Geographies of Football: Men of Kent
Our recent Geographies of Football series piqued interest to such a degree that we received a message from David Field wondering if we would be interested in an application of the methodology we applied to Cornwall and Worcestershire to England’s southeasternmost shire. Here are the thought provoking results and we hope to revive the series on an occasional basis.
What county is the biggest one club county; Norfolk? Suffolk? Berkshire? What about Sussex before Crawley’s elevation to the Football League? Nowhere near. The biggest captive county for a football league team is the Garden of England – Kent – with a population of 1.6 million. Yet Gillingham has never been imagined as a big club representing the hoards of Kentish Men and Men of Kent, unlike say Norwich, Reading or Ipswich who are the standard bearers for their counties. Is it local apathy, the lack of a working class football culture, or a case of being too close to London and its big clubs?
What is Kent?
Kent is an ancient county that has held a strategic position due to its position stuck between the nation’s capital and France. The Romans landed here, Christianity spread from it and the RAF held it as the last line of defence during the Second World War. It is imagined as a rural idyll full of orchards, hops and home of the Darling Buds of May. Today it seems to mainly function as a bedroom community for London or the final sight of England on the run to France. It is also Tory Britain where Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells writes into The Daily Telegraph about why Britain is going to hell in a handcart. This would not seem to be a natural football hotbed.
There have been significant population flows from London; particularly the East and South East Ends of London to Kent over the last 50 years. These are the capital’s traditional football nurseries, and indeed many second generation Kentishmen and Men of Kent support their old teams such as West Ham or Millwall every other week. Indeed Roy Hodgson’s England squad for Euro 2012 named this week contains a Kentish Man hailing from Dartford in Glen Johnson. There is talent but it is hard for it to shout in its home arena.
Home of the Sulking Men
Kent’s only football league participant is Gillingham FC, whose motto Domus Clamantium translates from Latin (rather than the local Anglo-Saxon tinged vernacular) to ‘The Home of the Shouting Men’. In terms of football league position, the club has generally floated around the bottom two tiers except for a five year sojourn in The Championship at the beginning of the millennium. Priestfield has never seen over 10,000 pour in to watch Kentish football fare since the first two seasons after the Gills were re-elected to the Football League in 1950. Attendances have generally hovered around the 4,000 to 6,000 mark which may seem about right for a team with not much to shout about; with their only silverware being the Fourth Division trophy won in 1963-64….on goal average
The Medway Towns, of which Gillingham is one, are an ill-defined conurbation of communities that are not generally known to most, but together they form a mass of a quarter of a million. Rochester has the historic Castle, Cathedral and as much Dickens as you could shake a proverbial stick at, as well as being quite possibly the only city in England to lose its status as a city.
Chatham was the industrious heart of the towns from whose docks such proud ships as HMS Victory were built, right through to the dangerous task of maintaining Cold War nuclear submarines. However thanks to Thatcher the docks are now silent, instead home to a bizarre Dickens based indoor theme park and a fourth-rate shopping outlet centre neither of which seem to serve any decent purpose or can support the towns’ economy. The town is now most famous in recent time for being the birthplace of the ‘chav’.
Gillingham itself sprawls above the docks as series of terraced houses that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lowry. Therefore the major draws of the towns are a surplus of cheap houses and a direct train ride into London. Although Medway is its biggest settlement, it is not its core, with the smaller burgs of Maidstone and Canterbury providing most of the county’s administrative and cultural institutions.
It is a tough place to define to outsiders, and even to itself. Indeed it appears to be a tale of two towns: There are those that are living the comparatively good life in sprawling semi-detached suburbs, whose passion is taking their gleaming Ford Focuses to Bluewater for their Latte and Lifestyle consumer fix, and those in the slowly rotting inner towns that no longer have the industry that the urban form was designed for.
The Medway Towns have two sides that are either just too poor or just too comfortable for the inhabitants to enjoy the passions of mass spectator sport, and as outsiders pour in from near and far (think of Woolwich and Wrocław), having been pushed out by high costs of London or pulled in by the offer of manual work in the warehousing and agricultural industries that encircle the towns, the community will only grow less unified in its potential support for sporting heroes.
That it is not to say that the Medway Towns, and even others areas of Kent, cannot be excited by the prospect of success for their teams. As New Labour optimism spread at the turn of the century, so the club seemed to be on the verge of bigger things. Two years in a row Gillingham reached the then Second Division Play-Off Final under the contrasting managerial styles of Tony Pulis and Peter Taylor. In 1999 Wembley Fever saw 36,000 ‘fans’ flood to London for their first visit to the home of football, only to see Man City fans’ dress rehearsal for this week’s celebrations; and the following year a barely credible 48,000 were there sporting Gillingham blue, this time in celebration as they saw their team reach the promised land. The expected pots of gold from ITV Digital and the grand dream of the 40,000 seater Scallydome with a retractable pitch built for the 2006 World Cup would mean our trajectory would only be upwards.
Five years of treading water in the second tier, after all those promises turned to dust, takes a lot of effort, especially for a team with crowds of 8,000 compared with the great industrial clubs who average over 30,000. Inevitably the club soon sank back to their natural level floating between the two bottom tiers with crowds half that number. Optimism is not the natural disposition for Medwegians and just missing out on the play-offs once again has meant morale is low as the club reaches its centenary of being named Gillingham.
Kent is almost a mirror image of its neighbours (thankfully) – Essex – separated by the Thames Estuary. Both have mid-sized conurbations that nestle the estuary around thirty miles out from London and then a series of mid sized towns that dot the two counties. Thurrock, Chelmsford, Harlow and Colchester meet Dartford, Maidstone, Ashford and Canterbury; Bluewater greets Lakeside; Kent CCC say hello to Essex CCC. All are almost mirror images of each other in form, size and function.
However Kent does not have its Colchester United to challenge the traditional monopoly of Southend. Maidstone United tried but killed two clubs in the process during their brief stay in the league as they were mired by their unsustainable debts and being tenanted closer to the Valley than their old Athletic Ground. They are only just going home this summer and sit forlornly four tiers below the Football League, although predicted average attendances of a thousand-plus should see the club rise a level or two in the near future. Sittingbourne tried hard in the early 1990s but flew too close to the Sun and now tragically play on a pitch just outside their doomed tumbleweed home. Dover have spent time in the Conference and attract 4-figure crowds but can’t quite yet get back to that level.
Next season will see two clubs from North West Kent with the chance of promotion to the Football League. Dartford FC, the second team that died as part of the Maidstone project, have hope eternal with a wonderful new stadium at Princes Park and good crowds riding the crest of a wave. Ebbsfleet United FC however can only hope to tread water in the Conference in their rusting old edifice of Stonebridge Road. It appears that being the first crowd-sourced football club and renaming yourself after a barely used international railway halt doesn’t guarantee an inexorable rise to the top.
There is also another way in which Kent is trying to ape Essex. West Ham has always considered Essex their manor and so Charlton too have tried to establish a pull on the Kentish hinterland into South East London. Initiatives such as generously supporting local youth football with time and coaches, and groundbreaking subsidised coach services the length and breadth of the county are aimed at luring back those that have left South East London for the pastoral landscapes – the pebble dashed driveways the other side of the M25.
So what hope then?
As Lanterne Rouge discussed, there maybe potential for Gillingham to get back to the Championship, especially if the latest new ground proposal goes ahead. However it will also need the crowds to come back, serious investment and strong leadership to bring back the millennium bug of optimism. There are some good players there, a strong youth set up (what’s that you say about the EPPP?) and potential transfer proceeds from sell on clauses to slightly temper the current pessimism.
However is there a chance of Gillingham becoming the size of a Reading, Norwich, Ipswich or Brighton? At the moment this doesn’t seem feasible, especially as the Medway towns are hardly boomtowns and much of the promised billions of the Thames Gateway to revitalise the towns has turned to dust. Plus Paul Scally is certainly no Roman Abramovich.
The most likely progress would be a second club emerge onto the Football League in the medium term future, with Dartford being the current favourites although Dover and Maidstone may also have something to say about that.
The trouble with Kent though is that it is too easy for most of the county to get up to London to see a successful team. As the gap gets bigger, the lure is stronger especially as Chelsea and Tottenham look to expand and Charlton and West Ham seek to climb the ladder. Like Surrey and Essex it seems that being a mere satellite in the capital’s galaxy means that professional sport finds it harder to bloom even though the passion and resources are there.
David Field is an East London born and based Gills fan, who spent his meaningful years on the Medway Delta enjoying the twin wonders of Andy Hessenthaler and Biddenden’s Strong Cider.