Belfast Telegraph

Terraces of Gillingham my sanctuary from The Man

Everyone needs a few places where The Man can't get yer. Those hideaways that give you brief respite from the pressures of the modern world and the boss class.

For some it's a secluded beach, or shady glen. One such place for me is The Cricketers public house. It's not because I need the booze and it certainly isn't for the decor and friendly welcome. It's just because of where it is.

You see, The Cricketers is in Gillingham, Kent, and is the closest hostelry to the football ground of the team that shares the town's name. I was born nearby and my parents still live in the county.

From an early age, first with my dad and then with friends, I would head for The Priestfield Stadium in fruitless search of sporting pleasure.

The Gills have never made back page headlines, but you are always guaranteed a panoramic view of the action from the savannah-like spaces on the terraces.

Every now and then a swashbuckling star would appear on the park (Northern Ireland's Terry Cochrane was one such name) with rolled-down socks, a mullet and insouciant skills to make us swoon, but would soon disappear, leaving us back in purgatory.

I went with my dad when I was very young and I inflicted the same experience on both of my sons. They, too, now have a kind of exasperated affection for the team. It's like passing on the baldness gene.

And, as I got older, The Cricketers played a big part in the ritual. There, amid its flock wallpaper, pictures of "olde" Gillingham and cig-burnt sofas, you would gather with friends some three hours before kick-off.

As the overpriced drink flowed things began to feel better, banter had to be sharp and something stranger happened. Despite having seen your team hammered the fortnight before, you began to look forward to the match, might even optimistically talk of an exciting win.

Supporters of useless teams forever return in the hope of seeing something beautiful occur, or at least live in fear of missing the once-in-a-lifetime moment it does. Seeing Cochrane score from the halfway line, as I did once, is the lower league football equivalent of finding a rare orchid in the Borneo jungle.

In The Cricketers, among the middle-aged men with replica shirts stretched across beer bellies, some kind of beatific calm always descends around 2pm.

The possibilities seem endless and, of course, The Man is barred. All this ends at about 3.20pm, as torpor induced by drink and the realities of "get-it-in-the-mixer" football set in.

Nowadays I don't get to The Priestfield that often, but when I do I like to make it a three-generations ordeal. My sons and I will drive over, pick up my dad, and we'll head for the place where the photographs of 'Trams on Gillingham High Street' still hang more than three decades on.

It's a great escape for the "old man", who always leaves the house with my mum's warning that he is not to drink. Three pints of Kent in and all is well with his world

And for my sons, now 21 and 19, there's a sort of kitsch value in the outing. Anyone can tell their mates they were at Old Trafford, but telling stories of being at a 0-0 against Stevenage amid 4,000 of the desperate and insane has a sort of indie charm all of its own.

And, of course, the talk ebbs and flows and, yes, excitement builds. About 120 years of collective experience and we've chosen to learn nothing.

Outside, The Man lurks. He's not really after a 76-year-old pensioner, or a couple of feckless students. It's me he wants, but for the next few hours he's at bay.

And the last time? Just two Saturdays ago. The sun came out and we won 2-0 against Tranmere. For a five-minute spell our team passed to each other and our first goal was a belter. All was well with the world.

It didn't last, of course. It can't.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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