The only club from Kent in the Football League, Gillingham FC also represent the Medway, whose football history is even longer and more illustrious than a century of lower-tier football would suggest.
Only named after what was then the modest settlement of Gillingham in 1912, The Gills were formed as New Brompton FC in 1893. Brompton lies between the original village of Gillingham and the navy docks at Chatham where most of the local workforce was employed at the time. Much of the dockyard lay within the boundaries of Gillingham.
Still linking Gillingham and Chatham today is Brompton Road that runs past the barracks of the same name, and the Institution of Royal Engineers. The corps moved from Woolwich to Chatham in the 1850s, which is when Colonel Francis Marandin arrived after active service in the Crimea.
Marandin was instrumental in developing the Royal Engineers football team, formed as far back as 1863 and based at Chatham. Unlike the other amateur sides of the day, many formed around public schools, The Sappers played a passing game rather than just booting a ball forwards and charging. It allowed them to reach four FA Cup finals in the 1870s, including the first one in 1872, a 1-0 defeat to Wanderers.
Their only win came in 1875, a team of several internationals overcoming Old Etonians after a replay.
The Royal Engineers also took their pioneering version of the beautiful game to the influential football hubs of Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby, as well as Ireland. Royal Engineers AFC still exist, with men’s and women’s teams based at Chatham. Exhibition games have included the 2012 rerun of the 1872 final against Wanderers.
While the great amateur sides from the south relinquished their monopoly of the FA Cup from the 1880s onwards, Chatham remained football-focused. Junior side Chatham Excelsior inspired the formation of New Brompton, who poached several of their players and joined the inaugural Southern League in 1894 – albeit Division Two.
In Division One were Chatham United, created in 1882 from the merger of Rochester Invicta and the football team of the Royal Engineers Band. The cash-strapped club then dropped down to the Kent League, winning it ten times. The now named Chatham Town still play at the Sports Ground on Maidstone Road – although Isthmian League status currently looks dicey.
Managing to stay in the Southern League, New Brompton, soon to be renamed Gillingham FC, gained Football League status when Division Three was created in 1920. Apart from a fallow period either side of the war, The Gills have kept Kent among The 92 ever since. A troubled, short-lived stint by Maidstone United, playing in Dartford, in the early 1990s proved to be a textbook lesson in how to mismanage League accession.
Gillingham have also come close to financial ruin, selling their long-term home of Priestfield Stadium only to buy it back three years later. A move away from the hemmed-in terraced housing close to the railway line was first proposed in the early 2000s but now looks closer to reality with the Draft Local Plan currently being considered by Medway Council.
The nearest airport to Gillingham is London City 55km (34 miles) away. The terminal has its own stop on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – trains run every 8-15min to Stratford (journey time 15min), where you can pick up the train from London St Pancras for Gillingham.
Three lines run to Gillingham from London: St Pancras (40min journey time), Victoria (50min journey time) and Charing Cross (1hr 30min journey time) via Waterloo East and London Bridge. From St Pancras or Victoria on Saturdays, buying two singles (£6/£7) online works out cheaper than the off-peak day return (£16).
Gillingham station is next to the town centre, a 10min walk from the ground. Local buses for the retail and leisure centre at the old Chatham dock are run by Arriva.
Windmill Taxis (01634 51 51 51) are based by the station and offer transfers to all London airports, including London City (£60) and Gatwick (£62).
The closest lodging to the ground is The Balmoral, a basic, tatty guesthouse on Balmoral Road near the station which attracts trade as there’s little else around.
The only hotel near the town centre is the King Charles, a family-run three-star with a 97 rooms, a lounge bar and the Aurora restaurant. It’s on Brompton Road, a straight 5-7min walk into the centre, 15-20min to the ground.
Two chain hotels are set either side of the Chatham dock area. The nearest to town and ground is the Premier Inn Chatham/Gillingham Victory Pier, with its own restaurant. It’s 20min from the ground via Church Street/Ingram Road.
On the Chatham side of the dockyard, the Travelodge Chatham Maritime, handy for the waterfront leisure and retail complex, a bus or taxi journey from the ground. It also has its own bar and restaurant, with plenty of other choices nearby.
Finally, the tidy dockside Ship & Trades also contains 15 stylish guestrooms, some with waterfront views and all with tea- and coffee-making facilities.
Pubs on and off Gillingham High Street are as down-to-earth as the town itself.
Opposite the station, the Southern Belle is a regular lager-dispensing local with football on TV. Round the corner onto the High Street itself, The Britannia at No.158 is a surprisingly friendly spot in a grim town centre.
Close to a clutch of restaurants where the High Street meets Brompton Road, the traditional Marquis of Lorne at 9 Mill Road shows football for the time being but is rumoured to be closing down.
By the Chatham dockside, the Ship & Trades is more quality restaurant than corner pub, but serves a decent pint of Shepherd Neame Spitfire, Whitstable Bay pale ale and San Miguel.