BMH - The Early Years - Part 15

Andy Ford pens number 15 of his fanzine based series.

Originally scheduled to have a home league derby against Maidstone United on Boxing Day 1992, the resignation from the league, at the beginning of the campaign, through financial meltdown of our main rivals, left the Gills with a gap in their fixture calendar on a prestigious day, attendances-wise.

It was filled by Bury, also without a game on the day after Christmas (with Maidstone still in existence, there would have been a twenty-three team division in 92-3, meaning one club missed out in each set of matches, with the Shakers the outfit originally left with a blank Boxing Day), who agreed to bring forward their visit from the last Saturday of January. Bury duly won 4-1 at Priestfield, with consolation for the home support provided by the launch, that afternoon, of BMH31.

The edition included the most statistically-obsessed of the fanzine team looking back at the first thirty issues, with total sales in the region of 25,000 and the average cost and page count 65.3p for 44.3 pages. The smallest issue had been 20 pages, with the biggest weighing in at one hundred and four. Cover colours had included twelve dark blue, five light blue and four yellow, whilst pictures of Rolf Harris had numbered twelve irrelevant and one relevant (the later-disgraced entertainer was pictured with one of the fanzine team). There had been sixty-eight BMH XIs, of which seventeen were critical, including Worst XI and Ugly XI, and forty-two just plain weird, with this category featuring the Facial Hair XI and the Food and Drink XI.

The article ‘The peculiar allure of Halifax’ covered our away match against the Yorkshire side in October 1992, ‘The game at the Shay offered the unique opportunity to witness a Gillingham side beneath every professional team in England and Wales. There was a serious element to the day’s events, it was time to terminate our brief stint as the worst club in the land. But before we become dispirited with the gravity of our condition, some levity was imperative and we hoped that the pre-match tour of Halifax would provide many perplexing attractions.

There can be no denying that this is a beautiful town, decorated with the type of scenery to induce streams of extravagantly romantic poetry from starry-eyed Victorian lovers.’ As usual, the Piece Hall market didn’t disappoint, with the writer enthralled with one particular record shop and making a mental note to raid his piggy bank, prior to a future visit, ‘in order to fund the purchase of every available Smiths 12”, carefully housed under ‘S’ in the extensive new-wave section. Visit this place now, if you require your faith to be restored in the bliss which used to be pop music, and turn Top of the Pops off on your way out.’ A simply stunning bookshop was discovered, crammed from the ceiling to creaking floor with secondhand books of all shapes and sizes.

The writer discovered, between a 1959 ‘Boys Own Annual’ and the 1937 edition of the Highway Code, what he described as a true gem, a ‘Noel Edmonds Swap Shop annual, rather faded and chewed on every other page, but worth the asking price of 50p. A quick flick through and I was nearly forced to buy it, if only for the photo of Maggie Philbin on page 27, but I am now a thrifty student who must fight sentiment and nostalgia.’

What tended to decimate otherwise idyllic days out such as these was the football itself, the reason for going in the first place, ‘Up to 3.01 it had been a jolly nice day, thoroughly enjoyable and strangely exhilarating. Unfortunately, we had a match to spoil everything and, with a minute gone, the Gills were in a losing situation. Now, I am an eager fan of [goalkeeper] Harvey Lim and his fits of peculiar insanity have always thrilled me. But there are times when he falls down the trapdoor marked ‘Stupidity’, notably at Cardiff, Burnley and Scarborough, where such Pythonesque histrionics have cost us goals.

Let’s add Halifax to that list. Poor Harvey sliced a backpass directly to an enraptured Mick Matthews, who chipped his team, quite magnificently, into an early lead. Oh dear, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes, bottom of the league and 1-0 down to Halifax, was this the nadir of my experiences as a Gills fan?’ Once a second goal had been conceded, after half time, Gillingham’s performance downgraded to ‘passive, limp and infuriatingly gutless’. We lost 2-0 and remained bottom.

The cover of BMH31 had celebrated the club climbing off the foot of the table following a draw at Lincoln on the last Saturday of November. The editorial of BMH32, sold for the first time at the home match against Scarborough on Saturday 13 February 1993, started, ‘Although I am writing this two weeks before this issue is launched, I can safely say that, when this fanzine first appears, Gills will still be bottom of the Football League. This illustrates the desperate situation that we find ourselves in at the foot of division three.’ It ended with, ‘The remainder of this season is going to need every bit of fight from the side and loads of support (such as that at the Bescot Stadium) from the fans if we are going to avoid the Conference. If we do go down, I think Gillingham FC will fold within two years as I can’t see us winning the Conference and regaining our league place. The rest of this season really is “life or death”. Hopefully, we have got the bottle for the challenge to get out of trouble. The future of Gillingham Football Club depends on it.’

The fantastic vocal contribution from our fans at the game on 16 January at the Bescot had been commended by the home club, with a newspaper cutting printed in BMH31, including, ‘Walsall club officials and the local media were amazed at the volume of support, bearing in mind Gillingham’s league position. It was easily the most vociferous backing given to the team at any league game this season.’ It was one of four games in a short spell mentioned on the cover of BMH32, under the heading ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ with the Gills having conceded late, decisive goals in each. 

In the home Autoglass Trophy tie against Fulham, Mark O’Connor’s free kick put us 3-1 up with ten minutes left and the visiting goalkeeper was sent off for disputing the goal’s validity, leaving the Cottagers two goals adrift and with an outfield player between the sticks. With two minutes remaining, the London side halved the arrears and, with the last kick of the game, home defender Paul Hague sliced the ball into his own net for 3-3. At Shrewsbury, Carl Griffiths dived to win his side an eighty-eighth minute penalty, which he duly converted, condemning us to a 2-1 defeat whilst, at Scunthorpe, despite taking an eighty-ninth minute lead, we then conceded a penalty that cancelled our advantage out. At the Bescot, Neil Smith looked to have given us all three points, only for the Saddlers to level at 1-1 in the last minute.

The BMH Guide to Division Three continued previewing upcoming away fixtures with a combination of fact and fiction. Wrexham was, apparently, ‘famous for the strange quality of its air and difference in gravity to down south. This explains why Harvey kept dropping the ball during last year’s game.’ The guide also featured irrelevant information as far as football, let alone upcoming away matches, was concerned. Professor Tarquin Zoological-Garden’s ‘World of the Strange’ featured, ‘Donald Abrahams of Greensburg, Illinois announced to the world on 12 May 1987 that he would attempt to levitate himself across the Niagara Falls the following week. Sadly, on his way to the coach station, he was knocked down by a dustcart and killed. Although readers may scoff at his claimed abilities, which were never put to the test, it took the efforts of five mourners at the cemetery to hold his coffin down in the grave long enough to bury it.’

BMH new recruit Danny’s enthusiasm was waning, his inexplicable optimism during formative jaunts to watch Gillingham away having been finally smothered by a hefty dose of realism. Studying at Northampton University at the time, his trip to watch the Gills at the County Ground on Saturday 6 February 1993 merely involved a local bus ride. Danny wrote about the match, yet another with a desperately disappointing climax, in BMH33, ‘My tremulous nerves were so turbulently tossed and turned today that another seventeen games of similar distress might send them spinning madly over the cliff’s edge.

I feel like I have just sat an exam and have to wait three months for the results. Give me an ‘A’ now and let’s be over with it.’ Having trailed 1-0, by half time the Gills led 2-1, ‘I confronted the second half with my spirits still-a-bubbling. At this point, I was oblivious to the encroaching anxiety which would overcome me in the end. I always bite my jumper in times of unbearable pressure. I lost four cardigans during my A-Levels. By 4.45, my brand-new sweater was a ragged shadow of its former spruce self. Never trust the Gills to defend a brittle lead. The second half lasted three and a half years.’ With the game into its last minute, ‘inevitably, the unimaginable happened. Mickey Bell equalised and everything went black, I was numbed. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. My body crumpled to the floor and my head fell into my hands. All my hope simply vanished, I finally picked myself up and wandered, zombie-like, down to the front. But there was nowhere to hide. Anger eventually conquered gormless despair and I dented a barrier with my Doc Martens.’ We drew 2-2.

Included with issue 31 had been an additional four-page bumper Christmas trivia quiz, with prizes for a selection of winners, basically consisting of freebies that had been received and were cluttering up the office. There were seventy-five questions, some specifically on the Gills, others on football in general and a selection unconnected to the sport. BMH33 printed the answers and the percentage that had got each question correct; 61% knew that the nearest ground, geographically speaking, to Priestfield, was Southend’s Roots Hall, ‘provided you had a boat’, with the same percentage correctly naming John le Mesurier as the actor who played Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army. There was also a tie-break essay question, a choice of one out of four, with a Canterbury reader, who didn’t feature amongst the winners of the quiz, being awarded a well-worn copy of a Bay City Rollers album for his eloquent response to the question, ‘If God is omni-present, and Ron Hillyard is God, how come he got the sack?’

The third in a trio of away matches in eight days was a 1-1 Tuesday night draw at York in early March. The home press were not impressed with our approach to the game, reports mentioning our nine-man defence and ultra defensive tactics that made the contest ‘painful to watch and frustrating for City supporters.’ Other results that night sent Gillingham back to the foot of the table and the evening got worse just after 10pm when our coach lost power. It couldn’t continue, but the Travel Club coach came to our rescue. As it was half-empty, thirty of us were able to transfer on to it, with the remainder left behind, hoping to be picked up by the Players’ coach. ‘We arrived home at 2.15.

The waifs and strays got back at around 2.30, but only just. Apparently, the story goes that [manager] Glenn Roeder didn’t like the idea of having the supporters on the coach at all. He wanted to leave them behind and wait for rescue perhaps the following afternoon. The people involved were amongst the oldest, least lively and most respectable people that travel away and it seems a bit off, to say the least, that Glenn, who supposedly values our support so much, couldn’t find it in his heart to welcome them aboard.’ After much pleading, he then suggested only taking the women, before finally agreeing to take them all, ‘One fan still had to sit on the floor for the rest of the way home. I’m glad Glenn saw some sense because it would have been a public relations cock-up if he hadn’t. We were supporting his team, many had taken two days off work to do so, hadn’t seen Gills win away for a year and the team was bottom of the league.’

The Gills’ destiny was still uncertain when BMH33 went to print, many believing it would only be decided on the final day at Torquay. On the back page was, ‘Lovers of naff British sci-fi films of the fifties and sixties will recall the scene in the film ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’, at the offices of the Daily Express, where, waiting for the detonation of the corrective bombs, they have prepared two different front pages for the following day’s paper. One assumes the plan will work and reads ‘World Saved’, while the other is in case it does not and that the Earth will continue spiralling towards the Sun, and reads ‘World Doomed’. Here at BMH, inspired by this and not wishing to be seen to be unprepared for all possible eventualities, have prepared two possible back pages for Sunday 9 May, the day after Gills’ final game. Choose your scenario’. ‘Gills Saved!’ told of the club avoiding relegation thanks to an injury-time 40-yard volley from stand-in striker Tony Butler, giving us a 1-0 win , whilst ‘Gills Are Doomed!’ related a 1-0 defeat at Plainmoor, with the club relegated after Tony Butler’s last-minute back pass found the roof of his own net. Fortunately, for the sake of the fans’ nerves, the Torquay game was meaningless, Gillingham having safeguarded their league status thanks to victory over Halifax the previous weekend.