I would like to offer a virtual brotherly-bloggerly hug of consolation to Phil after Swindon’s defeat to Millwall…but I can’t. Quite frankly I was overjoyed as Swindon FC are simply scum. Clearly my joy in seeing Swindon lose was tempered by the fact that it meant that Millwall won but Swindon will always be the most hated team in Gillingham.
I like Phil. I even met him once (although I cannot see that happening again). But the Swindon supporting Phil is dead to me.
Usually football hatred stems from geography, in which case Charlton and Millwall would be the most hated by the Gills, and Millwall are up there. However Gilligham FC are anything but normal. The history of rivalry stretches back to the first ever year of the play off’s in 1987 and the legendary team of Keith Peacock (later Chelsea and Charlton assistant manager). Having beaten Sunderland on away goals in the play-off semi-final (Tony Cascarino getting the ‘winner’ if I remember correctly, having been at Roker Park as a 9 year old) we again ‘won’ over 2 legs on away goals in the play-off final against Swindon. However, completely illogically, away goals did not count in the final and we lost in the replay at Selhurst Park. Thus began a great hatred of Swindon.
I do love the way in which football is simultaneously a uniting and dividing force. A football team makes an indellible mark on the real football supporter, that is one who, when asked who they support, always replies with the name of the team of or nearest to their home (which is why I hate Spurs probably almost as much as Swindon, as they were who most of my Sunday league team supported). I admit to following Liverpool but I always say I support Gillingham.
And given that Gillingham as a place hasn’t exactly been a bundle of laughs since Chatham Dockyard closed in 1984 (industrial decline didn’t just gut the North of jobs and ambition), the football team provides a source of pride, amusement and great frustration.
Priestfield our home ground was voted the worst ground in the country by the Observer a few years back. When Arsenal beat us there a few years back in the FA Cup, Freddie Ljungberg said that it was the most intimidating atmosphere that he had ever played in. I think he was referring to the noise and passion not any specific death threats but it was taken as a compliment either way.
Steve Bruce used to lodge with my Grandad (who lived 2 minutes walk from the ground) when he was an apprentice at Gillingham. I’ve also been reliably told that in many bars in Marseille you will be given free drinks if you wear your Gillingham shirt due to Tony Cascarino instrumental role in getting them back to Ligue 1 after they were relegated due to the Taupin scandal. Cascarino was purchased by Gillingham from Foots Cray for a set of track suits and some corrugated iron.
Then there is what is generally regarded as the best play off final ever when we were leading Manchester City by two goals with two minutes to go, only to let in two and lose on penalties. Thankfully we beat Wigan the following year to get into the old league division two for the first time. In my lifetime we have not been to the conference (beating Halifax in 1993 on the last day of the season to send them to the conference) but natural gravity has re-asserted itself and after getting relegated this year we are back in the old fourth division.
The tribalism football brings about is not always a positive thing and can promote violence, but the sense of place and pride engendered by a football team is something that even the most deprived and derided of places can gain comfort from…as long as you are not from Swindon, obviously.