The life of a Gillingham fan
The life of a Gillingham fan

Our Gillingham reporter Lewis Browning looks back on how he came to support the club and the trials and tribulations of doing so.

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I consider myself a late bloomer when it comes to football. Friends of mine often speak about running about with a ball when they were just a couple of years old, show photos of them as a baby in their first football shirts, or boast of having met players as a toddler.

I remember going to a football party when I was six, having no idea what was going on. I was chosen as a team captain for a game, and we had to pick players to join our teams. Every call I made was met with a sigh from whoever I selected; some set of mates, eh? Anyway, I ended up taking a ball to the gut and sitting out most of the game ‘injured’, relieved that I had escaped the dreaded game of football.

Another memory that sticks in my head is a Sunday morning conversation with my dad, staring at the back of the News of the World newspaper – yeah, me neither. “Oh, are they higher?” I asked my dad, examining the Championship league table. 

“No, the Premier League is the highest.”

“So why does it have ‘Champion’ in it?”

As I say, I was slow. But as they say, slow and steady wins the race. Now the game is my life.

And parking the slow start at the door, the love for football did start somewhere. That somewhere was the Brian Moore Stand of Priestfield Stadium on December 8, 2007.

I probably owe a big thanks to one of my primary school teachers, Mrs Lumley. Definitely, in fact. If her affection for Gillingham wasn’t as strong as it is, who knows what life would be like now? I still see her at games now some 14 years on.

‘Lummers’ took it upon herself to subscribe the school to sticker deliveries from the club to put in an official book. The club don’t run the book anymore, but that year they did, and I think it was weekly we’d receive deliveries of stickers. 

Students were to sign up to receive their set and the school would pass them on. I’m not sure why, but my mum put my name forward. I would get the stickers every week, and it was just something I just went along with.

That subscription meant my school were given free tickets from time to time. Mrs Lumley was handed the job of giving the tickets out, and she gave them to her sticker book subscribers. The next thing I know there I was, eight years old with two tickets to see Gillingham versus Port Vale in Coca-Cola League One, and not really a clue what that meant. Nevertheless, I took the tickets home, and the decision was made that my dad and I would go to the game together. 

He himself was a bit of a half-hearted football fan. One of those that followed Manchester United because of Beckham, that went to watch his local club when they got to Wembley. He’d been to see Gillingham before, but not since the 2000 Second Division play-off final, so we’re talking nearly an eight-year gap. 

I didn’t really look forward to the game. Not like I do these days, anyway. It was just another day. I was going out for the day with my dad, I was doing as I was told, and that would be that. 

As children, my sister and I would go to my Nan and Grandad’s house on a Saturday. On this particular day, my dad took my sister to their house as he normally would, and I just tagged along; my grandparents knew I wouldn’t be staying. I remember my Nan asking me about the game.

“Who’s playing?”

“Gillingham.”

“Against who?”

“I’m not really sure…”

“Port Vale,” my dad interrupted.

“Oh, alright,” I replied.

Before leaving, I remember my nan walking in with a bag, insisting it was for me. I opened it, and it was full of little chocolates, accompanied by a rule it couldn’t be open until I was at the game. You’d think it was the cinema or something looking back now – but I did and do appreciate the gesture.

Soon my dad and I made our way to Priestfield. I couldn’t tell you where we parked, how far we had to walk or the process of getting into the ground. The earliest thing I remember of being there is having to choose my seat.

“Unallocated seating” read the ticket, in the Brian Moore stand. Nowadays it’s a dream if a ticket says unallocated seating, but for eight-year-old me it was just another unnecessary hurdle I had to jump.

For some reason, I chose the first row. But I sat there, half taking in the occasion of being in a stadium, and tucked into the chocolate, having kept to the deal.

Another very clear memory to me is the ball coming my way in the warmup. I picked it up – what was I supposed to do? I had no idea.

I recall someone running over to me and asking for it back. It was a player, and I obliged, producing a throw as almighty as you could ask for from an eight-year-old. He smiled and ran back off to train.

Apart from certain aspects of the game, I don’t recollect much. But I remember another boy sitting behind me with his dad. And I remember questions, oh so many questions. Questions about literally anything – the grass, the players, the kits; everything. At the time it did my head in; but looking back now, it’s innocent. It must’ve been his first game too and I imagine he was in a similar position to me. I wonder if he ended up with the same obsession I now have.

An important thing to note from that day is the weather. Many will know about the famous stand – if you can even call it that – at Priestfield, the Brian Moore Stand. Constructed in 2003 out of scaffolding, it was supposed to be temporary. It’s still there to this day and is showing no signs of disappearing any time soon. But that’s a story for another time.

It doesn’t have a roof, and no roof on a cold December afternoon can only result in one thing. At some point in the first half, it began to absolutely lash it down. The heavens had opened, and it was as if God had seen where I was and wanted to make that day memorable for me. And it worked. A coat was not enough.

Luckily, stewards were on hand to hand out some trusty rain macs. Spoiler: they didn’t work. But I can look back and laugh at it now.

Gillingham went 1-0 up in the 32nd minute thanks to Chris Dickson. I’ve no idea what sort of goal it was but I do recall standing up and clapping awkwardly, not sure how to act as others celebrated around me. I looked twice at Dickson and realised he was the player that I gave the ball back to in the warmup. So I guess I had already met the player that would go onto score the first goal I saw live – that’s pretty cool.

In terms of the rest of the game, my mind’s blank. I know Gillingham lost 2-1 in the end after a Vale comeback; start as you mean to go on, and all that. I remember walking out with my dad after, having enjoyed the experience but still not really sure what to make of it.

The free tickets continued to come, and I got more and more into things. Gillingham 3-0 Nottingham Forest, Gillingham 2-1 Bournemouth (imagine those two results today); both ticked off, and I recall asking my dad to go and see a Gillingham game on my birthday too as time went on. That must’ve been the first ticket I sort of actually purchased.

I fell further and further in love with the club and by 2012 I wasn’t missing a game. I became a season ticket holder in I think 2014, with Saturday afternoons the highlight of my week.

If we fast-forward to the present day, I no longer have a season ticket. But that’s because I have the privilege of covering the club, my club, from the press box. I’ve built a fantastic rapport with staff and players around the place, and I guess it’s sort of a knock off version of living the dream.

Things frustrate me about the club, sure. None more so than recent events – if you know, you know, but again; that’s a story for another day. The bottom line is that that rainy day in 2007 triggered my love for Gillingham Football Club and would change my life forever, however little I knew it at the time.

To Mrs Lumley; thank you. 


 
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