10/05/08; Gillingham FC v Rochdale AFC, at Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham, Kent :: League Two Playoff semi, 2nd leg
For what it’s worth, Gillingham were very good. Faster than most, cleverer than most and stronger than all others in the bottom division. They were, in short, a better team than us. And finally, the season that never felt as big as last time turned out to be just that – not as big as last time. And what followed was the longest coach journey home you’ve ever been on.
Is it called termed as failure, or comparative success? I guess that depends on your outlook. We lost in the playoffs; is that failure? But we out-performed the majority of teams with far higher budgets; is that success? We slumped from an auto-promotion place to sixth; is that failure? But we managed to keep our heads above water despite a myriad of others team suffering huge debts and unmanagable financial problems; is that success?
And, maybe even more pertinently, could we ever achieve more than this? I won’t analyse this point; it will hurt my head – and my heart – too much.
The Dale side which took to the field at Priestfield lined up in a 4-4-2 as per the first leg. Frankie Fielding guarded the net in front of the travellers, and forward of him Ramsden, McArdle, Stanton and Kennedy guarded the bit of the field in front of them. The midfield consisted of Dynamite Joe Thompson, Gary Jones, Ciáran Toner and Adam Rundle. The Thorpedo and Chris Dagnall up front tested the Gills defence, and the effectivity of Mr. Michael Oliver’s whistle.
The second leg began as the first leg ended, Gillingham prising the ball away from the Dale attack and foraying briskly into the opposing half, whilst Dale contented theirselves by launching the ball wingward, away from the overcrowded midfield. Not exactly see-sawing, as yet, just even. Lee Thorpe couldn’t get the ball though, hampered by a multitude of whistling.
Oliver’s whistling was strangely absent though in the build up to Gillingham’s opener. Dennis Oli, a brick wall of a striker, quite clearly handled the ball into his own path, and his pass found Andy Barcham who skiffered wide before squaring the ball to spritely Simeon Jackson who sidefooted past Fielding. Nathan Stanton et al stood by in righteous immobility, mouths barking away at the unseeing Michael Oliver. The home fans didn’t care, as home fans never do. One nil to the Gills.
Gillingham, contented by the lead, sat back and coiled themselves up into a spring. Thompson and Rundle found themselves doubled up upon more and more often, and the midfielders, despite their bluster, never found the space or time to express themselves. That said, Jonah and Toner probably need more time and space than most.
Without doing much, however, Dale found themselves on apparently level terms after half an hour or so. Dynamite Joe jittered past a Gills defender near the edge of the box, and the ball somehow fell to Chris Dagnall who neatly sidestepped before lashing the ball into the net past Simon Royce. 1-1.
It has to be said that Chris Dagnall appeared at times to be playing Gillingham on his own at times, a blue-arsed fly if ever there was one. Daggers is a player who sometimes appears to want to play a team all on his own; as if the inadequacies of his colleagues bucks him up into splendour. Or maybe it just appears that way. Either way, he was by far the best player on the night, and probably our best player in the squad.
The rest of the half played out as the first leg, and the first half of the second leg did; evenness. In fact, whenever we were equal in scoreline, Gillingham and Rochdale matched each other – it’s just that when we went behind, the Gills defence, led by the fantastic Simon King, dispelled our attacks rather too easily.
Without further incident, the first half ended. Texts from Sky watchers at home confirmed the invalidity of their goal (“defo offside major talkin point at ht”), but it wasn’t such a fresh wound now that we’d scored. ‘Dirty Old Town’ played over the tannoy while some Gillingham waller thought he’d mouth off at Keith Hill only to get back as much as he’d given. ‘You are embarrassing’ was sung out to the tune of that Pavarotti song you see on adverts for fake Italian pizzas. And then the ref blew for the second half.
It began with Dale brightness; for a while at least. Rundle wriggled and Thompson turned, Dagnall danced and Thorpe thudded a header into the relieved Royce. For a moment it seemed, you know, as if we might win or something.
But it wasn’t long before the match, and the whole season, turned irreparably in the Gills favour due to a mixture of skill and stupidity. Andy Barcham, ever the threat, broke down the wing and played over-lapping full-back John Nutter in inside the box. Rory McArdle could see no other option than to fling himself legward, a few milliseconds after Nutter had popped the ball past him. Even before the contact came, six hundred or so Dale fans put their head in their hands and muttered, “Oh Rory you bell-end”. Rory clattered and Nutter fell down like a sack of hammers. The most obvious penalty you’ve seen since Nathan Stanton’s kamikaze against Exeter City. Simeon Jackson hammered it into the side-netting, 2-1 Gillingham.
And it was over. Not just our fight, but the match and this very weird season too. Will Buckley and Jon Shaw made an appearance, but Gillingham stood as strong as the Thames Barrier we had crossed just two hours before on our journey down. They’re really quite good you know. Nutter, King, Fuller and Richards were the wall we could not puncture.
McArdle headed over, Jones had a shot blocked and – in the usual act of leather bag based desperation – Frankie Fingers came up for a corner. It went straight into the outstretched gloves of Simon Royce however, and with that the Dale contingent knew the match was lost. Oliver blew and Gillingham invaded. Some people were on the pitch; we knew it was all over.
Written by Matt Boothman on 11th May 2009