It is probably fair to say that throughout Gillingham’s rise from Division Three in 1996 to Division One in 2000 (now the Championship), and continuing during their five year stay in England’s second tier, one team from Lancashire played a supporting role in that most special period for Gillingham. For ten years between 1995 and 2005, Gillingham and Preston North End just couldn’t be separated and rose through the Divisions like phoenixes from a joint flame.
It was the 1995/1996 season when both clubs started to get closely acquainted as they spent nine months battling for both the league title and promotion from Division Three (now League Two). Their two league games that season had finished in draws, 0-0 at Deepdale and 1-1 at Priestfield. The game at Priestfield in March 1996 was a top of the table clash. The gates at Priestfield were locked before kick off as Priestfield attracted its first 10,000 plus crowd since the early 1990s. Mark Harris’ headed equaliser that March afternoon ensured the Gills went the whole season losing just the one home game. By the end of the campaign both clubs eventually finished the season by gaining promotion. However Gillingham, under the management of Tony Pulis, missed out on the title to Preston, at the time managed by Gary Peters, therefore beginning a rivalry that lasted for around ten years until both clubs’ fortunes went in different directions in 2005.
The rivalry had everything from heroes on the Gillingham front in Andy Hessenthaler, to Villains from Preston team, no other than Sean Gregan. The former North End captain was a player the whole of Priestfield loved to hate, but also a player admired by both set of supporters and respective management set ups. The rivalry also served up some cracking contests which included top of the table clashes, playoff deciders and the odd thrashing for both clubs.
After promotion from Division Three in 1996 both clubs had really quiet campaigns during the next two seasons. In that period both clubs won one of the four games between the clubs, and the other two games finished as draws. It wasn’t until the 1998/1999 season that the rivalry again became intense. Gillingham was still being managed by Tony Pulis, whereas Preston now had David Moyes, the future Everton manager, at the helm. The two clubs had again been battling for promotion, this time from Division Two. At the end of the season both finished in a playoff place; Gillingham finishing 4th, a point above Preston in 5th. That meant the clubs were scheduled to meet each other in a playoff semi-final for a place at Wembley. The first league meeting that season had finished 1-1 at Deepdale and the reverse fixture in March at Priestfield also saw the game finish 1-1. Robert Taylor rescued a point for the Gills with a headed equaliser in the very last minute of the game at Priestfield.
The first leg at the Deepdale on Sunday May 16th 1999 was a tight and nervy contest. The 2,000 plus travelling Gillingham fans that made the journey north probably feared the worst when David Eyres headed North End in front nine minutes into the second half in front of an 18,000 plus crowd. However, the Gillingham team that Tony Pulis had built were made of sterner stuff and with Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor up front, an away goal to take back to Priestfield was always possible. That away goal did come and it was one half of that deadly duo who delivered it. Robert Taylor’s low shot squeezing under David Lucas in the North End goal with just ten minutes of the match remaining. That left the tie squared at 1-1 and on a knife edge for the second leg at Priestfield four days later.
It was Wednesday 19th May 1999 when 10,505 packed into Priestfield for the second leg in what turned out to be one of Priestfield’s greatest ever nights. What followed on the pitch was the most nerve-jangling 95 minutes as the Gills held onto a 2-1 aggregate lead that Andy Hessenthaler’s goal after just two minutes had given them. The goal sent Priestfield wild and set the club on course for their first ever Wembley appearance in their history. It was a game of limited chances, but Preston never gave up knocking on the door and it took some last ditch defending to preserve the lead. But the Gills held on and made it to Wembley.
With the Gills suffering a heart-breaking playoff final defeat to Manchester City, both clubs again found themselves in Division Two at the start of the 1999/2000 season. David Moyes was still in charge at Deepdale and the Lancashire club went on to finish the season by winning the league title. Gillingham, however, were now were under the guidance of Peter Taylor. That didn’t stop the Gills again being among the promotion chasers that season though, and after overcoming Stoke City in a dramatic playoff semi-final, they eventually secured their first ever promotion to Division One beating Wigan in the playoff final.
The league games between the sides during the 1999/2000 season saw both pick up away wins, Preston winning 2-0 at Priestfield and Gillingham by the same score line at Deepdale. The game at Priestfield in September 1999, however, was to add yet more to fuel to their rivalry. By this stage Sean Gregan was a hated figure among the Priestfield supporters after a nasty tackle on Hessenthaler in the playoff semi-final a few months earlier. But still, the 6610 present inside Priestfield that afternoon probably didn’t expect the Gills tannoy announcer, Doug Hudson, to introduce Gregan as, “the ever popular Sean Gregan” and as the teams took to the pitch he announced, “Welcome to Priestfield Sean Gregan”. The announcement galvanised a classy North End side, and Gregan duly went and scored in a 2-0 victory leaving Priestfield and especially Hudson to lick their wounds. By the time of the return fixture at Deepdale both sides were very much in the promotion hunt. The kick off was delayed for an hour though when the Gillingham coach was stuck in traffic on the M6. On the plus side for the Gills, striker Carl was fit again after his long injury lay off. Once the game did eventually kick off, it was delicately balanced at 0-0 when Asaba made his entrance from the bench in the 55th minute. Four minutes later the travelling supporters were chanting his name and celebrating the return of their hero after he rose high to head in Ty Gooden’s Cross. His second goal of the match had them in dreamland and helped to secure an impressive 2-0 away win at the eventual Champions.
Come the following season, 2000/2001, both clubs were now enjoying life in the higher echelons of Division One (now the Championship). The rivalry was still there though and the Gills had the upper hand taking four of the six points on offer from the fixtures that season. The first game took place in the middle of December on a boggy pitch more suited to a Sunday league match. However, it didn’t stop the Gills playing some sizzling football in a 4-0 romp. Carl Asaba scored twice followed by Paul Shaw and Barry Ashby to inflict the damage on North End. The return at Deepdale at the end of March finished 0-0, but for Gillingham it was another point closer to the 55 point total the Gills eventually mustered to finish safely in 13th position in their first ever season as a second tier club. North End finished in an impressive 4th to secure another playoff campaign.
Three months after the 2001 summer break, both clubs were scheduled to meet on the opening day of the 2001/2002 Division One season. Preston had failed to make it to the Premiership after losing out in the playoffs. By the time of the game, Preston must still have been licking their playoff wounds as the fixture represented their nadir against their Kent rivals. If the 4-0 loss at Priestfield the year before had been poor, this defeat was almost catastrophic. A 5-0 surrender thanks to a rare double from Marcus Browning and a goals from Barry Ashby, Iffy Onoura and Ty Gooden. It didn’t get much better for North End in the return fixture at Deepdale either. Goals from Simon Osborn and Paul Smith securing a 2-0 midweek win for the Gills. At the end of the campaign the Gills again finished in a healthy mid table position in 12th, whereas North End missed out on a playoff place finishing in 8th, three points adrift of Norwich City in the final playoff place.
The following season started to see the rivalry die down with some of the central characters that defined the era and rivalry leaving for pastures new. Midfielder Sean Gregan secured a £2 million move to West Brom in the summer of 2002 and by the end of 2002/2003 season, David Moyes was installed as Everton manager, a position he still holds to this day. As for the games that season, it was North End’s turn to hold the bragging rights. The game at Priestfield in August 2002 finishing 1-1 and the return fixture in February saw the Gills heaviest defeat at Deepdale during the whole ten year period, losing by three goals to nil.
The next few seasons saw a gradual decline in the Gills fortunes, but they still managed to pick up a point in a 0-0 draw at Deepdale during 2003/2004 season and a 2-1 home win at the start of the 2004/2005 season, sandwiched in between a 1-0 win at Priestfield for Preston in December 2003. As for the rivalry, possibly the last remaining acts of that period came during the 2004/2005 season, the last time the two clubs were in the same league together. In the game at Priestfield in August, in which Gills won 2-1, popular midfielder Mark Saunders had his leg broken in a tackle and wasn’t to play again for a year. By the time of the return fixture in March, the Gills were in a relegation battle and were in much need of the points. However, they went a goal down thanks to a 23rd minute own goal from goalkeeper Jason Brown. With 89 minutes on the clock they were still a goal down and it looked like the own goal would condemn the Gills to a defeat. But Paul Smith had other ideas and stunned the home fans into silence when he equalised in the very last minute. At the time it looked to be a massive point, but three months later Gillingham were relegated on goal difference on the last day of the league season and both clubs’ paths haven’t crossed again since.
When the two teams clash in the FA Cup 2nd round on Saturday 2nd December 2012, ten years of memories of this rivalry will be awoken again for many supporters of both clubs. As a Gillingham supporter it will be great to get another win at Deepdale, a ground that yielded many points and many happy memories.
Head to head 1995-2005
Gillingham wins : 7
Draws : 11
Preston wins : 4