Tuesday 19th August 2014 – Sky Bet League One – Gillingham 2 v 2 Swindon Town – Priestfield Stadium – Attendance – 5264
Any outsider wishing to fully decode Gillingham’s rivalry with arch nemesis Swindon Town would need to grab a time machine and transport themselves back to Saturday 31st March 1979. This was the exact date an odd rivalry began between the clubs. Before kick off Gillingham were well placed at 5th in the table with 43 points and three points behind leaders Watford, and were well in the hunt for promotion from Division Three (now League 1), but Swindon, just three points and one place further back in sixth, had promotion ideas of their own. Gillingham raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Dean White after just 90 seconds, and another from Danny Westwood on 27 minutes, only for Swindon to hit back twice before the break to level matters. Referee David Hutchinson then decided to make himself unpopular with the Gillingham faithful by sending off Danny Westwood two minutes before half time for swearing when the crowd believed he was about to show a yellow card to Swindon’s Roy McHale for a foul. The second half didn’t get much better for Gillingham as referee Hutchinson seemed intent on giving every decision in favour of Swindon. The referee’s performance incensed one male fan so much that he made his way onto the pitch and assaulted referee Hutchinson before being apprehended by some Gillingham players. A bad tempered game finished 2-2 but worse was to come in the return game at Swindon later that season which saw the rivalry between the clubs become even more heated. By this stage of the season the Gills were in 3rd place with 53 points and had two games in hand over leaders Swansea, whilst Swindon were in 5th place with 53 points. Over 4000 Gillingham fans made the trip to the County Ground but events on the pitch took a turn for the worse for the travelling army when referee Lester Shapter sent off Terry Nicholl in the 36th minute after two bookable offences. The two yellow cards had been for fouls on Roy McHale who was now fast becoming the villain of the piece for his antics and play acting in this and the previous league game back in March. Swindon went on to record a 3-1 win which was a crushing blow to Gillingham’s automatic promotion chances. However, if events on the pitch that afternoon had been bad tempered it was nothing compared to what happened in the tunnel after the game. Swindon coach Wilf Tranter was at the centre of it all when he made a few unsavoury comments which didn’t go down too well with Gillingham players Ken Price and Dean White. One of Price or White grabbed Tranter whilst the other punched him leaving the coach with facial injuries. Price and White along with two other Swindon players were detained by Police after the game. It was an unsavoury incident which eventually ended up in Swindon Crown Court in January 1980. Price and White were eventually found not guilty by the courts whilst the then Gillingham manager Gerry Summers sued the Swindon Express newspaper for comments made about the Gills and and he received an out of court settlement. Ultimately for the Gills the defeat had been the real damage on the day as it cost the club promotion.
The 1979/80 season saw the rivalry continue with a huge police presence gathering at Priestfield for the first league clash in December at Priestfield. The game finished 0-0 and both teams managed to keep eleven players on the pitch but it was a very competitive game played in front of a volatile atmosphere. Roy McHale received the majority of the stick from the Gills support for his previous antics. The return game in April saw another Gillingham player receive a red card, this time Steve Bruce for a fighting in another game between the clubs that was bad tempered throughout. The Gills were well beaten 3-0 on a sorry afternoon in Wiltshire as villain Roy McHale continued to be the centre of the Gills aggression. The following season saw the rivalry die down a little with both league games finishing 0-0, before the Gills did the double over Swindon during the 1981/82 season. The Gills had already won 1-0 at Priestfield in October before repeating the trick with a 1-0 win at the County Ground in late March to end a run of ten games without a win at Swindon. Swindon were in free fall at the time with just three wins in twenty seven games and were eventually relegated after finishing in 22nd place a point adrift of Walsall who survived. Swindon’s relegation meant the clubs avoided playing each other until Swindon were promoted from Division Four (now League 2) at the end of the 1985/86 season when the rivalry was again to ignite. The first game between the clubs in the 1986/87 season took place in late December in front of a packed house at Priestfield. The Gills were 2nd going into the game and had won eight and drew two of their previous ten league games. However, Swindon were on a good run themselves and well and truly silenced the home support with a 3-1 win as the Gills players froze in front of a crowd of 9994. The return game at the County Ground in early May was the penultimate game of the season for both clubs and ended in a 1-1 draw on the pitch after a penalty decision was awarded to Swindon late on after a Swindon player had thrown himself to the ground in the penalty box. Off the pitch it was another story though, as the Gillingham supporters’ coaches came under attack from Swindon fans on the famous magic roundabout near the County Ground before the game causing damage to the coaches. After the game there was also fighting between both sets of supporters. The draw at Swindon and home win over Bolton on the final day secured the Gills a play-off place and a possible meeting in the final with Swindon Town.
First the Gills had to overcome First Division Sunderland in a two legged semi final. The first leg was at home and the Gills won 3-2 thanks to a Tony Cascarino hat-trick. The Gills lost the second leg at Roker Park 4-3, but a 6-6 draw on aggregate was enough to send Gillingham through on away goals to set up a meeting with who else but Swindon Town who had beaten Wigan Athletic in the other semi final. The first leg of the final was at Priestfield, these were the days before it was played at Wembley in a one-off game, and it was the Gills who edged a tight and edgy game with a 1-0 win thanks to a goal late on. In the second leg Gillingham were just eleven minutes from a first ever promotion to the First Division (now the Championship) thanks to a wonderful volley into the top corner from Karl Elsey after 17 minutes of the contest to put the Gills 2-0 up on aggregate. Keith Peacock’s side couldn’t hold out amidst an onslaught from the home team though, as two goals from Swindon in the second half was just reward for their dominance, and that meant the final went to a third game on a neutral venue. That neutral venue was Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium. Just short of twenty thousand fans made the trip to South London on Friday 29th May 1987, but for the Gills fans it was heartache third time round as Swindon won 2-0 thanks to two goals from Steve White. The Gills did eventually secure their first ever promotion to the First Division in May 2000 some thirteen years after the heartache of Selhurst Park. However, during those thirteen years the club sacked their most successful ever manager, Keith Peacock, in December 1987, nearly lost their place in the league in May 1993, almost went to the wall in the summer of 1995 before businessman Paul Scally bought the club for £1 and with the help of managers Tony Pulis and Peter Taylor, the club rose like a phoenix from the flames from the bottom on the fourth tier to a glorious promotion to the second tier with a 3-2 win over Wigan Athletic at Wembley on Sunday 28th May 2000.
As for the rivalry with Swindon Town; after the play-off final in 1987 it was to be another nineteen years before Gillingham and Swindon renewed their hostilities again. The first clash in nearly two decades came during the 2005/2006 season, Gillingham’s first season back in third tier after relegation from the Championship in May 2005. The game took place at Priestfield and Gillingham were finally able to gain revenge for the defeat at Selhurst Park with a 3-0 win in front of a delighted Priestfield. Since that clash both clubs have met regularly between 2006 and 2014 with Gillingham coming out on top at Priestfield (four wins and a draw) and Swindon coming out on top at the County Ground (four wins and draw).
The first meeting between the clubs in the 2014/15 season came in early August and was to be my first Gillingham game of the new season. After going 2-0 up at Milton Keynes Dons on the opening day of the season and then collapsing to lose 4-2, Peter Taylor’s new look young team had achieved two wins over Yeovil Town, 2-1 away in the League Cup 1st Round and 2-0 at home in the League. The win in the League Cup had set up a mouth watering clash at Priestfield against Newcastle United in the 2nd Round. First though came the important business of trying to take three points off Swindon Town. Since 1987 the rivalry had died down somewhat from the Swindon end, but Gillingham fans still very much see Swindon Town as an arch nemesis. Before kick off I had left it late getting to the ground which meant I had to forget my usual routine of drinking in the Cricketers pub and decided to grab a pint in the Blues Rock Café, a drinking and entertainment venue built within Priestfield. However, by now it was 19:30pm and the Blues Rock have a policy of not serving after this time. Luckily enough a friend of mine Matt was already at the bar and managed to secure me a pint from his round and stopped me cursing the bar staff.
Back to the Swindon match and the Gills found themselves outplayed for long periods in the game with Swindon having sixty five per-cent of the possession as the away side. Nevertheless it was Gillingham who drew first blood when Danny Kedwell capitalised on a mistake by Swindon goalkeeper Wes Foderingham to put us 1-0 up in the ninth minute. Swindon played keep ball for the majority of the first half and we had on loan goalkeeper Stephen Bywater to thank for keeping us in front with a string of good saves. It remained 1-0 until Swindon eventually drew level just before half time thanks to fine solo goal from Andy Williams. If the away side felt that was the turning point in the game they were mistaken. After the break Kortney Hause put us back in front with a well taken first goal for the club, running on to a pass from Bradley Dack to rifle the ball into the top corner from just about 25 yards out right in front of an adoring Rainham End. With the team back in front the usual anti-Swindon songs were sang towards the 200 travelling Swindon fans with great gusto, much like they were throughout the game, but it was them who were to have the last laugh when Bywater dropped the ball in to his own net in second half injury time to rescue a point for Swindon. If the rivalry had died down a little between the clubs then the Swindon bench helped fan the flames again. The celebrations from Town manager Mark Cooper and his coaching staff when they scored their second equaliser were a bit over the top and led to a fracas on the touchline between both benches. Peter Taylor was sent to the stands despite attempting to be the peace keeper and after the game Mark Cooper admitted words were exchanged. For us Gills fans, despite the disappointment of conceding late on, it was a well earned point against a decent Swindon team who will no doubt be up there challenging for promotion, and most importantly it took our undefeated run at Priestfield against Swindon to six games. As for the rivalry between the clubs it does seem to be a one way one these days, but after Cooper’s antics revenge will be in the air at the County Ground in March 2015.