The trials and tribulations of BBC Radio Cumbria’s James Phillips on his trip to Aldershot last month which he described in the Stevenage programme two weeks ago, coupled with the 1980s John Cleese film Clockwise and the long journeys both from and to Carlisle for football matches brought back faint memories of a footballing tale involving Gillingham, two long away trips in succession and trying to get Barrow for an evening kick-off 50 years ago to the day tomorrow in October 1961. The Gills, certainly rather foolishly in hindsight you would think hoping to make the trip to the tip of the Furness peninsula on the day of the game for a 5.15pm kick-off, an early time for a night game as the Bluebirds then had no floodlights.
The plan was to leave London Euston on a train at 9.05am in order to make the very lengthy journey and reach Barrow over an hour before kick-off, that idea though soon disappearing down the chute as heavy traffic meant their coach from Gillingham arrived in London half an hour after the train had left. The train timetable then revealed that the next train at 10.25 wouldn’t arrive in Barrow until one minute after kick-off, so with a coach being too slow in that era and cars considered too risky there was just one option left – aeroplane.
Next problem, the two scheduled flights, the 10.40 to Manchester and the 11.00 to Newcastle were both fully booked. Next idea, charter a plane, at the cost of £500 cash in advance, with one then being arranged but the plane company had to fly it from Gatwick to London Airport where the Gillingham party were waiting. Gillingham officials now negotiating with the Football League a 15 minute later kick-off time of 5.30, albeit coupled with some inevitable bad news, that being that they would have to forgo the half-time interval.
Next problem, where would the plane land? Squire’s Gate Airport at Blackpool (pictured) was decided as the destination, albeit it being about 80 miles from Barrow. After initially hiring a coach to meet them at Squire’s Gate officials then realised a coach would be too slow, so four cars were hired and a police escort arranged for the last leg of the trip. In the end the Gillingham club plane eventually left London at 2.31 having been delayed in a queue of planes, the flight then landing at Squire’s Gate at 3.25, and by the time the players had got in their cars they were facing a 80 mile journey at full pelt through the countryside in just over 100 minutes.
In those days there were no motorways and as we nearly all know, Blackpool to Barrow isn’t going to be the quickest of journeys, even with the help of a motorway. Kick-off time arrived at the same time as the Gillingham players and officials pitched up at Holker Street. Somewhat unsurprisingly an early start and all the traumas of the day weren’t exactly a good recipe for the Gills and after a very quick change into their kit and 45 minutes of action the visitors found themselves 5-0 down at the hardly existent interval.
At least the second-half didn’t prove as bad for the Kent side with the scoreline at 6-0 after 74 minutes, at this time of the year though, and with no floodlights at Holker Street light was becoming a big problem. Referee Mr Jobling allowing a few more minutes play under Barrow’s faint training lights, in which time the home side bagged a seventh goal, before he eventually abandoned the game at just after seven o’clock. Fortunately for Barrow though the Football League did decide that the 7-0 victory for the Bluebirds should stand as an official result.
With that game having been played on the Monday poor old Gillingham then faced another mammoth away trip just five days later on the Saturday, but where to? Brunton Park of course to face Carlisle United for a match that they did manage to turn up on time for. Sadly for Carlisle though the visitors seemed to have remarkably shrugged off their five days of globetrotting as they defeated United 2-1 in the old Division Four in front of 7,713 spectators, the solitary Cumbrian goal that afternoon being scored by Arthur Blackley. The result coming as even more of a shock bearing in mind the end of the 1961-62 campaign saw Gillingham finish fourth bottom while United sat in fourth place and were promoted for the first time in their Football League history.