BMH - The Early Years - Part 16

BMH34, the first of eight editions published during 1993-94, was launched at the 2-0 home defeat against Chesterfield on Saturday 14 August, the first day of the season.

Gillingham had a new manager, Mike Flanagan, and the issue extensively covered the manner of the departure from the club of his predecessor, Glenn Roeder. During the summer, Ossie Ardiles had left his job as West Bromwich Albion boss to take over at Tottenham (incidentally, Ardiles’ successor at the Hawthorns was Keith Burkinshaw, who had been in charge of the Gills for the majority of the 1988-89 relegation season).

Ardiles duly lured Steve Perryman away from Watford to be his assistant and, on 9 July, Roeder walked out on Gillingham to become Perryman’s replacement as boss at Vicarage Road.

The Headitorial in the fifty-six page BMH34 covered the above chain of events and continued with, ‘I’ve had time to sit and ruminate on the whole saga since then and, while I have perhaps come to accept what happened, I still find myself deeply upset that Roeder chose to do what he did, and furious with the way he chose to do it.’

There had been rumours circulating that Glenn had cleared his desk even before informing Chairman Bernard Baker of his decision to quit, ‘I think that is a distinctly underhand and downright nasty way for a so-called professional to conduct himself, not to mention being cowardly in the extreme. Was it really that long ago that hundreds of fans stood in front of the Main Stand and chanted his name? Did this not have an effect on him? Has the man no feelings at all?

Maybe not, which leaves plenty of space for other attributes, because he clearly has no principles either.’ Watford chairman Jack Petchey also came under attack from the fanzine, ‘There he is, one day, bleating to our Chairman about how terrible it is that a bigger club had poached their manager yet, within days, his club does the self-same thing to us. What a complete and utter hypocrite.’ The Headitorial ended with approval for Roeder’s successor, ‘

The decision to appoint Mike Flanagan in his place was absolutely the correct one, for the simple reason that not to do so would have meant going right back to square one, with a new man coming in and taking several months to evaluate the players. There is one other thing in Flanagan’s favour, Roeder apparently wanted to take him to Vicarage Road, but Mike elected to stay at Priestfield. So maybe, just maybe, he is more committed to Gillingham FC than Roeder ever was.’

With the increase in the number of issues to eight in 1993-4, BMH warned that the editions might not have as many pages as in previous years. The fanzine aimed at a minimum of 48 pages but this could increase if sufficient contributions came in.

However, BMH stated that there was no way that eight issues of sixty pages could be produced, for two reasons; firstly that 480 pages for the season was a lot to fill and secondly, with the cover price unchanged at £1 and printing costs increasing, it wasn’t economically viable. In addition, four members of the BMH team were also contributing regularly to the official matchday programme; Eddie Allcorn provided information on the visitors, Chris Lynham wrote about a memorable match against the day’s opponents, Simon Baker, under the pseudonym Gordon Roadstand, penned a general football column whilst my contribution was ‘Mediawatch’.

1993-4 was Gillingham’s centenary season and the fanzine commemorated the anniversary by launching ‘the only official BMH history of the Gills to have been correlated by Professor Tarquin Zoological-Garden, in eight bodice-ripping parts.’ It was entirely different to other retrospectives on the club as it was mostly made up, a sort of alternative history.

The first instalment featured one of the team’s earliest stars, Jarvis Sprout, who had ‘joined from the Darjeeling Tea Company in 1898. He scored twenty-three goals in his first season, five from headers, despite never removing his panama hat. Not even in the showers. When the Boer War broke out, Jarvis joined up and immediately left for South America, having mis-read his regiment’s travel instructions. Sadly, he was never heard of again. Some people believe that Huan-Carlos Sprout, who made one appearance for Chile in the 1938 World Cup, was, in fact, his son. Sceptics are advised to check the newsreel footage of that tournament, in which a figure in a battered panama hat goes close at the far post against Hungary.’

The 1993-94 campaign started in a manner that suggested a second successive battle against relegation. The Headitorial in BMH35 began, ‘Four league games played at the time of writing; two goals, two defeats, home draws against the likes of mighty Scarborough and Doncaster, elimination from the Coca Cola Cup at the first attempt and attendances already at an alarmingly low level.’

A retrospective on the previous campaign was divided into ten reasons to remember 1992-3 and ten reasons to forget it. The first category contained the Gills’ first visit of the season to Layer Road, where we won an FA Cup replay 3-2, after being 3-0 up and cruising, only for the evening to end in panic when the home side scored twice in the final couple of minutes, ‘My biggest regret of the season is that I missed this much talked about triumph. The early lead, the dramatic finale and the dismal views all combined to create an impassioned evening which left the Gills fans deliriously happy and the Colchester fans a little upset.

It was all too much for one student who, after hearing the unbelievable score at 10pm, had to check at 11pm and 12am just to be sure, and then promptly fainted at the shock.’ The ten reasons to forget 92-3 included the second visit to Layer Road, for a league encounter that we lost 3-0 ‘Returning to the scene of our previous triumph, there was a scent of victory in the air.

But we had gone all season without an away win and, by April, it had become the standing joke. The air of expectancy soon evaporated. Colchester were light years ahead of the Gills in terms of skill, aptitude, fluency and general footballing know-how. We had no answer to the chants of “Going down!” which were mockingly aimed at us. Having spent a thoroughly maudlin night at Layer Road, we spiralled into deep depression on the way home, discussing the delights that awaited us in the Conference. Nobody wanted to go to Gateshead.’

When BMH35 went to press, Gillingham had just equalled a club record of twenty-six away league matches without a win, with the results listed on the back page, ‘By the time this comes out we will have played one more game on foreign soil, at Wycombe. Can the team stretch our run to twenty-seven and thus claim the worst record in the club’s entire Football League history? Can they earn the right to truly hold up their hands and say, “We’re the worst Gillingham team of all time?” – we wait with bated breath.’

The record was duly claimed; the game at Wycombe ending 1-1, and a 2-2 draw at Shrewsbury in the next match on the road increased it by one. BMH35 provided a few statistics on our poor away form over the previous years. Since the start of the 1990-1 campaign, up to and including the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale that was the first game on our travels in 1993-4, the Gills had won just eight out of eighty League and Cup games away, drawing twenty-seven, losing forty-five, scoring seventy-four goals and conceding one hundred and thirty-five. In the league, it was six wins in sixty-six matches, an average of one in every eleven fixtures, ‘The record has to start improving for two reasons.

Firstly, because we are always going to be carrying a millstone like this around our necks. To even achieve a mid-table position takes the odd away win, and we can’t continue as we have been in the last three years and entertain serious prospects of remaining a league team. Secondly - and if there are perchance any players reading this I want you to concentrate very hard here – hundreds of Gills fans have spent a hell of a lot of time and money following this perennially failing side up and down the country during the period in question, and we are beginning to get mighty fed up with what we are being forced to put up with. Tremendous support has been given, especially during last season and it’s about time the players started earning that support. The team, in my opinion, owes us a tremendous debt, and it’s about time we started getting repaid for our loyalty.’

Issue 36 of BMH was first on sale before the 2-1 home win over Darlington on Saturday 16 October. Two weeks earlier the Gills had finally ended their unwelcome record by winning away, a feat celebrated on the front cover. Gillingham had improved on their dismal opening to the campaign and the Headitorial featured restrained optimism, ‘It’s now fairly safe to assume that we won’t spend the rest of the season desperately listening out for the results of the teams near the bottom but, at this point, I’m not prepared to cast my eyes in the direction of the other end of the table – let’s just enjoy a few weeks of mid-table obscurity.

Now it is true that the current side does not exactly look capable of storming through the division on a tide of goals, however, it is equally true that this is the best organised Gillingham team, especially in defence, that has been seen for many a long time. They also possess one attribute not normally associated with the club – resilience.’ Inevitably, the piece covered the elusive away victory at Carlisle, ‘despite just about everything going wrong that possibly could (early sending-off, missed penalty, hometown ref and yet another late equaliser), we emerged victorious, following one of the most gutsy displays this editor has ever seen from a Gillingham side.

While the victory may not have been merited on the balance of play / chances, it most certainly was for the sheer endeavour of the team. I also felt proud to be part of the wonderful band of supporters who have travelled the length and breadth of the country waiting for this day to happen. To every one of you – you were absolutely brilliant. I don’t mind admitting that I had tears in my eyes at the final whistle and, as I sit typing this, I can feel my eyes starting to moisten again. Many others let the tears flow freely – we had waited nineteen months for this day and, at the end, it was too much for some.’ Before being broken in 1993-4, the record of away league matches without a win had stood since 1937-8, but it only took another seventeen years until it was surpassed again, this time the total increasing from twenty-eight to thirty-four games before victory at Oxford in November 2010 ended another lengthy win-less run on the road.

Coverage of Glenn Roeder’s departure continued in both issues thirty-four and thirty-five. One Gillingham supporter had written to the Watford chairman regarding his behaviour in respect of Roeder’s appointment. The club’s chief executive replied, with the response including ‘Watford Football Club did not approach Glen Roeder’. The ‘not’ was in capitals for emphasis and Watford couldn’t even manage to spell their manager’s Christian name properly. The Watford letter appeared in BMH 35, whilst BMH 36 featured extracts from an article that appeared in the London club’s newspaper, Hornets News, which totally contradicted what the letter had stated, ‘Roeder was busy preparing for his second season at Gillingham when he received the unexpected offer to step up two divisions and return to Vicarage Road.

Roeder admits, “I’ve still got a soft spot for Gillingham but, with all due respect to them, I didn’t have to give Watford’s offer a moment’s thought”.’ Glenn obviously didn’t think a great deal about the playing staff at Priestfield, with the article including, ‘From a footballing viewpoint, Roeder is pleased to be working with more accomplished players, “At Gillingham, they had huge hearts and lungs but not a lot of natural ability. My job then was to keep it simple and not burden the players with information or tactics they would find difficult to grasp”.’

The third part of the alternative history of the Gills, covering 1919-30, appeared in BMH36. It was reported that in 1926, with Great Britain languishing in the Great Depression, some players were forced to take on part time jobs to supplement their meagre income, with Travis Grunge setting up an undertakers business in Chatham High Street, eventually going into partnership with inside right trainee embalmer Hamilton Creek. On one occasion, Grunge arrived only seconds before kick-off for a game against Crystal Palace at Priestfield following a funeral at Flimwell.

Having parked the hearse outside the gates and with no time to change, he took to the field still wearing his sombre black cloak and top hat, much to the amusement of the sparse crowd. The visiting Palace players protested but the referee could find no infringement of any rule, ‘impeded somewhat by his cloak, which billowed out like a yacht’s spinnaker whenever he attempted one of his famous solo runs along the right wing, Grunge still managed to get into position to provide the cross for the opening goal.’ Grunge then suffered damage to his top-hat when he was forced to head clear from a Palace corner, ‘mercifully, when half time arrived, there was sufficient time to change into more orthodox attire and the second half proceeded without further incident, Gills eventually losing the game 8-1.’