Gillingham secured the point they needed to clinch the League Two title on Saturday, the club’s second ever championship and first since winning Division Four in 1963-64.
A capacity crowd of 11,172 attended the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon, the most since September 2003 when West Ham were the visitors and just shy of the 11,605 that saw Gillingham take on Maidstone United in the first ever league Kent derby in 1989.
The Priestfield Stadium was bathed in sunshine and the game took place in an atmosphere unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at the ground, comparable only to the two Wembley play-off finals in 2000 and 2009.
It was a fitting end to a brilliant season for The Gills, who return to the third tier of English football for the first time in three years, although they were made to work for their draw by AFC Wimbledon, who are fighting for their league survival.
Soak up the sun
Gillingham dominated the first half in terms of possession and chances, with striker Deon Burton putting them ahead after 12 minutes. The lead was doubled less than ten minutes later when Chris Whelpdale found space on the left flank to find Danny Kedwell, who headed the ball home against his former club, and Gillingham looked as though they were cruising towards an historic achievement.
The home side started the second half the brighter of the two teams, but around the hour mark, Wimbledon began to make their presence felt. Dons striker Jack Midson scored after 65 minutes, beginning a period of dominance for the visitors.
Gillingham had looked so assured and composed, but Wimbledon were forcing them into mistakes and frantic last ditch defending. An inevitable equaliser was scored by Jonathan Meades and Gills fans were left wondering if there was going to be a repeat of last season, when they squandered a 3-1 lead to lose 3-4.
Port Vale’s inability to beat Northampton meant that even defeat would clinch the championship, but that was not an option for the Gills, who held strong to secure the point, prompting wild celebrations and the now customary pitch invasion.
Once the PA announcer’s desperate calls for the fans to return their seats were obeyed, the players and manager began to reflect on what has been an astonishing season for the club.
“Amazing, 10 months of hard work. They’ve just kept going, getting points, breaking records, the first title Gillingham have won for 50 years and to be the manager on this special day is a magnificent feeling,” an emotional Martin Allen told BBC Radio Kent. “This is the best highlight of my career. I’m the worst Allen in the Allen family. The others are multi-talented, and for me, to be nicknamed Mad Dog just because I tackled people and make a living from football, and to be known as a manager who keeps clubs up, to be champions is unbelievable.
“It’s a lottery win, Christmas Day, money can’t buy that. Priceless moment.”
The club were last promoted from League Two in 2009 through the play-offs under Mark Stimson, only to be relegated the following season. However that was a different team, who could have avoided the drop had they won just one away game all season. It’s difficult to remember the last time Gillingham played as well as they are doing now and if they can continue this momentum, their next spell in League One could last longer than a solitary campaign.