Adam Bird

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Monday, 19 December 2011

Mascot Marvel

Oliver as Gills Mascot

Standing in the tunnel, looking out at the stadium. It’s packed, a pre-christmas ticket bonanza that has put an extra three thousand bums on seats. The smell of grass, of fried food and the intoxicatingly pleasant sharpness of deep-heat which tickles the nostrils as the ears cope with the roar of the crowd and the stomach deals with the nerves. You’re dressed in the blue of your team, standing there at not yet five years old holding the hand of a total stranger. A man who leads out ten others to do battle against the other group of men dressed in green and black standing side by side in the long, deep space where shouts of encouragement bounce around the walls. The referee signals that it is time and off you go, into the noise which has reached a crescendo, eight thousand people on their feet to welcome their heroes, you leading the way, across the pitch and lining up in front of the main stand, with your Daddy standing by watching, tears in his eyes, feelings of pride swelling up and watching as you cope with the occasion admirably and take it all in your stride - and most importantly, with a smile.

Ever since Oliver was born, people would ask me, “when will you start taking him football?” I always replied that once he was five, his very first match would be as a mascot and then he would go as and when he wanted to from there on. Except it didn’t really work out that way. Oliver has been to the Gills on a few occasions now, making his debut when he was just two years old and enjoying his first away game earlier in the season at Crewe Alexandra, but the mascot dream still lived on.

I rang the football club the day that the fixture list was published and enquired as to reserving a mascot spot for the game closest to Oliver’s fifth birthday, the game against Bristol Rovers on Saturday 17th December. “No problem” they said, and they went on to tell me everything that the day involved before finally getting to the price. For £250, Oliver could be a mascot, with four tickets in the main stand, a packet of souvenir photographs and a full replica kit - which when you add it all up isn’t as expensive as it first seems. The only problem was, it wasn’t really something that Oliver wanted to do, it was something that I wanted to do for myself and experience the occasion through the eyes of my son. Ultimately cost was the biggest factor and it wasn’t something that we could afford to do as a luxury present, so both Stephanie and I decided it would have to be filed away again as another unfulfilled dream.

But sometimes, in life, things happen by chance, by a stroke of luck or more often than not, by the kindness, generosity and quick thinking of others.

By displaying my level of displeasure through the medium of Facebook and various status updates, word of mouth reached friends of mine and eventually through to a man named Mike Reason. Now Mike is the father of one of my longest friends Andrew, fondly known as Reaso, who other than myself is the biggest Gillingham fan I know. The three of us over the years have spent many a mile sitting in a car travelling the length and breadth of the country in sometimes excruciatingly painful circumstances to watch the Gills - displaying a true dedication to the cause, which for Reaso and I has started to manifest itself in the upbringing of our own two boys. Quite often we talk about the future and how we’ll all, three generations of Bird/Reason be sitting in a stand someplace, in the cold, wind and rain watching a level of ineptitude that begs the question from George and Oliver “Daddy, why couldn’t you have been United fans?”, or something heartbreakingly similar.

Anyhow, Mike is one of a group of Gillingham fans, known as the Dockyard Blues, who rent one of the hospitality boxes in the Medway stand. Sometime during the summer he received a telephone call from someone on the clubs marketing team asking him if he would be willing to sponsor one of the players for the forthcoming season. “No problem” he said “only if you throw in the mascot package for the Bristol Rovers game”. Which is how Oliver found himself lining up on the pitch at five to three on Saturday afternoon holding Gillingham captain Andy Frampton’s hand, whilst I stood at the side of the pitch feeling as sense of pride and levels of gratitude to Mike and the Reason family that I won’t ever be able to repay.

I never was a football mascot myself, probably again due to finance or that I never really showed an interest. Not until 1990 when the tears of Gascoigne captured mine and a million other hearts and the lure of football immediately became more appealing. By that time I was probably too old, you don’t really see many mascots over the age of ten, or you might do, but not in my mind - five was always the magic number.

Much of the pre-match ‘banter’ was about having a great time, remembering it, are you getting excited yet and oh, make sure Oliver does too! Talking to him before the game, I’m not too sure that he really knew what to expect and all the way through the day, he just took each part as it came. Oliver wasn’t alone in enjoying the experience, which quite possibly helped in the fulfilment of his day as he was able to join in and follow the older kids - there were in fact six of them altogether, it wasn’t just Oliver getting an early Christmas present.

First off, upon arrival, getting into the kit and taking delivery of the all important autograph book and Gills pen, which came in handy just five minutes later as we walked through the stand and into the changing room where all the players were sat waiting. Even at thirty-one years old I get a little bit star-struck and suffer from not knowing quite what to say, but Oliver, with his pen and little book didn’t have so much of a problem. Walking around, shadowed by his older, football mad cousin Joshua, handing his autograph book over and politely saying thank you to a group of, to him at least, complete strangers. Last on the bench and closest to me was Luke Rooney, who I didn’t expect to see as he’d been having contract issues with the club. But as he was signing his name I made some lame gag about photocopying it and sticking on the end of a contract, which was received with a polite laugh and me vowing to remain silent!

From there, we went on a tour around the stadium, seeing some places which I hadn’t yet been to, like matchday control and the upper echelons of the Rainham End wing above the Great Hall where the boardrooms sit. Oliver missed a lot of this part of the tour wanting instead to have a pee, which nearly ruined his big moment just minutes later. We’d arrived at the most exciting part (in my eyes), going onto the pitch for the first time and kicking the ball around. But Oliver had only touched the ball twice before coming bouncing off the pitch and asking to go once again to the toilet!

During the warm up, all the mascots had photographs taken with a player of their choice, or in Oliver’s case a player of my choosing. I went for Danny Kedwell whose admission upon signing for the club in July was that he was a Gillingham fan and used to stand on the old Rainham End watching the team when he was a boy growing up. He also said that signing for the club was a dream come true, which for me epitomised what we all, as Gills fans want to see in any footballer lucky enough to wear the shirt.

After the long build-up and years of waiting, the day, as is usual in these circumstances went by in a blur. But standing on the touchline and hearing the tannoy announcer screaming “lets hear it for the Gills” and seeing Oliver lead the team will always stay with me. I expected tears and although I was slightly choked up, I was concentrating more on willing Oliver not to fall over or do something erratic like run off into the centre circle, but no. He was as good as gold and the best thing for me, was that he was genuinely looked as if he was having a great time and enjoying himself, which with subsequent question and answers has only proved to be the case. When I asked him what his favourite part of the day was, he said "when the horse gave me a lollypop" (Tommy Trueblue, the Gills official mascot was giving out sweets) and more recently he said "going onto the pitch and playing football".

Falling in love with the beautiful game happens, like meeting our wives and girlfriends - differently to us all. I fell in love with football through the tears and heartbreak of another man. I wanted Oliver to be a mascot at the Gills so that he too could fall in love with something that has given me a lifetime of pleasure and romance. It might not have happened right there and then on Saturday, only given the fullness of time will we be able to tell. But he has been giving a memory to cherish, which I wasn't quite able to give him myself. Like fate, playing it's hand, Mike helped give Oliver that gift, one that I will be eternally grateful for. One that hopefully Oliver will be able to attribute as his own "Gascoigne moment" years from now.

View some photographs of Oliver and his day on Facebook

For the Record

Oliver's match as Gillingham Mascot

Gillingham lineup: Ross Flitney, Andy Frampton (Matt Lawrence 41), Garry Richards, Joe Martin, Danny Jackman, Charlie Lee (Matt Fish 78), Jack Payne, Curtis Weston (Chris Whelpdale 81), Lewis Montrose, Danny Kedwell, Frank Nouble Subs not used: Paolo Gazzaniga, Stefan Payne

Bristol Rover lineup: Scott Bevan, Gary Sawyer, Dan Woodards, Lee Brown, Byron Anthony (Cian Bolger 35), Craig Stanley, Andy Dorman, Mustapha Carayol, Joe Anyinsah (Oliver Norburn 81), Elliot Richard, Chris Zebroski (Matt Harrold 78), Subs not used: Micheal Smith, Jordan Goddard

Result: 4-1

Attendance: 7,750 (246 Bristol Rovers Supporters)

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