Massif Wyndup: that was the name of the French/Dutch player who Gillingham Football Club nearly ‘signed’ on April Fools’ Day 2016. Fast forward 12 months and the events that unfolded at Stadium MK probably couldn’t have been described any better.
Regardless of recent form – a 4-1 away thrashing at Rochdale was followed up by a clumsy last-minute defeat to Peterborough United on Tomas Holy’s debut – the trip to many football fans’ least favourite team was one I looked forward to. Stadium MK is one of the better English new builds, even if it’s located in a town full of locals who seemingly don’t care about League One football. Or football, full stop.
Compared to Spotland two weeks earlier – a tatty, musty old place – the facilities in MK are world class. That said, entry into the press room is via the stadium’s Hilton hotel, making it the sort of route that would make many AMF campaigners cringe. It was there, upon our arrival, that we were met by Ben Campbell, my equivalent at MK.
“You realise it’s after midday, you can’t pull these April Fools’ pranks any more,” came my reply to the first thing he said. I genuinely didn’t believe it: ”You’re joking, right?” Walking into the away dressing room – by far the biggest yet dullest in League One – five minutes later, it became clear he wasn’t.
Instead of the blue home and green goalkeeping shirts, adorning the various hooks around the room were the players’ training tops and two borrowed MK kits for Holy and Stuart Nelson. Yes, it was true: kit man Bob Lewin had, er, forgotten some of the kit.
Predictably he wasn’t happy about it, his mood only slightly lifted by the fact that (a) MK staff had promptly printed numbers onto the back of the training tops and (b) the officials had agreed for us to play in them.
Suffice it to say that the reactions of the players upon their arrival at the stadium 90 minutes before kick-off was similar to mine. Lee Martin and Cody McDonald (two good jokers in the squad, both of whom took great joy in regularly commenting on my greying hair colour) both thought I was pulling a fast one.
I liked Bob a lot. You knew where you stood with him. If you were a grafter then you were considered OK. You could have a joke with him, too. Normally, the period between 1:00pm and 1:30pm on a match day was a good chance for catch-up over a coffee or two while hunting for the best free food we could find. Ah, good times. Like Ian ‘Pledge’ Pledger (the club’s former goalkeeping coach, who used to travel to and from ME7 daily from Peterborough), he faced a few uncertain days during the transition in management at the start of 2017. Worse still, Bob was unfairly accused of playing a part in the old coaching team’s departure by some of those affected by Paul Scally’s decision on January 3 this year.
Fans will recall that this wasn’t the first time Bob had forgotten the kit. Wearing Millwall’s green away strip at The Den in November 2001, the Gills came from behind to win 2-1 late on. Given the way that the story quickly became public knowledge – by 2:00pm most fans had picked up on the news, helped in part by a few loose MK lips – a similar result was needed.
There’s little in football more annoying than a careless defeat. Being outplayed and outclassed is acceptable in my eyes, letting a point slip in the 91st minute isn’t. The 300 or so seconds between Cody McDonald winning the penalty that led to Josh Wright’s equaliser through to full-time (complete with Dean Lewington’s winner and realising that Bradley Dack was walking off the pitch because he’d been sent off) are among the most unforgettable in my 18 months in the job. The game, courtesy of Steve Lovell’s passionate and slightly cryptic comments, also delivered one of the best post-match press conferences I’ve ever seen.
What made a bad day even worse was that, thanks to Gwen Poynter, the club’s long-serving and tireless secretary, who headed back to Priestfield from a planned trip to London just to let somebody into the kit room, the correct shirts actually made it to Stadium MK approximately 15 minutes before kick-off. Just think how big a 2-2 comeback draw and nobody knowing about the logistical drama would have been for morale at that key time in the season. Instead, we just looked a bit of a mess on and off the pitch.
It didn’t take long for Bob’s time at the club to end. Like the unofficially-retired white third kit (competitive record: 1 win, 3 losses), he didn’t see the season’s end. His name was plastered over Twitter, his story perfect for websites and social media channels seeking clicks and retweets. I sympathised with him – nobody’s perfect and all that, right? – and missed him on our final away trips. A few days later a friend summed up the situation perfectly.
“I feel really sorry for Bob,” they said.
“If we’re now sacking people for one mistake, there’s about 10 players who should have been called in for a meeting with Scally by the start of September.”
I think he meant it – otherwise his comments really would have been a Massif Wyndup.