Eddie Allcorn takes a look back at some of Gills best bargains...
Everyone loves a bargain, especially on Black Friday, (if you’re after that must have Gills alarm clock, beach towel or mouse mat then no pushing at the back please!), but football fans also are quite partial to bargain signings that then flourish at Priestfield too. By definition not all free-transfers or modest fees produce great results, but amongst the rejects bound for life in the Ryman League you get the occasional diamond. The following five bargains are my personal favourites, I’m sure you’ll have your own.
Number 5 is Leo Fortune-West (75 appearances, 22 goals).
The striker arrived in the summer of 1995, the Paul Scally era had begun and manager Tony Pulis set about rebuilding the squad almost from scratch post-administration. He didn’t have a huge budget but spent the £5,000 raised by the Gills Supporters Club wisely on a striker from non-League Stevenage Borough. The softly spoken 24 year old gave up his sociology studies at Greenwich University to chase the dream of League glory. He was an instant hit with his no-nonsense physical style, sharp elbows, power, passion and bravery. In the heady opening weeks of that amazing season in what is now League Two he caused havoc.
He fitted in perfectly with the ethos of a team that were willing to battle their way to promotion, he scored the winner on the opening day against Wigan and never looked back. “Say Boom Boom, let me hear you say Leo!” became his song as the Gills got promoted. Arguably his best goal was at home to Hitchin in the FA Cup but he scored vital goals against Fulham, Orient and Northampton before ending the season with the only goal in front of 10,421 at home to Scarborough. He was usurped by better players in 96-97-98 but remained a cult hero with the fans before he finally embarked on a decade long lower division odyssey starting at Lincoln.
Number 4 is Deon Burton (43 appearances 13 goals).
The 35 year old well travelled veteran striker arrived at the Gills on a free transfer from Azerbaijan side Gabala FK in the summer of 2012. Martin Allen was assembling what turned out to be a first Championship winning side for 49 years. Having once cost Derby County £1 million from Portsmouth in 1997 his pedigree was good, but after two years in the Caucasus fans were cautious. They were needn’t have worried because his class was evident from early on and he scored crucial goals at vital times to become a firm crowd favourite.
His most memorable afternoon came at the New York Stadium Rotherham (one of his ex-clubs) and upset Steve Evans (always to be encouraged!). His two sharp goals brought a fabulous 2-1 win in difficult circumstances. He also scored the winner against the Millers at Priestfield with the team on the cusp of promotion and the opening goal in the title clinching 2-2 with Wimbledon. He then left to go to Scunthorpe to be nearer his home.
Number 3 is Andy Thomson (66 appearances 23 goals).
Gills fans of a certain age still mark “St Thommo Day” every 28th of May to remember the moment he guided a perfect header beyond the Wigan keeper in the 118th minute of the 99-2000 Play-off Final to make it 3-2 at Wembley. Arguably the best moment in our entire history. Not bad for an unassuming chap from Motherwell who having banged in goals for fun at Queen of the South tried his luck south of the border at Southend and then Oxford.
He arrived at the Gills in the summer of 1999 for the princely sum of £25,000. He was never a star like Taylor or Asaba but with the former injured and the later sold half way through the campaign he played a pivotal role is some of the games of the best season is our history. He scored on his debut at Bury, but really caught the eye in the FA Cup run with goals against Cheltenham, Walsall, Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday. Then came “that” goal at Wembley. He also featured in our first season in the Championship including the winning goal in our first away win at that level at Sheffield United. He then left for QPR on a free before returning to Scotland.
Number 2 is Terry Cochrane (131 appearances, 21 goals).
Terry Cochrane was a throwback to an earlier era, he wasn’t very fast, he couldn’t head the ball, wasn’t fond of a tackle and played with his socks rolled down and yet he was undoubtedly an absolute Gillingham legend. His wing play was beguiling, his trickery and imagination quite extraordinary and the mischievous twinkle in his eye revealed his true purpose, namely to humiliate and destroy the fullback with deft skill, a shrug of the shoulders and an inviting cross into the box. From miming at the officials to sitting on the ball he was an incredible “character”!
He arrived in October 1983 (aged 30) initially on loan before getting a free transfer from Middlesbrough, a real live Northern Ireland international star! He immediately became a firm fan favourite with his style, humour and undoubted ability, for nearly three years he wreaked havoc in Division Three under Keith Peacock’s tutelage. His escapades off the pitch were legendary too in an era before mobile phone cameras. His finest moments? Well his debut at home to Preston was sensational, his wing wizardry fantastic, but his most notable moment occurred against Bristol Rovers during Christmas 1984, his 45 yard lob to beat the keeper brought the house down. He exited stage left for Dallas in the summer of 1986.
Number 1 is Tony Cascarino (269 appearances, 110 goals).
Tony Cascarino, arguably Gillingham’s most famous alumni is known for two things, one being a “not very Irish” international star and secondly his transfer from Crockenhill to the Gills for “twelve tracksuits”. Having been a hairdresser before turning professional and ending up with a stint in French football, Cascarino’s story was never ordinary and his autobiography “Full Time the secret life of Tony Cascarino” is worth a browse… The transfer in 1981 was actually a donation of kit and equipment.
Well with his New Romantic haircut and gangly teenage build Cascarino (19) was initially a raw talent but he matured under Peacock into one of the all time great Gillingham players. His ability in the air was incredible and the team played to his strengths. Curiously he is most famous for missing in a one-on-one with Neville Southall in the famous Everton trilogy in 1984 but I will never forget his impact in the 1987 play-off semi-final with Sunderland. In the first leg at Priestfield he scored a sensational messy second half hat-trick at the Rainham End and in the return at Roker Park he added two more in the greatest Gills game I have ever witnessed.
He then ended up going to Millwall for £225,000 before enjoying a superb career in the higher echelons of the game. World Cups, goals against England and a cult figure at Marseille. Not bad for a gawky lad from St Paul’s Cray!