Adam Bird

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Monday, 18 May 2009

Dreaming of Gathering Cups in May

Footballers

I read a book last year entitled "Here we go Gathering Cups in May", a seven story account written by seven Liverpool supporters and their encounters of each of the seven European Cup finals Liverpool have been part of. The name of the book derived from a flag made by a Bootle lady named Mrs Margaret McDonald, who was thanked in the preface with the line "For gathering a needle, a thread, and a line from her head, before waving her son off to follow the red".

Being a Gillingham supporter we are not accustomed to "gathering cups in May", indeed, if you are not a supporter of the "big four", namely Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester Utd the chances of picking any silverware at the end of a football season is an alien concept.

However, each club outside the Premier League does have the chance to cover themselves in glory by either winning their league outright, or as the case may be for most finishing within the top six or seven and entering the end of season playoff lottery.

The football league playoffs are loathed by some supporters, if you are a Leeds United, Preston or Ipswich fan you have my sympathies, but with me having my greatest footballing memories from the playoff finals, I for one am happy to see them stay.

Ten years ago, Gillingham reached Wembley for the very first time with a game against the mighty Manchester City, whom only three years previously had been playing in the Premier League. They had been tipped to bounce straight back to what is now the Championship, but like most "big" teams who find themselves in League One, the going tends to be a lot tougher, and so the blue half of Manchester had to face the might of the Gills to claim their place in the league above.

Walking up Wembley Way for only the third time in my life, the first following the team I love, the others being a school boy international, and an England friendly against Chile, I am not ashamed to say that the occasion got the better of me. With my Dad and Steph, in the infancy of our relationship together I had a tearful moment as the realisation of a dream became a step closer. Gillingham at Wembley for the very first time against Manchester City and a place in the championship, a league Gillingham had never played in!

If dreams are figments of an overactive imagination, nobody could have predicated that on 90 minutes Gillingham would be winning two nil and me like a cursed muppet was whispering to myself a list of "huge" clubs Gillingham would be facing in three months time. With the referee indicating five minutes of injury time a rejuvenated Manchester City pulled a goal back and the rest as they say is history. Paul Dickov scored in the last minute to equalise, putting the ball past his best man Vince Bartram, who was eventually defeated along with the Gills 3-1 on penalties.

Heartbroken at the time, and on a real low for twelve months after, retrospectively looking back, it was actually the best game I have ever been to. The vision of thousands of Gillingham flags flying as the teams walked out to fireworks on the hallowed Wembley turf will never leave me. Nor will the 40, 000 Man City fans that day singing Blue Moon at such volume it made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and take notice.

If the post match depression lasted 12 months, what way to exorcise the demons than a return back to the scene of the crime and facing it head to head?

If walking up Wembley Way as a Gillingham supporter for the first time was full of joy and happiness, the second, for me was full of fear and pain. I was convinced that it would end in tears all over again, questioned my sanity and asked why the hell was I putting myself through the pain all over again, just to get my hopes built up, ready for the team I love to let me down all over again?

As history shows, Gillingham Football club and everyone who pulled on the yellow (away) jersey that day became 'legends' - a term that is thrown willy nilly to anyone far less deserving than those players who fought back from losing so cruelly 12 months earlier, to losing their best player, ironically to Manchester City, to coming back in extra time from 2-1 down to finally win 3-2.

When Andy Thomson dived for the ball, sending time into that unique state of slow motioness, where even before the ball had hit the back of the net, the 55,000 Gills fans were rising to their feet prior to what is technically known as "going apeshit", that feeling of joy, which cannot be recreated or explained in words alone, justifying my decision not to wait outside feeling morose.

It's what football as a lower league supporter is about. Riding out the rough times and cherishing those moments when they come as they are all the more sweeter.

This Sunday, Gillingham Football Club face Shrewsbury Town in the League Two playoff final, we have ridden the roller coaster and found ourselves back at the starting station with a chance to ride it all over again.

Life in those intervening 10 years has been kind, Wembley stadium has undergone an amazing transformation turning from a decrepit relic of past glories into a spectacular shiny concrete colosseum. On a personal note, the Gills may no longer be my be all and end all, luckily fatherhood has readjusted my priorities accordingly. However, the nerves remain, and the anxiety. More so, the dreams of glory are still strong, as would the pain of defeat be hard to take - three months of pre-season depression isn't something anyone wants to go through.

Mrs Margaret McDonald from Bootle may have immortalised a saying on behalf of thousands of Liverpool fans, but really, for the most of us, it's not the gathering that's important, it's the dreaming.

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