Groundhopper Girl: The Time I Went To Priestfield And They Were Selling Gillingham-Themed Christmas Jumpers (4/92: Gillingham)

Gillingham 2 – 3 Chesterfield, 20th December 2014

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Whatever BBC Radio Kent may try to pretend about Charlton’s location, the only Football League team in Kent is Gillingham, and it follows that Gillingham is my closest league club. Somehow I had never made the great trek of 16 miles up there, but with the Angels away and at a loose end on the weekend before Christmas, I decided to go and watch them play Chesterfield. Neither team was doing particularly well – the Gills in particular were only 2 points above the relegation zone and hadn’t kept a clean sheet in 3 months – so I assumed it would be a scrappy game, but the train fare was a bargain £6.95 return and Priestfield looked pretty close to the station, so my curiosity took precedence over my longing to see a classy game. (I don’t get to see many of those at the Longmead.)

The outside of Priestfield.

The outside of Priestfield.

16 miles and £6.95 it may be, but the journey takes an hour and a half including a freezing cold 25 minute wait in UKIP country (Strood). I used this time to search my bag for my glasses, only to find they’d been left at home, so I figured I’d be squinting like a madwoman trying to see the game. Happily when I got to Gillingham the stadium was well signposted and easy to find, and when I wasn’t sure where the ticket office was, some stewards promptly helped me out.

A Gillingham-themed Christmas tree.

A Gillingham-themed Christmas tree.

I’ll be honest: having woken up just 40 minutes before I needed to go out, my disorganisation had spread further than forgetting my specs. I’d also neglected to look up ticket prices. Expecting to pay around £20 for the cheapest seat and get in easily, I was quite surprised to see a queue trailing well out of the indoor ticket office – in my brief experiences with league football matches at Yeovil and Plymouth, I’ve only seen very short queues before the match. However I didn’t mind queuing, because it meant I got to admire the wares of the gift shop, among them Gillingham themed Christmas tree decorations and some snazzy Gillingham/reindeer themed Christmas jumpers.

Gillingham reindeer jumper.

Gillingham reindeer jumper.

After about 10 minutes it was my turn to go up to the ticket window, so I cheekily asked for the cheapest tickets that got me the best pitchside view (stupid missing glasses). It turned out that Christmas had literally come early to Priestfield, because to my delight I was told that tickets cost £10 – i.e. the same cost as a Tonbridge Angels home match – as it was the game before Christmas. I was offered a seat in the lower Medway Stand, three rows up from the pitch so I could see the game clearly. In addition to this, I was also given a Gillingham Christmas card with (photocopied) signatures from the players and staff. The stadium hadn’t looked impressive from the outside but so far I was extremely impressed with their hospitality.

Complimentary Christmas card!

Complimentary Christmas card!

I was into the stadium 5 minutes before kick-off and had the small matter of finding my seat to attend to, which with people rushing to and fro and Santa hat-clad stewards rattling charity donation buckets all around made me surprisingly flustered, and I had to ask several fans where I could find seat 133 in Block F, Row C. They pointed me towards it and I scurried down and then up some steps towards it, pushing past some seated fans. Three minutes to kick-off.

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My timing was immaculate as the moment I’d let Papa Steadman know I arrived harm-free (my brother advised me to wear a stabproof jacket on my foray into the murky depths of north Kent) and taken a few pictures of the ground, the players strode onto the pitch to ‘Club Foot’ by Kasabian and the excitable announcer guy read out the players’ names. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about Gillingham’s squad, I recognised three names from the non-league circuit: substitutes Cody McDonald (formerly of Dartford) and Danny Kedwell (AFC Wimbledon, before they were promoted to the League), and starter Leon Legge, former captain of a little club called Tonbridge Angels. I may have mentioned them on here before.

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The game started slowly, with the most entertainment coming from the managers. The dugout was right next to my block, which meant I could hear every shout of encouragement and rage from each of them. Chesterfield’s manager, Paul Cook, was particularly enthusiastic and partial to swearing, much to the amusement of the home fans.

The managers.

The managers. Paul Cook is the one with the funny blue hat on.

The Gills went one down on 22 minutes when Sam Clucas scored for Chesterfield, and the score remained the same until half time. It was a fair reflection on the gameplay; Gillingham played some good football in midfield but looked completely impotent up front, while Chesterfield wasted a few chances and had one cleared off the line by ex-Angels boy Leon Legge. No sooner had the half time whistle been blown than football song du jour ‘Got No Fans’ by The Wealdstone Raider was blaring out of the speakers, to palpable approval from the fans.

Away fans.

Away fans.

Another text sent to Papa Steadman to let him know that Chesterfield’s lead was deserved and it was time for my first meal of the day. To my horror, the burgers had sold out and all they had left were chicken Balti pies. No chips to dip into the pie either, but they were perfectly serviceable pies that cost £3.30 (I think – memory may be failing now). Half time entertainment was a cheerleading group, pictured here:

Cheerleaders.

Cheerleaders.

The second half opened with Gillingham the stronger side, even stronger when Peter Taylor made a double substitution to bring off the useless front 2 and replace them with Cody McDonald and Jermaine McGlashan. There was no time for them to make an impact before until my boy ‘Leggy’ accidentally turned a cross into his own net on 53 minutes. 0-2, game over? Not yet: the subs had a real partnership and 5 minutes later McDonald came up with a consolation goal. Just 2 minutes later John Egan, a favourite with the fans around me, scored an equaliser. With 20 minutes left on the clock, everyone was on the edge of their seats wondering if the Gills could get a late winner… until Jimmy Ryan put the Spireites back in front. 2-3.

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By now it was fecking freezing and I was looking forward to being on a nice warm train back to Strood. There was one last “ooh!” moment left in store, however: on the absolute last moment of injury time, Cody McDonald found himself with the ball at his feet in front of the goal… and put it wide, to the despair of all around me. Final score 2-3. I hobbled back to the station with frostbite setting into my feet and discovering there was a cafe selling reviving warm chai lattes at Gillingham station, weird taste of banana notwithstanding. Apart from nearly freezing again during the half hour wait at Strood, a good day out.

Gillingham town centre.

Gillingham town centre.

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