Wembley hero Steve Butler has been looking back on the season which took Gills to the first division.
The forward had returned to MEMS Priestfield Stadium for a second spell in the summer of 1999, having played close to 130 games during his first stint, as one of Peter Taylor’s coaching staff.
However, as he recalls, the season could have been very different depending on how pre-season negotiations progressed.
He said: “Me and Hessy at the time were offered the job but considering the disappointment of losing to Manchester City, it probably needed an experienced manager and we knew Peter as he was our Watford coach.
“He was the one we put up to the Chairman on the day but we didn’t know that Peter would become the manager as he had to fly back in from holiday in time for the unveiling.”
Despite scoring a vital goal at Wembley, Butler had not returned as a player but situations changed during the season which saw him return to the starting XI.
He said: "I didn’t come back as a player, I came back as a coach. Hessy [Andy Hessenthaler] wasn’t going to do as much coaching as he was still in his prime. That’s how it was going to work, but we got injuries during the season, one of which to Carl Asaba with about two or three months to go, and that’s when I came into the side. I wasn’t due to play during that season at all.”
Butler was one of many experienced heads in that side which Peter Taylor utilised, and he was full of praise for the leaders that made up the spine of the team and helped build the success.
Steve added: “You had Vince Bartram in goal, Barry Ashby, Guy Butters, Hessy; I’d been there for three or four years aswell, although I’d been at Peterborough for six months and then came back.
“So he had a nucleus of big, strong characters all the way down the middle. That was a massive part as to why the club not only did well that year, but all the other years as well.”
The Gills missed out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season. A win away to Wrexham would have secured it, but they were beaten 1-0 and as a result had to go through the play-offs for a second successive season.
Butler reminisces on the heartbreak of that day at Wrexham, but the journey home taught him something about the mentality of his teammates. He said:
“I don’t remember too much about the game, but I do remember the journey back because we were all devastated. Peter was very disappointed, but the boys at the back were strangely confident, it was amazing really.”
Taylor’s side had to come from behind against both Stoke in the first leg of the semi-final, and then against Wigan in the final itself, which showed the battling qualities of the side.
The most memorable moment of the semi-final was Andy Hessenthaler’s last gasp goal at the Britannia to swing the momentum in Gillingham’s favour.
Butler looks back on the season’s most important moment, to that point, and how it reinforced the confidence among the squad:
“The biggest one for me was Stoke away, the first leg. They absolutely battered us and I think they were 3-1 up and I remember Hessy putting one in from 25 yards. We were just in all round shock, I didn’t think he could reach it from there! That goal was really important and it proved to be as we beat them at our place.
“It didn’t matter to the boys who they played because they thought they could beat anybody.”
When it came to the day of the final, Butler began the day as a substitute at Wembley and had to wait until the second half of extra-time to see his chance to take the field.
When he came on Wigan were 2-1 up and he had 15 minutes to help save the Gills promotion hopes.
What Butler did was not only save the season, but he helped create a complete swing in momentum.
He scored in the 114th minute after meeting Junior Lewis’ cross with an emphatic header, but he put the moment down to pure luck. He said:
“Goal scoring most of the time is about making a decent run, but you can’t legislate for the cross coming in. There’s an element of luck in hoping that the cross finds you. I’m sure Junior (Lewis) isn’t trying to find me, he’s just trying to put it in there and I’m trying to get across the defender and hope it goes in front of me, which it did. It was a brilliant cross and I timed it all well.”
Just four minutes later Andy Thomson’s diving header caused pure bedlam as the Gills completely turned the play-off final on its head. Butler remembers the joy that moment brought:
“I remember when it had gone in, it was just sheer ecstasy going through everybody. It was just amazing to look round. Then you’ve got to think there’s another couple of minutes to go, so you’ve got to get on with it. I do remember feeling great when that goal went in, it was superb.”
Butler was the embodiment of the perfect professional and as a leader he was happier for the people around him as opposed to himself.
Looking back on the experience, the now 58-year-old admits it was great to see everyone around him filled with joy:
“I was happy for everybody,” he added. “More for the boys who lost out the year before or had been there for five years, the Chairman and the fans. Peter’s there to do a job, the same as we all are really. The fans came every week; rain or shine, go up north to freezing cold places, go on a Tuesday night, so you’re more pleased for them if I’m honest. The scenes after were brilliant.”