Adam Bird

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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Once in a Blue Moon

Manchester City vs Gillingham

Next weekend the FA Cup final will be contested at Wembley stadium, the home of football, the closing chapter of another dramatic season of English league football. The trophy will be awarded to the winner of either Stoke City or Manchester City, two teams that I have no real association with other than the last time Manchester City played a final at Wembley it was against my Gillingham team, managed at the time by Tony Pulis, ironically now in charge of Stoke City, which brings to life a wonderfully scripted sub-plot to what is already an intriguing game.

Since Stoke City reached the final, blog posts and online analysis have focused on Tony Pulis, that day at Wembley and a recent interview on the BBC Sport website revealed some insight into the thoughts of the man and what it would be like to avenge that day nearly 12 years ago.

Feeling nostalgic comes naturally to me, particularly when looking back at Gillingham Football Club’s finest ever moment. That game, Gillingham vs Manchester City was played at the old Wembley Stadium on 30th May 1999. A game that any person within the stadium that day will forever remember. Tony Pulis led us out to battle knowing that this was to be his last game as Gillingham manager whatever the result after an acrimonious falling out with club chairman Paul Scally, unknown to us supporters cheering on from the stands that day.

But my own story starts earlier that season, when dreams of a playoff place were just beginning. My friend Stuart and I made our way to Maine Road, the spiritual home of Manchester City, their previous stadium. We went by train to Manchester to see Gillingham play a “massive” club, a team we’d only seen play on the television and was the away game highlight of our season.

I’d taken with us my bible, a book for away supporters, how to get there, where to drink and where to find a decent pre-match pie. But we felt the book got it wrong that day. We found the pub we’d picked out, slap bang in the middle of Moss Side, a notorious working class housing estate of which the stadium was nestled slap bang in the middle. It’s notoriety was probably exaggerated, but as two 19 year old boys we weren’t to know any different.

We sat in the pub, jackets done up, colours hidden, keeping ourselves to ourselves. We were sat next to two tough looking fellas who made us feel uncomfortable, but the ice broke when they asked us if we were Gillingham fans, “good to see you lads, we don’t get many away fans in here” they said, and a two hour conversation on football followed. The stand out parts of that conversation were the questions “Who are Gillingham? Where is Gillingham? And are you any good?”

If they hadn’t heard of Gillingham Football Club back then, there cannot be many a Manchester City fan who is yet to familiarise themselves with Kent’s finest. All thanks to events on that famous Wembley pitch on a miserable May Sunday late in the last millennium.

Us Gillingham supporters were just elated to have the chance to play at Wembley. Scenes at Priestfield on the final game in front of the old Rainham End were unparalleled, beating Preston North End by a single goal over two legs, scored by current Gillingham manager Andy Hessenthalter saw our club reach Wembley for the first time in our 108 year history.

The day itself, planned meticulously, was simply to get to London as earliest as possible, have a hearty full English and let the drinking commence. I’d painted my hair Gillingham blue, Stuart his scalp and Stephanie who was attending her first ever football match permitted blue streaks to cut through her blonde locks. I finished my loyal ensemble with customised flag of St George draped over my back. Oh to be nineteen again!

Manchester City vs Gillingham

Full of dreams, hopes and desires, singing loudly on the tube to Wembley reality didn’t bite until the walk up Wembley way. Down the station steps, under a bridge and Wembley, in all it’s glory placed ahead of you with thousands of fans dressed in colours walking up the greatest approach to a football stadium in the world. I never thought I’d see Gillingham at that famous old stadium and unashamedly I was hit by the emotion of the occasion and allowed a tear or two to escape. This was Gillingham Football Club, mercurial underachievers, never been outside the bottom two divisions of the English football league against Manchester City, fallen giants - there was only one team expected to win this game and it wasn’t us.

The old Wembley stadium, with it’s twin towers which stood as an icon of a thousand dreams was in need of drastic repair, it was ageing, decrepit, the ghosts of failure and glory mingled in the concourse along with the smell of burgers, piss and alcohol. There were 40,000 Gillingham fans in the stadium that day, waving flags and wearing the Gillingham blue, whilst Manchester City, exactly the same number, but decked in the famous Sky Blue that they are synonymous with. No corporate ring of reds seats around the middle of the stadium, two sets of fans, sat on wooden bench seats, miles away from the pitch with columns blocking partial views of the action.

After the first 45 minutes the score was equal, two teams testing each other out, like boxers, throwing punches but not really hurting one another. Until the unthinkable happened late in the second half, Paul Smith played the ball through to Carl Asaba and he unleashed a ferocious shot past the hapless Nicky Weaver. Pandemonium on the Gillingham side of Wembley, David had given Goliath a bloody nose and David’s supporters could smell the blood. Nine minutes were left on the clock and the ultimate dream was in sight, until, six minutes later, the ball played again to Asaba, who like a magician back-healed the ball telepathically into the path of Robert Taylor who needed no further encouragement. Bang. The ball is in the back of the net, the hearts of every Manchester City fan are in the pits of hell as the Gillingham fans go absolutely mental. I turned around to Reaso, dazed, shocked, the greatest day of my life and said “We’ll be going to places like Blackburn next season!”.

Gillingham had promotion to Division One for the first time in their history. Just three minutes of normal time remained and the party would begin. Watching the Manchester City fans at the opposite end of the stadium, some were streaking out, no instant return, the giant had been slain and it was all over for another season. But whilst there was still a pulse there was still a chance, and that pulse was given a shot of adrenaline in the 90th minute. Kevin Horlock popped up with a goal, there was a scramble to get the ball back to the middle so they could start all over again.

One man changed our destiny that day. His name was Mark Halsey, he was the referee. He was the one man in that stadium that believed their would be 5 minutes of added time. For what, we didn’t know. History doesn’t care about details, just facts. Facts that say Paul Dickov, in the dying seconds, in the 95th minute of a pulsating game pounced on a loose ball and buried it past his best friend, Gillingham goalkeeper Vince Bartram. The noise was unbelievable. The Manchester City fans couldn’t believe it, pandemonium had been replaced by delirium and the sound of 40,000 Gillingham fans howling in pain.

My greatest hour as a Gillingham fan stopped right there. The build up, the 94 minutes previously I can sit and watch, replay in my mind all day long. The rest of the game, we knew how it would go, we resigned ourselves to our fate as soon as Dickov scored. It went to extra-time, it was another goalless half hour. Penalties and Gillingham never score in normal time so why would a shootout be any different? Smith, Pennock and Butters all missed, Nicky Weaver went on a lunatic glory run around the goal and across the greyhound track to leave an abiding final image etched on the mind. That or the sound of 40,000 people singing “Blue Moon” at the tops of their voices which left the hairs standing up on the back of the neck.

Twelve years later, it still feels painful, as I’m sure it does for the players. But for Tony Pulis, the manager, in his final game as Gillingham boss, he was hurting too. That’s why I’m convinced Stoke will lift the FA Cup final next weekend. For Tony, and for all of us who were there that day.

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