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Memories from the inner sanctum: Gillingham and The FA Cup

Ahead of the FA Cup replay at Carlisle, former GFC media manager Nick Bull relives some FA Cup memories from his time at the club



Ah, the magic of the cup. I can still remember the aftermath of the fiasco well. The location reminded me of my old school’s sports hall changing rooms, with its scuffed white walls and lumps of mud displaced from boots scattered along the corridor. A smell of deodorant filled the air and the noise (from one changing room, at least) was boisterous.

“Let’s get p****d in Blackpool, let’s get p****d in Blackpool,” was the chant. For the second time in three years, Brackley Town had achieved a memorable FA Cup upset. It’s November 2017 and Gillingham were embarrassed on national TV (again).

So narrow are the corridors and walls at St James Park that a few people later told me they thought Brackley staff and players were banging on the Gills dressing room door in celebration. They weren’t.

I remember thinking that the 30 minutes or so post-full time in the Gills camp were similar to that when surrounded by family members after a close relative dies. There’s silence, a few awkward ‘this is awkward’ faces and a fragile, tense atmosphere. I definitely raised an eyebrow in the direction of some of the unused subs as they came in from their warm down as a “what just happened” gesture.

Somewhat less convincing was my insistence to BT Sport production staff that Justin Edinburgh would conduct his post-match interview within a couple of minutes of full-time. Ha! No chance! Whatever people may think about our former manager, I cannot imagine how unpleasant the thought of facing the press would have been at this time.

What stands out about the Brackley defeat is that three months earlier I’d seen one of the best performances from a Gillingham side in my 23 years of supporting the club in another cup competition. Incredibly, six of the starting XI against Watford also began the game at St James’s Park.

Personally, the EFL Cup triumph at Vicarage Road was the last-but-one high of the Edinburgh reign in ME7 (the brilliant comeback win against Shrewsbury Town days later takes that title). Luckily, memories of that night are just as fresh in my mind.

It was quickly evident the mess Watford were in upon arriving at their ground. Their squad was visibly divided, full of cliques largely decided by nationality and time spent at the club.

Manager Walter Mazzarri seemed to be followed by his interpreter everywhere he went, too. He barely spoke a word of English. A member of Watford staff was incredibly dismissive of the atmosphere in the club. “In football there are three types of player,” they said. “Those who are good and are nice people; those who aren’t good but are nice people; and those who are utter *****. We’ve probably got just enough of the first two to balance out the last one…”.

Not so, it proved.

Regardless, to this day, I’ve still never met any Gills fan who thought we’d win there, especially given the preceding weekend’s results: Watford lost narrowly to Champions-elect Chelsea, Gillingham were away to Scunthorpe. I’ll leave it there.

I still struggle to work out how that performance, one full full of desire, energy and defensive organisation, was never replicated again prior to the managerial change four months later. Sadly, I still feel those involved never got the credit they deserved. Sure, the Brackley farce and the season’s subsequent relegation battle made it largely irrelevant. And, annoyingly, the fact it went into extra time meant that the national newspapers gave more space to otherwise unremarkable results in games that finished in 90 minutes (a factor that probably saved some unwanted attention come Brackley, admittedly).

Mark Byrne’s brilliant equaliser was another early sign about how good a player he is. An impressive substitute appearance from Bradley Dack helped swing the game in the Gills’ favour.

The likes of Deji Oshilaja, Josh Pask and Emmanuel Osadebe put in arguably their best performances for the club. And Stuart Nelson proved a point with a near-flawless display.

It was that small glimmer of hope for a victory that drew me to get permission from Watford staff for my media team colleague Olly Huddlestone and I to film the final minutes of the game from the bench area and enter the pitch at full-time should Gills be winning.

His edit of the celebrations is fantastic, one of the things I’m most proud of from my time at the club. In the past two years, no other club-produced video has generated as many hits across YouTube and GillsPlayer/iFollow. Nice work, mate!

But you may notice that the bit everybody arguably wants to see the most – the dressing room celebrations – aren’t included. Cut from the end of the clip was a shot of the then-assistant manager guarding the door; we weren’t welcome inside.

Ady Pennock’s notion that everybody working for Gillingham were all part of “one club” didn’t really feel the case under the previous regime. Unless they wanted their office TV fixing, or something trivial.

This year’s FA Cup draw seemingly gave the club their best chance of making the third round since 2012. Admittedly spoilt by memorable games against Charlton Athletic, Chelsea, Coventry City, Derby County and Leeds United in the first few years of the Scally era, only the home FA Cup ties against Aston Villa and Stoke City stand out in the years following relegation from the Championship in said competition.

Of course, a replay victory against Carlisle United this week doesn’t guarantee a sizeable pay check come round three (clubs split ticket revenue 45/45%, with the FA taking the rest). I still remember the disappointment of being drawn away to Accrington Stanley at that stage in 2010; the result was a near-foregone conclusion given the atrocious record on the road under Mark Stimson. I also doubt the gate for the potential Sheffield Wednesday home tie would be anything spectacular, too – we would have to rely on away fans to push it past the 7,000 mark, I suspect.

Sure, cup runs can have a negative effect on league form. But they can also prove to be a galvanising factor, a rare occurrence that brings club and fan base together. Divisions and apathy can be healed, even if it turns out to be a short-term thing. (That said, I believe that the Watford triumph last season played a part in delaying Edinburgh’s departure; the Brackley defeat was one of the first results to begin the movement towards his sacking).

The mood within the club and fanbase since Steve Lovell took charge has been more positive than at any time I can remember in the past 18 months. Moving out of the bottom four after the away win against Walsall a few weeks ago was a huge psychological event for everybody linked to Gillingham FC. And progression to the third round of the FA Cup will undoubtedly continue that vital upward trajectory.

I remember the day tickets for the Tottenham EFL Cup game went on general sale last September. Fans queued outside the ticket office on Redfern Avenue for hours. The call centre’s phone lines didn’t stop ringing. Social media inboxes became full of people asking for favours and more tickets than the allowance (who can blame them for asking!?).

Results in the weeks leading up to the game weren’t great but that buzz of counting down to the White Hart Lane visit was infectious. Using my contacts, I was able to get the club and Justin good coverage in The Times, The Sun, The Telegraph and Evening Standard, all titles who would never normally afford such publicity to Gillingham. Again, credit to the former manager here: he’d spend around an hour with each reporter, often discussing the same topics, then 30 minutes or so posing for photographs.

In this area, it genuinely felt like the club were going places, that we had a bit of momentum and energy among the first team to finally cure the hangover from the awful way the 2015/16 season ended. Of course, September 2017 turned out to be a poor month (one league win from five games) and October even worse. How quickly memories of the Tottenham game faded.

It was hardly a memorable performance; it seemed like I spent the second half tweeting GOAL FOR SPURS from the club account while gorging unnecessary amounts of the pick ‘n’ mix that was laid on for the press. Sure, it wasn’t as bad as events in Northamptonshire on 16 November 2016. Thank goodness we’ve got Watford.