Gigg Lane, Bury
Black and White and Read All Over type Ben is back once more. Clearly recent trips to Cardiff City and Didcot Town have not been enough, and so a trip to Bury does what it can to satisfy a need.
Hmm, how to avoid any painful knowledge of Newcastle’s annual gubbing at Stamford Bridge? How’s about going to a completely different game in a completely different division that’s being played at exactly the same time? That’ll do.
And so it is that I’m stood in the high-ceilinged, predominantly windowless cube that goes by the name of Bury FC Social Club with my companion for the day, Gillingham fan Adam, pint in hand and the dregs of the Plymouth v Cardiff lunchtime kick-off on the big screen. Gigg Lane is a dry stadium, but visiting fans are welcome as non-members in the Social Club next door for the princely sum of £1 each.
Which makes the choice of the music to which the home side run out on what is a bitterly cold afternoon, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ by Guns ‘N’ Roses, all the more ridiculous – it’s hardly an unfriendly or outright intimidating place to visit. Not only are there cheerleaders before kick-off, for fuck’s sake, there’s hardly anybody here – the attendance barely scrapes past the 2,000 mark and the end opposite ours is so sparsely occupied that our view of the white seats spelling out “BURY” is almost completely unimpeded. It’s remarkable, and disappointing, that a town the size of Bury can muster so little enthusiasm for a team that has, after all, topped the League Two table for a period this season.
Bury are going into today’s game on a bad run, though, having slipped to a shock 2-0 defeat at home to lowly Grimsby in their last outing, while the Gills were busy thrashing 10-man Rotherham 4-0. What’s more, it’s less than a fortnight since this very fixture in the FA Cup 1st Round ended 1-0 to the visitors.
So, naturally, it’s Bury who take the lead within the first ten minutes, sloppy defending gifting Andy Bishop an opportunity which he coolly converts. Gillingham’s response is muted, though a glancing header from a corner flies fortuitously straight into the hands of Shakers ‘keeper Wayne Brown and only a couple of superb blocks and slide tackles from those in front of him ensure he isn’t troubled again.
As the largely uneventful half wears on, the only real amusement comes in the form of the Gills fans’ chants of “Are you in the BNP?” to the referee following a dubious decision penalising their black winger Albert Jarrett – don’t they know there’s a handy way to find out? I find myself drifting off into speculating whether Gillingham left-back Ben Nutter’s ever been sent off for violent conduct when, five minutes before the break, the defence of which he’s a part has another collective moment of madness, allowing Bishop’s strike partner Glynn Hurst to head home powerfully at the near post from a corner.
Half-time, and a good opportunity to tell you my anecdote about Gills manager Mark Stimson. Once upon a time (well, the early ‘90s), when still in possession of a blonde centre-parting, Stimson was part of the Newcastle squad that won promotion to the Premier League. To celebrate the achievement, an open top bus parade was planned from Gosforth to the Civic Centre. Naturally I had to be there. As the bus passed by, fans were throwing all manner of things up to the players, and when it reached my vantage point on Gosforth High Street I noticed Stimson looking down directly at me. He gestured at my scarf and then mimed a throwing action – and I thought about it for a moment, and then, maintaining eye contact, shook my head. Well, he was only a bit-part player, after all, and I was rather fond of that scarf…
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes. While half-time presents many freezing fans with the chance to thaw out with a hot cup of Bovril (sorry, but there’s just something very wrong about a hot drink that tastes of meat), three take the opportunity to sneak a crafty fag in the toilets, only to find themselves escorted from the premises by some very efficient stewards. At the time, I shake my head at the fact that they’ve travelled hundreds of miles only to get themselves chucked out after 45 minutes, but with hindsight we reflect that they probably had the right idea.
Initially, though it looks as though the stern half-time talking-to - accompanied, one imagines, by more smashed crockery than you might find at a Greek wedding - has had the desired effect. Gillingham tails are up and, with ex-Arsenal schoolboy Jarrett marauding with a LuaLua-esque unpredictability down the left, they seem to be sniffing a way back into the match.
But they can get no change out of the miserly Bury back four, marshalled gallingly by a former Gill, 36-year-old Nigerian international Efe Sodje, and another goal apiece for the dynamic duo of Bishop and Hurst either side of the hour mark - both the consequence of more farcical defending - extinguish any hopes of a comeback like a fire hose putting out a tea light.
What amusement there is left for the travelling support to glean from the afternoon as they get more frozen by the second comes in the form of the cheerleaders ruffling and raising their pom-poms along to the foul-mouthed chants emanating from the family section. Certainly, events on the pitch give no cause for celebration - even when substitute Mark McCammon (on to an almighty groan from my companion) is felled by Brown for a textbook spot-kick, the ‘keeper somehow avoids an early bath, picks himself up and paws away Adam Miller’s penalty.
4-0 it finishes, and given that my companion’s previous Gillingham away game this season was their 7-0 trouncing by Shrewsbury, perhaps he should just steer well clear?
Making our way out of the ground and back towards the town centre, we pass the Gills’ team coach parked on a side street (quite why it hasn’t been allocated a parking space outside the ground I’m not sure). The driver’s sat vigilantly as though he’s been there all game trying to fend off local scallies intent on nicking the hubcaps. I crane my neck and peer up through the smoked glass to catch the final scores on Soccer Saturday - and would you believe it, we’ve managed to scramble not only a draw but a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge!
Time to celebrate, for me at least. Adam accepts his bottle of Forever Bury beer (all profits from which go to the Shakers) with a smile of pained gratitude.