In my admittedly limited experience of the place, Gillingham seems an immensely dull town, despite being pleasantly situated close to the banks of the muddy estuary of the River Medway and the Norman castle and cathedral of Rochester. Gillingham grew from almost nothing on the back of the expansion of the Chatham Royal Naval dockyard at the end of the nineteenth century as Britain embarked on an arms race with Germany, which ultimately resulted in the carnage of World War One that in turn led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust. The weight of history therefore hangs heavy on the terraced streets around the Priestfield Stadium. But I guess it wasn’t Gillingham’s fault, it just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; Kent.
As if Gillingham’s culpability in the horrors of twentieth century history wasn’t enough, Gillingham Football Club and its supporters may have reason to harbour resentment against Ipswich Town. On 30th May 1938 Ipswich Town were voted into the Football League at Gillingham’s expense. Gillingham had been in the wrong place at the wrong time again, having finished bottom of the Third Division South just as mighty Ipswich Town were embarking on their unstoppable rise to glory. Gillingham’s demise was only temporary however, and happily as early as 1950 they were re-elected. But whilst Ipswich Town were Football League Champions a little more than a decade later, Gillingham simply bobbed about between the two lower divisions until the turn of the twenty-first century when for the first time they made it into the second division.
Meanwhile, throughout the post-war period, until his retirement in the early 1980’s my father’s brother Ray worked in Chatham dockyard and lived in nearby Rainham; on a Saturday he would watch Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium with his stepson, I think they may even have had season tickets at one time. Fast forward nearly forty years and my uncle Ray is long dead and this afternoon thanks to Covid-19 no one is watching at the Priestfield Stadium as Gillingham meet Ipswich Town in the third division, but I shall be listening on the radio.
Annoyingly, today’s game kicks off at one o’clock when most civilised people are sitting down to lunch. The only explanation I have seen for this early kick-off is that the streets of Gillingham are not safe after five pm, but I’m not sure I believe this. I tune in to BBC Radio Suffolk just in time to hear commentator Brenner Woolley describing Kane Vincent-Young’s goal against Gillingham last season. “ Kane Vincent -Young scores” says Brenner before continuing in typical commentator style with “He goes off to celebrate, as well he might”. Ask yourself this, when was the last time you said “As well he might” ?
Today is significant because it is the first game for Town under the management of Paul Cook. “Yet another new era dawns” says Brenner portentously. To describe the managerial reigns of Paul Lambert and Paul Hurst as “eras” is in hindsight going a bit far; if we are intent on using geological terminology they were not even periods or epochs, merely ages. Ipswich Town have had eighteen managers Brenner tells us, and Marcus Evans has appointed a third of them. It might be appropriate therefore that today Town are playing a club whose manager shares a surname with Mr Evans, the obese and irascible Steve Evans; I like to think that they are perhaps brothers. According to Brenner’s sidekick for the afternoon, former Town youth player Stuart Ainsley, taking the job as Ipswich Town manager is “A big opportunity for Paul Cook, one he couldn’t turn down”; Stuart makes it sound as if the alternative was being encased in concrete in the foundations of a bridge. Incidentally, Paul Cook is Town’s first bald manager since Bill McGarry over fifty years ago.
The Ipswich Town team are first out of the changing room, we are told by Brenner, who then takes us through the two teams. I am struck by the name of Gillingham’s number nineteen. At first I think Brenner has said the Dane, Oliver, and that Gillingham’s centre forward is from Denmark, but no, I check on my phone and he is called Vadaine Oliver and he’s from Sheffield. I speculate that Vadaine’s mum was a fan of fantasy novels and a quick Google reveals that although the spelling is not quite the same, Vardaine is the name of a planet in Star Trek. I wonder to myself if his team mates call him Vado, Vads or Daino for short. Personally, I hope they say Vadaine in the way that Boycie said “Marleen” in the BBC tv sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’.
The Town team is unchanged from the last game, but for the inclusion of Josh Harrop in place of little Alan Judge who has suffered a death in his family. Stuart tells us with regard to the team that “Everybody’s happy with the way things are”. I am brimming with confidence in the wake of Stuart’s words and the game begins with me humming The Buzzcocks’ 1979 single “Everybody’s happy nowadays” to myself.
Brenner is quickly into his stride “The referee has seen something in the box, and has blown up his whistle” he says, conjuring an image of a referee who carries a small supply of detonators. “Norwood back with the pink boots on that he changed at half-time on Tuesday” continues Brenner quickly providing his regular update on player footwear. Six minutes pass and Andre Dozzell gives away a free-kick close to the edge of the Town penalty area, in what Brenner and Stuart agree is a ‘good position’. “Totally needless” says Brenner of the foul. The free-kick is taken; Gillingham centre-half Jack Tucker is unmarked at the far post and when the ball drops to him scores. “Tucker, one nil”. The “new era” is for the moment on hold. Apparently, it’s Gillingham’s first goal against Town in seven games; the dawn of a “new era” for Gillingham.
Stuart launches in to an explanation of Gillingham’s tactics. “Gillingham are going to launch big diags across the pitch” he says, unleashing the previously unknown word “diags” onto the radio listeners of Suffolk. I write it down, adding it to my list of words and phrases to use when talking about football and trying to impress. “Town need to wake up” says Brenner honestly. Stuart concurs, “Ipswich haven’t come out of the blocks very well in the last few minutes” he says , not quite pulling off an athletics-based analogy as he fails to understand that coming out of the blocks happens just once and not over a number of minutes, unless the runner is glacially slow. Brenner sums up their shared outlook, “Paul Cook won’t be impressed with what he has seen from his team so far” he says, before triumphantly adding, like the true pro that he is, the football speak coup de grace “Although it’s early doors, it has to be said”.
Fourteen minutes are up and Stuart feels Town are fortunate not to concede a penalty as a result of a foul by Myles Kenlock. “Looks like this game is going to be a battle, unless Town can get the ball down on the deck” says Brenner, clearly influenced by Gillingham’s proximity to the former Chatham Royal Naval dockyard. “Tucker the goalscorer” and “The busy O’Connor” are enjoyable epithets to fall from the mouth of Brenner as Gillingham dominate the play. A Gillingham shot hits Tomas Holy’s right hand goal post. “The players just need to up their game” says Stuart, sounding frustrated.
Twenty-six minutes have passed and Town win their first corner. With the resultant drop-kick James Norwood lingers behind Gills ‘keeper Jack Bonham, whose name makes me think of deceased Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. “Bonham has spotted him (Norwood) in his rear view mirror” says Brenner confusingly implying that Bonham is either driving a car or wearing some sort of harness with mirrors attached to it. For a moment I think Brenner might have forgotten he’s providing a radio commentary. Realising his faux pas Brenner quickly resorts to ‘painting a picture’ with words in the more traditional manner as he resort to his favoured back-stop of “Dozzell, with his yellow footwear”.
Troy Parrott produces an overhead kick which narrowly misses the Gillingham goal. “One of the most unlucky he’s had so far” says Stuart of Troy’s goal attempt. “Not seen much of the ball in this match, Josh Parrott” says Brenner, re-christening the bird-named on-loan player and at the same time putting his name at the end of the sentence to keep us in suspense over who he’s talking about.
Seven minutes until half time and Brenner raises my hopes “Clear sight of goal for Norwood” he says expectantly, but Norwood’s shot is deflected away for a corner. Andre Dozzell takes the corner. “Really poor, cleared by the first defender” says Brenner of the last significant incident of the half.
With the half-time whistle Brenner asks Stuart for his verdict so far. “It’s not been very good, Brenner” says Stuart; he carries on using the well-worn football phrases that all listeners to football commentary know and love. “Gillingham stamped their authority on the game”; “Big lad up front”; “Not put their foot on the ball” and then in a sudden fit of violent intent, “I’d be tempted to throw a rocket into a few of them”.
Feeling utterly despondent and somewhat confused that it’s only a quarter to two and not a quarter to four I am physically unable to put the kettle on. A lot has been said about the impact of lockdown on people’s mental health, but no one mentions the impact of football matches not kicking off at 3 o’clock.
Returning to my radio I hear Brenner say “Confident Stuart Ainslie?” Clearly not sounding so, but refusing to say so Stuart replies “They’ll certainly have to up their game”. “Dozzell too deep in his own half” he explains, suggesting a way in which their game might be upped. Play resumes. “Ipswich in a rather washed out away kit” says Brenner, painting that picture again but subliminally describing Town’s performance so far before going on to explain that he and Stuart are not in Gillingham but in the studio “…watching the telly for want of a better phrase”. I decide that there is nothing wrong with “watching the telly” as a phrase, but it would be better to be at the game if it were possible.
Five minutes into the half and James Wilson prevents a probable second goal for Gillingham with a timely block. “Town have never lost at Priestfield” says Brenner probably filling in his betting slip and putting £50 on Gillingham to win as he speaks. We look a lot better team when our foot’s on the ball” says Stuart inventing the concept of a shared foot and making me think of the end of the opening titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “Poor spectacle, it has to be said, the game so far” says Brenner producing one of his best ever back to front sentences.
Sixty five minutes have passed. “Could it be Luke Chambers? Fabulous goal” says Brenner. “It’s a huge goal, a huge goal, with Ipswich’s new tenure” says Stuart, partly repeating himself and trying to use an intelligent sounding word but making no sense. Ipswich have equalised and my hopes are raised. Three minutes later the oddly named Keanan Bennetts is replaced by Gwion Edwards, Freddie Sears replaces Josh Harrop and Flynn Downes replaces Troy Parrott. “Am I right to fancy Ipswich to go on and win it”? asks Brenner, goading Stuart into making a foolishly optimistic prediction. “Errr, yes” says Stuart foolishly and optimistically, and giving Brenner the answer he probably thinks he and the listeners at home want to hear.
The seventy second minute and Town win a corner which is headed away. Freddie Sears loses the ball, Gillingham break down their right, a low cross into the penalty box and ‘Daino’ scores easily. “Poor from Town again” says Stuart. Town are losing 2-1. Kayden Jackson replaces Andre Dozzell. “Still wouldn’t rule out Town winning this game” says Brenner with uncharacteristic optimism, as if he’s trying to curry favour with the new managerial regime.
Less than fifteen minutes of normal time remain and from a corner a Kayden Jackson header hits the cross bar. Minutes later Jackson fouls Jack Tucker “More than happy to find himself on all fours” says Brenner slightly weirdly of Tucker and conjuring images that I didn’t want to imagine. The ball is given away by Town again, “ it could easily have been 3-1” Gillingham still have the ball, “ a shot into the corner of the net” and Gillingham lead 3-1 thanks again to Vads. “Self-harm from Ipswich here” says Stuart taking his co-commentary to a very dark place. “A fair few culpable at the back” says Brenner returning the commentary to more familiar territory. “ A really disappointing afternoon for Ipswich Town so far, it has to be said” says Brenner fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it, before admitting that he had expected a Town win.
Gillingham cleverly or cynically manage the remaining minutes and time added on, but it doesn’t sound as if Ipswich do very much to make them think the game isn’t already won, and indeed it is. Brenner asks Stuart for his final thoughts. “Just didn’t turn up today” says Stuart unimaginatively. “One or two players will be looking over their shoulders with regard to their shirts” he adds, implying perhaps that some players don’t know their own names or that before he left, Paul Lambert had written uncomplimentary things in felt tip on the numbers. Reaching for the radio off switch I hear Stuart say “May be they took this as a given today”, before immediately contradicting himself and adding “I’m sure they didn’t”, as if Brenner was sat opposite him reproachfully shaking his head from side to side.
Like Brenner, I think I had expected Town to win today, but then I expect us to win every game whether it is the beginning, the middle or the end of an era. Slightly annoyed with myself for feeling so dejected therefore, I put away the radio and wonder what the hell I’m going to do for the rest of the afternoon. At least I don’t live in Gillingham, I think to myself , and in any case I expect we’ll win on Tuesday.