Secret Speccie: Gillingham
First published in Rugby League World, Issue 388 (August 2013)
Ground: Priestfield, Gillingham
Game: London Broncos v Warrington Wolves
Date: Saturday 8 June 2013
This was supposed to be the Broncos’ only On The Road game this year, but it has ended up being their third, as their fans get used to playing home games away from The Stoop. This trip to Gillingham could be the second of many as the club speak of making it an ‘out-ground’.
Gillingham itself is not rough around the edges. It is rough in the middle. But it can be easily avoided as you enjoy modernised maritime Medway, an archetypal 21st century post-industrial reinvention. In moments, you can move from the delights of medieval Rochester to Chatham’s grand historic dockyards, via a Dickens World theme park and a factory outlet centre.
Despite being tucked away under the armpit of London – geographically speaking, if not culturally – Medway is less than 30 minutes down the A2 from the M25’s Dartford crossing, where the Thames splits the country in two. Waiting at a rail crossing near the ground, it’s suddenly the sixties. There’s a man up a ladder cleaning a terrace house’s windows, another wheels a fridge past on a trolley, an old man in a flat caps struggles by on a bike, and a lad tucks a rugby ball under his arm.
Priestfield itself is hidden away among the terrace houses on your left, a ten-minute walk from the station. Most away fans will come by train: it’s far quicker to get there on the superfast new line from St Pancras than it is to Twickenham.
The streets around Priestfield are like many traditional old grounds: tight terraces not designed for cars, resulting in resident only parking on most of them. Parking is free on Church Street – a five-minute walk away. There is a guests-only car park behind the Rainham End, which even has palm trees and a canopy outside the Conference centre that looks far more Perpignan than Post Office Road.
There is little appealing close to the ground. I recommend lunch at the Ships & Trades pub on St Mary’s Island – a haven of real ale and pub grub with a view across the marina, while many folk opt for a stroll on the beach at The Strand, less than a mile from the ground. If you can avert your eyes from the power station on the horizon you could be in the Med.
A steward politely directs me upstairs from where I spend a couple of minutes watching a yacht race on the glistening estuary out of the back windows. You can’t do that at Craven Park.
With a general ticket enabling fans to sit anywhere apart from the towering golf stand at the open end, I watched the game from various places in the main stand. Sitting in the front row meant you were lower than the players, giving a waist-high view that was both exhilarating and frustrating. You couldn’t see the far corners and the sun was blinding. I moved towards the back of the front tier where the view was better but nothing compared the panorama from the top deck, which is up there with the best in Super League. A modern stand, the seats were reasonably spaced and comfy.
Pre-match there is a bright, lively atmosphere, not driven by alcohol or chanting but by people seemingly enjoying themselves and looking forward to some entertainment on a summer’s day. The areas of the ground in the sunshine are heavily populated – a good thing as Medway’s micro-climate ensures that those in shade need a couple of layers. Midway through the second –half, the Wolves fans are bored of cheering tries while the Londoners are silent. If this was Craven Park they would be going nuts.
While Gillingham has almost no Rugby League heritage, that’s not the case for Kent as a whole. Thirty years ago, Kent Invicta (including Gary Hetherington, Gary Freeman and Mark Elia) had a season at Maidstone United’s London Road – now a B&Q – setting the crowd record against St Helens and playing Castleford in the Challenge Cup live on Grandstand, cockney Frank Feighan scoring Try of the Season. Today the Broncos are captained by the Garden of England’s finest recent product, Tony Clubb of nearby Gravesend. The heart of Kent RL is, as most folk know, Medway Dragons, an inspirational community club that has introduced a superb number and variety of people to our game. Their jerseys – based on Catalans – are sporadically spotted around the ground.
The event certainly seemed like a united effort between Gillingham FC, the Broncos and Medway Dragons. The game was promoted by the football club with posters and fliers, all with the tag-line Join The Stampede. Those instructions were taken up by the Warrington players, who were jostling to be next to score. The crowd of just over 3,000 felt disappointing but is still Broncos’ second largest of the season so far. The Broncos put up their pitchside ads but their merchandise stall was in a dark recess of the exit – a missed opportunity.
On Help for Heroes day, the two host clubs have made an effort here – a pipe band in full regalia perform for much of the pre-match, before giving way to the Military Wives, who bring the mood down to a suitable sombre note for an impeccable minute’s silence.
At half-time, the GFC cheerleaders do the obligatory displays and the mascot race ends in a fine bundle. Warrington open the second-half with a dazzling team try, passing the ball as if on fast forward. It is the first of many, many more.
PLAYER INTERACTION 5/10
Noticeably, the Wolves warmed up as close to their support as possible while the Broncos set up in an empty area of the ground, hardly engaging with the fanbase. After the match the race was on between the humiliated Broncos players and fans to see who could get out of there soonest, while Chris Hill and Co lapped up the visiting horde’s applause and posed for photos pitchside. Hundreds of fans headed to the Blues Rock Cafe – a surprisingly-lively sports bar hidden away inside a concrete cave at the far end of the main stand, rather like the best bars being halfway up sky-scrapers in Hong Kong or Singapore and in Edinburgh basements. The Broncos were holding the players presentation there later, which would have been morbidly interesting.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
Match tickets were £20 on the day (£12 OAPs, £5 U18s) but only £15 in advance with under-19s for a quid. So an 18 year old would pay a quid in advance and £20 on the day! Ale connoisseurs were not catered for: draft Heineken was £3.50 a pint with a bottle of Fosters or Bulmers and a can of John Smith’s Smooth 10p cheaper. There was a full range of get-fat food, including, apparently, curry (although I saw little evidence of this). I went for a chicken balti pie and it was one of the finest three quids I’ve ever spent. Even the coffee (£1.90) was an instant Douwe Egberts.
Britain’s most south-easterly Super League ground now has two records of its own: London’s heaviest home defeat in their 33 year history, and Warrington’s biggest ever away win. But for a couple of dodgy early conversion attempts by the otherwise-sublime Stefan Ratchford, it could have been worse than the 10-82 final scoreline. While this was the worst possible performance to tempt fans or players back to Priestfield, I hope the Broncos stick with it for their summer day out.
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 8
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