LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Gillingham FC

Scally’s Gills a steady ship with income at a low ebb

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Based at Priestfield Stadium since the club was founded in 1893, Gillingham FC have spent the best part of a century in the lower tiers of the Football League.

Nearly going out of business in 1995, Gillingham were saved by Paul Scally, whose £1 purchase of the club and canny hiring of little-known coach Tony Pulis turned things around. While the Gills spent an unprecedented five seasons in the second flight, Scally planned the club’s relocation, Priestfield penned in by rows of residential housing like so many grounds dating back to the Victorian era.

In the offing was a move to Mill Hill, half a kilometre east of Priestfield, by the club’s training ground, although the 2020-21 shutdown deferred the decision even further. Treading water in League One since 2013, the Gills are happy to ride out the current general financial uncertainty intact.

Priestfield Stadium/Peterjon Cresswell

Gillingham started life as New Brompton FC, soon joining the Southern League, which became the newly created Third Division in 1920. Apart from 1932-33, when goals from Scottish forward George Nicol propelled the Gills to seventh place, the club struggled to make an impression and failed to be re-elected in 1938.

In the decade either side of the war, Gillingham even sank down to the Kent League but twice won the Southern League and returned to the Division Three (South) with the expansion of 1950-51.

Despite goals from later legendary Aston Villa manager Ron Saunders, the Gills slipped down to the Fourth Division in 1958. Spearheaded by prolific Gillingham-born striker Brian Gibbs, the club returned to the Third in 1964.

Securing the precocious services of a teenage Tony Cascarino for a set of tracksuits sent to Crockenhill FC, the Gills came close to gaining promotion in the mid-1980s. Five goals from Cascarino in the semi-final of the newly introduced play-offs brought Gillingham to a two-leg showdown with Swindon, eventually settled, and lost, on a replay.

GFC Megastore/Peterjon Cresswell

Selling the later Ireland star to Millwall for £225,000 in 1987, Gillingham dipped back into the Fourth Division and nearly dropped out of the League entirely in 1993.

The arrival of owner/chairman Paul Scally in 1995 and manager Tony Pulis swiftly reversed the club’s fortunes. Immediately gaining promotion from the fourth flight, the Gills were soon challenging for a first ever ascension to the second. 

With Andy Hessenthaler a terrier in midfield and Robert Taylor dangerous up front, Gillingham made the play-off final in 1999, the club’s first appearance at Wembley a heart-stopping classic with Manchester City. Going 2-0 up towards the final whistle, Gillingham dramatically fell to two City strikes, the 95th-minute equaliser by Paul Dickov glancing past man-of-the-match goalkeeper Vince Bartram. After an end-to-end but goalless 30 minutes, penalties saw Dickov again hit the ball past Bartram – only for the ball to cannon off both posts. In a bizarre twist, Bartram had been best man at Dickov’s wedding. With the Gallagher brothers going ape in their VIP box, City keeper Nicky Weaver then saved two spot kicks before careering round the Wembley pitch like a lunatic.

Many have put the City’s subsequent revival down to Dickov’s stoppage-time goal and Weaver’s heroics. For Gillingham, fate took a stranger turn when Pulis was sacked soon after the match.

GFC Megastore/Peterjon Cresswell

His replacement Peter Taylor then took the Gills back to Wembley, this time the play-off opponent Wigan. With Bartram, Hessenthaler and Carl Asaba still in place, Gillingham were involved in another cliffhanger of a final, trailing ten-man Wigan 2-1 in extra-time. Going into the last six minutes, substitutes Steve Butler and Andy Thompson scored with a header each and Gillingham were in the second tier for the first time.

With Taylor going to Leicester, Scally named the inspirational Hessenthaler as his player/manager. Mid-table for three seasons, the Gills survived the drop on goal difference in 2004 before similar mathematics counted against them in 2005.

Various managers came and went, including a returning Hessenthaler in 2010, Taylor in 2013 and Hessenthaler again in 2014. In between, ex-West Ham star Martin Allen who gained the Gills a divisional title, winning League Two in 2013.

Adrian Pennock, a veteran of both Gillingham play-off finals in 1999 and 2000, and a miracle worker with Forest Green Rovers, returned to Priestfield in January 2017 to save the club from relegation but oversaw a terrible start to the 2017-18 campaign. Goals from Tom Eaves helped turn the tide either side of Christmas and spark a brighter 2018-19.

The prolific Vadaine Oliver proved a wise buy in August 2020, powering an excellent league run in spring 2021, with a play-off place in sight, if only briefly.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Old-school in terms of its location, Priestfield Stadium is very much a product of the Scally era, the club owner rebuilding the ground stand-by-stand in the late 1990s. First came the Gordon Road Stand along one sideline, then the home Rainham End replaced the age-old terracing, then the twin-tiered main Medway Stand, with the stadium’s key facilities behind it along Redfern Avenue.

Away fans are accommodated in one half of the Brian Moore Stand, named after the TV commentator and Gills fan. A temporary solution to a permanent problem, it’s not so much a stand as a set of scaffolding open to the elements, safe and secure yet hardly inviting, particularly as it has to be accessed along a narrow alleyway.

Having rebuilt Priestfield and installed a banqueting suite, bar and nightclub, Scally was also painfully aware of the stadium’s limitations, set between rows of residential housing on the same site where, as New Brompton, the club has been based since its foundation in 1893.

Though a handy stroll from the station, Priestfield is a nightmare for parking and any further expansion would be impossible. The Brian Moore Stand was a stop-gap measure while a new site was found and stadium built. First looking out of town, the search has now come full circle and a plan submitted to Medway Council calls for the new location to be at Mill Hill, beside the club’s training ground and 500 metres east of Priestfield.

All the same, Mill Hill is clearly a long way off construction, so the Brian Moore Stand will be in place for a few years yet.

Overall capacity of the current ground, officially named MEMS Priestfield Stadium, is an all-seated 11,600.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

Priestfield is a signposted 10min walk from Gillingham station. As you exit, turn immediately left down Balmoral Road parallel to the railway line on your left. This leads into Priestfield Road. The alleyway for the away end is at the end. If you’re heading to any other part of the ground, at the junction of Balmoral Road, Priestfield Road and Gillingham Road, turn right then left for Gordon Road or left then right for the main Medway Stand and home Rainham End.

The sat nav code for Priestfield Stadium is ME7 4DD. There’s no parking at or in the immediate vicinity of the ground. The club recommends using the match-day car park (£5) at the Academy of Woodlands (Woodlands Road, ME7 2DU), a 7-8min walk to the ground via Canadian Avenue. One alternative nearer the station is Our Lady of Gillingham Church (£3) at 24 Ingram Road (ME7 1YL) or there’s parking at the station itself (Railway Street, ME7 1XE), £4.70 off-peak day pass.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, match-day Sat 9am-3pm, non-match day Sat 9am-1pm) is at the club shop on Redfern Avenue behind the main Medway Stand. There are also sales over the phone (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm) on 01634 300 000 and online. Tickets usually go on sale four weeks in advance. Availability is rarely an issue on the day.

The best seats in blocks D-E in the Gordon Road Stand are priced at £25 (£19 for over-65s, £7 for under-18s). Everywhere else, it’s £22 (discount prices not available in blocks D-F in the lower tier of the Medway Stand, otherwise £19/£7). Match-day prices are £2 dearer across the board. 

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The GFC Megastore (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, match-day Sat 9am-3pm & 30min after final whistle, non-match day Sat 9am-1pm) is behind the main Medway Stand on Redfern Avenue.

First-team tops are currently dark-blue-and-black stripes, second choice red-and-black stripes, and you can also find both colour schemes in coffee-mug form. Gillingham are probably the only club to sell sloths as branded furry toys, perhaps not the most encouraging of mascots for a football team to have, though at least original.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Slowly emerging from shutdown, the Factory is the main bar at Priestfield, where the  Medway Stand meets the home Rainham End. Planned to operate during the week too, on match days it opens at 11am and goes on until 8pm, with plenty of TV sport in an industrial/nightclub atmosphere. 

It’s usually open to home supporters only but sensible away fans not in colours should probably be OK, certainly after the game. Special events are catered for in the suite around the corner, with its own separate entrance.

In terms of pubs, the nearest, The Cricketers at the corner of Toronto Road and Sturdee Avenue, is suitably placed a short walk from the home end. Patronised by regulars and Gills fans, it’s a large, traditional hostelry with pub grub, football on TV and a beer garden in summer.

Visiting supporters are accommodated at the Fleur de Lis, at the junction of Gillingham Road, Duncan Road and Nelson Road, a much cosier proposition, but a 10-12min walk to the ground via Gillingham Road/Priestfield Road. This is pretty much the same distance as the pubs by the station and on the High Street, where away colours are not advisable.

CITY

AWAY DAYS