Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Day at Wembley by James Tong (aged 24 and 3/4)

Well, that was fun.

The day started ridiculously early at 8:03am, when I woke up to Dave Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise" on the radio. Unsure as to whether this was portentious or grimly ironic, I got myself ready, and we made our way to the station. We stopped off at Macknade service station for a bar of Galaxy Cookie Crunch - a superstition from earlier in the season, I'd gotten one before the games against Bury, Dagenham & Redbridge and Rochdale, and we hadn't lost those games (winning two and drawing one) and I'm a superstitious bastard.

We got to the station in time for the train half an hour before the one we intended to get, and as Phil had made that one from Canterbury as well we got in early, bagging a seat with a table. At Faversham the train was pretty full - by Sittingbourne, an hour away from London, every seat was taken and there were even people sitting in the aisles. At Rainham there were people three deep at the platform edge - not a hope in hell of getting everyone in. It got worse further up the line. A group of 13/14 year old lads got on with us at Faversham and were being somewhat boisterous, until surrounded by Gills fans at which point they were rather quiet.

We got into Victoria and the train spewed out wave after wave of blue, yellow and white clad Gills fans. As we made our way round to the cashpoints we could hear the chants from the Wetherspoons echoing round the concourse - even in the toilets deep underground I could tell which chant it was. We got on an extremely rammed Victoria line train and then changed to go to Baker Street, where we went in search of food and alcohol. We took a picture outside Brian Moore's Head the London Planetarium (leave me be) and found a KFC to scoff. Sitting in the KFC 100+ yards from the pub on the corner opposite Baker Street station we could hear Gills chants down the street! Seeing people walking past with alcohol I remembered a Tesco down the road and we headed there just after midday so I could get myself a cider to drink on the tube. Unfortunately, due to the actions of some drunk Cambridge fans the previous weekend, Baker Street was completely dry between the hours of 12 and 3. Arse.

We got down to the platform just as an Uxbridge train pulled in and we jumped on, with around 20 other Gills fans standing in our carriage which became so hot sweat was dripping down the inside of the doors. At Wembley Park we found Coca-Cola fan people who were giving out wristbands - one poor sod made the mistake of pronouncing our club's name as Gillingham with a hard G and got booed by half a dozen Gills fans in a light hearted way. We walked up Wembley Way surrounded by fans in blue and white, and blue and yellow. The new Wembley looks a lot nicer than the old dump, and took pictures like the tourists we are - including the Gills flags in front of the Bobby Moore statue. Walking round the concourse we saw a mounted policeman on a white horse - by this time I was getting rather hyper and got excited about a white horse at Wembley.

When we got into the stadium itself I was rather taken by the resemblence to Tropicana Field in Tampa, where the Rays play their home baseball games, but when we walked through the barrier into the stand I was very impressed. We sat chilling and soaking up the atmosphere, before the under 11s cup final took place in the centre of the pitch. The 6000 odd fans in the stadium took it to heart and were cheering on both sides, with the blue team scoring in the last minute from a left sided corner. Hmm. After that we were impressed that Doug Hudson, the normal announcer at Priestfield, read out our lineup and then lead the 38,000+ Gills fans in a singalong of The Last Waltz. I wasted £3.80 on a pint of Carlsberg (Carlsberg evidently don't do beer, either) before watching the team warm up and alternating between excited and nervous.

The teams came out to an amazing atmosphere. The Gills had the better of the first half against a clearly nervous Shrewsbury, with a corner swept in by Nutter and pushed over the bar by their keeper, and a Josh Wright shot pushed round the post. The first half swept past very quickly, and the teams went in at half time with the Shrews lucky to be level. The half time break took its time to pass, and we discussed the fact that the Gills would be attacking the goal in front of us in the second half. We started the second half as we finished the first, pressuring the Shrewsbury defence but being hindered by the fact that their keeper is a bit good. Then, something changed. Suddenly the Gills became unable to string more than two passes together and Shrewsbury started pressing. The second half dragged on and on, with both teams tiring and gradually slowing down. Dennis Oli, who had turned their left back in and out so much the guy had twisted blood, was visibly knackered towards the end.

Then, suddenly, Barcham broke down the left, speeding past the defender and slicing his cross behind the goal, as the defender slid in. The ref gave a corner, which we weren't too displeased about, as 89:50 showed on the clock. As the ball was returned I noticed that we'd left three defenders and the goalkeeper back in case of a breakaway. Nutter swung the ball in, it was flicked on by Weston and Jackson headed goalwards towards the defender on the line. The defender headed it onto the post and behind him into the roof of the net - the keeper scrambled it away but the linesman had spotted the goal (as did we) and the south stand with the Gills in went absolutely mental. 49 games over the season, and it had come down to the last second of the last minute of the last game. The two minutes of injury time took approximately an hour to tick down, and as their keeper hoofed it forward, the referee blew his whistle and we were back up to League 1, a year after we left it!

After the trophy was lifted we left sharpish, and caught the tube back to Victoria in time to get the 18:03 train home. After running for food and for the train I was absolutely knackered, and stood on the train swaying and seeing blue sheep scampering in the fields. The food perked me up and kept me going until Faversham where, 10 hours after we arrived there, we returned tired and happy.

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