Having a bad season? Worried that things couldn't be much worse? Cheer yourself up with some schadenfreude as Chris Lynham looks back on Gillingham's darkest hour
In 1993, Gillingham celebrated 100 years of chronic underachievement with a campaign so inept it even failed to meet the very limited expectations of our band of world-weary supporters. Having put up with five years of steady decline, we could all cope with the boredom of inoffensively squatting in the lower half of the old Fourth Division, but the eternal agony of the 1992-93 season was a step too far.
League restructuring, bankruptcies and draconian ground-grading had closed the trap-door to the Conference for a couple of years, but the one time the Gills chose to enter into a complacent free-fall towards semi-professionalism was the year it was propped open again. The result was a monumental fight for the very existence of the club, because I have no doubt that relegation would have been the end.
The statistics don’t tell half the story. A pathetic nine wins. Not a solitary success on the road. Nicky Forster top-scoring with six goals. The only way to articulate the sense of hopelessness to the fans of New Gillingham, currently gorging on First Division football, is to explain that manager Glenn Roeder actually walked out on us at the end of it all.
From the moment we took a second-minute lead against Northampton on the opening day of the season it was a roller-coaster ride – a gut-wrenching downhill scream from which you emerge breathless and thankful to be in one piece. Could you retain your sanity when your goalkeeper gets himself sent off three times before Christmas? Would you think it’s funny to concede injury-time goals in four consecutive away fixtures? Or notching five own goals in ten crazy days in March, including both strikes on one happy-go-lucky night at Barnet, when Gary Breen managed to pirouette on the proverbial sixpence, simultaneously defying geometry and lobbing his own keeper from four yards?
Up front we deployed Trevor Aylott, a wonder of science with the agility of an arthritic hippo and the aerobic capacity of an asthmatic whale. At the back we relied on Tony Butler, a languid oaf who would think nothing of inducing coronaries by slamming routine clearances to safety off the inside of his own post when you’re gamely clinging to a 1-0 lead against Shrewsbury. Combine this backbone with a lightweight midfield and a pony-tailed custodian who is terminally bewildered by the new back-pass rule, and you’re asking for trouble.
And trouble was what we got. Filing out of Layer Road after a 3-0 pasting with the taunts of the ever-charming locals ringing in our ears, relegation seemed inevitable. It was mid-April, we were back in the bottom spot we’d occupied pretty much since October and we faced a fortnight without a fixture.
In a fit of gallows humour the Football League computer set us up with end-of-season showdowns against two of our year-long rivals. First up was Halifax, who in losing during our inactive week placed our fate back in our own butter-fingered hands. How very comforting. Winner stayed up, and 7,000 filed into Priestfield with morbid curiosity, keen to witness the foot- balling equivalent of a car crash in which one of the participants would be leaving in a body-bag.
Played in an atmosphere of such overpowering tension that I was gnawing on my own spleen long before kick-off, Halifax were by far the better side but were sunk by two stunning goals from Tony Eeles and Paul Baker, the latter restored to hero status just weeks after an ugly incident in which he had angrily confronted the travelling supporters after another abject defeat, this time at Hereford.
The outpouring of relief was phenomenal – a catastrophic nine months laid to rest. It rendered the final game at Torquay meaningless, as both clubs saved their status on the penultimate Saturday. We celebrated in style on the English Riviera by conceding two goals in the final eight minutes, the winner a debatable injury-time penalty. A fitting finale to a lamentable year.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month