a grind for Gillingham FC. Relegation to the bottom tier in 1989 after being a fixture in the Third Division since 1974 ushered in an era which, while it would eventually see the turning point in the Kent club’s fortunes, was a miserable time for Gills followers. Three nondescript mid-table finishes with club legend Damien Richardson in the manager’s seat followed in the next three seasons. The club went into the 1992-93 season looking as if they would again be the byword for uninspiring solidity. David Crown, their 24-goal top scorer in 1991-92 had been retained and the squad, on paper, did not look like one which would be threatened with relegation to the Conference.
In their defensive ranks was a young Gary Breen, who was plucked from the wreckage of bankrupt Maidstone, along with Liburd Henry. Breen, who would go on to make several Premier League appearances, win 63 caps for the Republic of Ireland and play in the 2002 World Cup, was joined by Tony Butler, who was a part of Gary Megson’s West Brom side who won promotion to the Premier League in 2001-02. Midfielder Neil Smith was one of the first recruits to Fulham after Mohamed Al-Fayed became chairman and his midfield partner Richard Carpenter went on to play a big role in the early part of Brighton’s rise through the leagues.
The man who gave Gills fans the most excitement that season, until he joined Brentford in 1994, was pacey young striker Nicky Forster, who emerged from the youth ranks to quickly catch the eye of clubs higher up the league. Crown also averaged not far off a goal every two games throughout his time at Priestfield — better than that at his previous club, Southend.
As we can see from their personnel, this was a team not without merit or quality but there was a malaise at the club which seemed to seep into the consciousness of the players. The sale of Peter Beadle to Spurs, the departure of centre-back Alan Walker to Mansfield, player fatigue at hearing Richardson’s voice after three seasons of getting by, fan apathy caused by the club’s fall or the seven-figure debt which hung over the club were all factors in 1992-93 being a nightmare for Gillingham that they barely survived.
Richardson went with a change of goalkeeper early in the season, bringing in Scott Barrett from Colchester to be his number one ahead of Harvey Lim, though Lim would see action eight times on account of Barrett being sent off three times in the season. Barrett’s first sending off was, amusingly, during Gillingham’s first win of the season, a 4-1 home win over Wrexham in which club legend Steve Lovell plundered a hat-trick. They were to be the last of Lovell’s 94 goals for the club before he dropped into non-league via a loan spell at Bournemouth.
That win on the first day of September was the lone oasis in the first three months of the season. Gillingham were bottom of the Football League at the end of October, having lost eight times, including a run of six straight defeats from mid-September until the end of October. A 0-0 draw at Priestfield with Premier League Southampton in the League Cup also provided some relief, though the Saints easily won the second leg 3-0 at The Dell. That game was to be Richardson’s last as manager, ending the Irishman’s 20-year association with the club. Former QPR and Newcastle midfielder, Glenn Roeder was given the task of saving the Gills, appointed as player-manager after a 2-0 defeat away at Halifax, with whom destiny would pair Gillingham later, in late October.
Roeder’s first win came in his second game, a 3-1 win over Hereford at home, after he had made swingeing changes to the side that had lost 2-0 to Torquay in his first game in charge. Forster’s brace against Hereford announced him as one of the Gills’ heavier weapons in their relegation fight.
Things did not get obviously better for Gillingham in Roeder’s early days; the Hereford win was followed by a narrow loss at Carlisle and a 3-1 home win over Darlington, but December was winless. The lowlight of that month was a 4-1 Boxing Day thumping by Bury at Priestfield, leaving the Gills rooted to the bottom with seemingly nowhere to go.
The next agent of change came to Kent in the January, as attacking midfielder Paul Baker was signed from a brief sojourn at Motherwell. The Geordie made a scoring debut in a 4-2 home win over Rochdale, a result which finally seemed to usher in some consistency of sorts as they only lost one of the next five (to promoted Cardiff) though conceding a last-minute equaliser away to relegation rivals Northampton ensured they started February at the foot of the table. Gillingham’s away form was particularly problematic — they didn’t win away in the league all season and heaped extra pressure onto their home games.
A 3-1 home win over Scarborough the week after the Northampton game pushed Torquay below them and, once they sat second bottom, hard-won points were seemingly scrapped for with extra vigour. A last-minute Crown equaliser ensured Doncaster did not leave Priestfield with three points in late February, a period when they also picked up away points at Chesterfield and York, before a 1-0 win over Carlisle secured by Smith’s neat finish pushed them to 19th. Another two home wins, against Lincoln and Shrewsbury, plus hard won away points at Darlington and Scunthorpe gave them enough momentum to ensure their destiny was in their own hands by the time Halifax Town pitched up on the penultimate Saturday of the season.
In mid-January, it looked highly unlikely Halifax would find themselves in the position of being involved in a winner-secures-survival battle on May the 1st. Torqauay and Northampton were both still in the mix as well, though given Gillingham’s away form, the home side felt they needed to get it done against the Shaymen.
Halifax sat 17th after a 3-0 win over Darlington on January 9th and looked relatively secure. They could boast future Preston stalwart Chris Lucketti in their backline and had benefitted from the experience of former Liverpool hardman Jimmy Case in their midfield for two thirds of the season, before he left for Wrexham.
However, that win over Darlington was as good as it got for a while, as Town went on an abysmal run, including two streaks of losing four in a row and winning only three more times all season. They travelled to Gillingham on the back of a 4-0 battering at home by Walsall. The game was do or die for Halifax and, if they did, it would suck Gillingham back into the swamp.
7,151 people packed into Priestfield in nervous anticipation. The first two chances went to Halifax, as Barrett tipped a Kevin Megson free kick over the bar and then produced an acrobatic save to push Jamie Patterson’s angled volley wide. A Forster header hit the post for the home side, but the deadlock was still intact at half time.
It took four minutes of the second half for Gillingham to break it. Tony Eeles, who did not really feature in the first team until March, took a touch on the edge of the area before curling a left-foot shot in off the underside of the bar. Barrett made another fine save from Lucketti, tipping his header onto the post, before Baker wrapped things up by bending a 25 yarder into the top left corner to provoke scenes of unbridled joy in the Rainham End and beyond.
Gillingham were safe and Halifax, while still mathematically not out of it, were staring down the barrel. They needed to beat Hereford and hope either Gillingham or Shrewsbury did them a favour against Torquay and Northampton. None of those scenarios materialised. Town went down 1-0 at home to Hereford, while Torquay and Northampton both won to condemn Halifax to what looked like a very bleak future, with the existence of the club being questioned by no less than their chairman Jim Brown.
The uptick in Gillingham’s fortunes took a while to materialise. Roeder left in the close season to manage Watford, a big promotion, which led to Mike Flanagan being installed as manager for 1993-94. A 16th placed finish was an improvement, but the club going into administration in January 1995 was the real watershed moment. Their white knight emerged in the shape of photocopier magnate Paul Scally, who symbolically bought the club for a pound at the last minute.
It was the Scally-era which saw the rise in fortunes though, crucially, it may never have happened had the result of that game in May 1993 gone against Gillingham. He brought in Tony Pulis as manager, and he led the Gills to promotion in 1995-96 on the back of 29 clean sheets and the goals of Leo Fortune-West and Dennis Bailey.
The next four seasons saw continuous improvement, with two play-off finishes in the third tier, both culminating in final appearances. They lost to Manchester City on penalties in that famous final in 1999, but prevailed against Wigan a year later to earn their shot at the second tier.
What is also notable about Gillingham sides of that period is the number of fabulous strikers their fans saw in their colours. From Bailey (who once scored a hat trick for QPR at Old Trafford) to Ade Akinbiyi, the partnership of Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor to the disgraced Marlon King, deciding who to put up front in an all-time Gills XI is a permanent headache for supporters — especially those who remember Richardson, Lovell and Tony Cascarino donning the blue shirt.
However, most would, I’m sure, find an honorary place for Tony Eeles and Paul Baker in any team of this type given their role in ensuring Gillingham still had a professional football club when crunch time came.
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