The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk
‘International Man of Mystery’
At 8.34pm, twenty minutes ahead of schedule, Philippine Airlines flight PR720 descends through the dark west London skies and, with the slightest of skids, touches down on the tarmac of Heathrow’s south runway. Within half an hour, its cargo of business folk and extended families blearily make their way across the Terminal 4 concourse, dreaming of their beds as they shunt overburdened, misbehaving trolleys towards the taxi rank.
The man in seat 2A fits neither category; he wasn’t away on business and is travelling alone. He wheels his trolley to the entrance of Café Rouge and orders a coffee, into which he tips two sachets of sugar in an attempt to counteract the effects of a fourteen-hour flight from Manilla. Back in the Filipino capital, his face adorns giant billboards. Here, in the now-quiet surroundings of a British airport’s arrivals lounge he is anonymous, unrecognised, unapproached.
His name is Rob Gier (hands up the Grays supporters reading this who remember him?). He is the captain of the Philippines national football team. He is also the centre-back for Ascot United, currently occupying ninth place in the Uhlsport Hellenic Premier Division. The international breaks during a season don’t normally affect the non-league world, save for, in the absence of Premier League and Championship matches, perhaps a few extra folk clicking through the turnstile of a local semi-pro side. But on this particular weekend, when a ninth-tier outfit like Ascot boasts a glob-trotting player in its ranks, they know they’re going to be a man down when Saturday comes.
While he waits for his coffee to cool, Gier – looking remarkable fresh, thanks no doubt to the restorative powers of flying business class – revisits every twist and turn of his domestic career, explaining how he came to be inhabiting English football’s lower reaches. He’s now back at the club he used to play for as a kid, but he’s been around the block a few times. Having been scouted by then Premier League Wimbledon at the age of thirteen, he went on to make seventy-one appearances for the Dons in the Championship from 2000-01 and was released at the end of the 2003-04 campaign when the club was rebranded into MK Dons. He then spent several seasons slipping and sliding on the lower slopes of the pyramid, desperate for a faltering career to find traction. In the process, he accumulated a CV typical of many journeyman players, one of seemingly ever-diminishing returns.
A two-season spell at Rushden & Diamonds was bittersweet. He made sixty-seven appearances, scoring twice and was voted Supporters’ Player of the Year in his first season. He was a part of the side that finished 22nd in League Two the following season, as they were relegated into the Conference. His options weren’t abundant. He moved to Cambridge United on non-contract terms and made his debut on 1st September 2006. He made 17 appearances in the Conference for Cambridge United before making a move to Woking for the rest of the 2006-07 season making a further seven Conference appearances. He said: ‘I flitted about for a bit. Not many people wanted to sign a centre-half who’s just been relegated – and I was a small centre-half at that. In the lower leagues, everyone just looks at your size first. But I was always a player who read the game, rather than being a physical guy.’ Indeed, of no more than average build, Gier has the physique of a creative midfielder rather than someone operating at the bloody heart of defence.
At the start of the 2007-08 season, he had trials at Welling United playing in friendlies against Folkestone Invicta and Charlton, and at Bristol Rovers in League One. He eventually joined Gary Waddock’s Aldershot Town, alongside former-Blue, Ben Harding, as a left-back. The season was arguably his best ever. The Shots finished top of the Blue Square Premier, with a record points total and he made 45 appearances in all competitions. But the champagne soon went flat. ‘I was one of two players who didn’t get a contract at the end of the season. That was a big kick in the b******s. I’d done my graft in the conference for a couple of years and worked hard to stay in the game. And it was a brilliant season. We did the double, totally dominating the league.’ But the exit door still slammed shut behind him.
When Nige Tassell, the author of this fascinating tale, was asked to give permission for extracts of his work to be included in our Match Day programme, he said to his publisher, Frances Jessop, that he didn’t expect me to include this next passage, but I assured her that Grays Athletic were thick-skinned enough to take Rob’s comments at a time when, not for the first-time in our 127-year history, we were in some disarray.
Gier - the son of an English father and a Filipino mother – managed to stay in the Conference. On 22nd May 2008, he signed a one-year deal with Grays Athletic, commuting from Oxfordshire to Essex ever day to train and play for a swiftly rotating procession of managers. He made 21 starts and two appearances from the bench in that 2008-09 season for our club, when we finished 19th in our penultimate season in the Conference. ‘It was a big mistake going there. The club was in turmoil. That really was the ugly side of Conference football. And I wasn’t enjoying playing. I was drained by that point. But it just so happened that it coincided with my first call-up for the Philippines.’
‘My mother had kept on to me: “Contact the Philippines. Send your CV in”. I didn’t even know if they had a team. In the end, just to shut my mum up, I managed to find a contact on Facebook. “This is who I am. These are my details. Would you be interested?” I didn’t hear anything for six months but, just as that time at Grays was coming to an end, the president of the Philippine Football Federation got in touch out of the blue. “We have a tournament coming up. Would you be interested in coming out? It’s in the Maldives.” OK, let me have a think about that. A rainy day in Essex or a week in the Maldives? Yeah, OK!’
With his Grays contract mutually terminated, Gier packed his bags for Manila for four weeks of tournament preparation. ‘At that time, we were one of the lowest-ranked teams in South East Asia. We were considered to be the whipping boys. The squad would probably get together perhaps once a year. When I first went out, I was sleeping on someone’s floor.’
After the Maldives tournament, Gier rethought his priorities. ‘A mate of mine asked if I wanted to get involved with property development. I fancied a step away from the professional game. So I went into partnership with my mate, but by the following Christmas another friend was bugging me to go and play for Ascot. It was so nice to make a conscious choice to play football because I wanted to, not because I was going to get paid.’
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Ascot secured the services of a player of true pedigree, while Gier was granted the opportunity to renew his love for the game. ‘There was no commitment, no stress. If I didn’t want to play one week because I had a wedding to go to or something, it was “No problem. We’ll see you Thursday night at training instead.” You’d have a competitive game, have as shout and a holler at the referee and have a chat and a beer afterwards. So often in the pro game, you do your training, you get in the car and go home. There’s no social side.’
‘Ascot’s my release. I don’t get paid. It costs me to travel to training and matches. Playing for Ascot means there are no problems with being available for matches or training camps outside the FIFA dates. When you combine all these tournaments and friendlies and camps together, you can be away for as much as six months of the year. I would never have been able to get that time off if I was playing for a bigger club.’ You can’t blame him for prioritising World Cup qualifiers in exotic locales over muddy midweek encounters against the likes of Tuffley Rovers or Highmoor-Ibis.
‘It’s still a competitive league,’ he defends. ‘We’re not having a beer at half-time or anything! There are still some really good players in that league. I’ve seen that throughout my career – so many good players who’ve fallen by the wayside just because of an injury or because of someone’s opinion.’ His experience at Aldershot, clearly still smarting six years on, puts him in the latter category. ‘I don’t think I ever got over the disappointment of not getting a new contract there,’ he sighs, taking a sip of his now-cool-enough-to-drink coffee. ‘One thing you learn in football is that you don’t always get what you deserve. Fairness isn’t top of the agenda with a lot of football clubs and a lot of football managers.’
If the scars of life in the domestic leagues still retain a level of rawness, the tale of how his international career took flight must surely have accelerated the healing process. The 2010 Suzuki Cup proved to be the pinnacle of a life spent in football – an episode later dubbed as the Miracle of Hanoi. ‘We qualified by the absolute skin of our teeth,’ he reports, the mood suddenly lightening. ‘It was the first time we’d qualified for the tournament proper, so that in itself was a huge achievement.’
But the dream didn’t start and end with qualification. Having shared a 1-1 draw with the region’s powerhouse, Singapore in the first match (‘We were such underdogs. No one gave us a hope in hell of even scoring’), they then beat the hosts and holders Vietnam 2-0 ‘in front of 40,000 Vietnamese and zero Filipinos. We had just our kitman and our physio.’ A good result against Cambodia set up a two-legged semi-final against Indonesia, but the home leg was to prove problematic. With the only pitch in Manila not fit for purpose, both matches had to be played in Jakarta. It was the equivalent of Ascot drawing Arsenal in the FA Cup and having to switch the tie to the Emirates as their ground, within Ascot Racecourse’s acres, would be unable to cope with a match of such magnitude.
The atmosphere in Jakarta, playing before 90,000 highly passionate Indonesian fans, was intense. ‘They were so loud. My centre-half partner was as close as you are now and we couldn’t hear each other even at the top of our voices.’ Despite their narrow exit from the competition, they were front-page news on their return to Manila. ‘From the moment we arrived back, football in the Philippines just exploded. Everyone wanted a piece of us. We couldn’t go out as a team. We couldn’t go to a shopping mall or get a coffee because we’d be mobbed. We were on every TV show, in every magazine. We were the hottest ticket in town.’
Since then, the footballing infrastructure has improved exponentially. ‘The Miracle of Hanoi was the catalyst for everything. There’s now the UFL, a professional league, two main stadia and lots more pitches around. My first training session out there was on a pitch at a college. It was just a dustbowl. So, for all the planets to align and for us to have done so well in 2010, it was a miracle, really.’ There was also the small matter of an exhibition match against David Beckham’s LA Galaxy. ‘To be on the same pitch as Becks was unbelievable, but I pulled my calf after about five minutes. I was absolutely devastated. And it was a long ball over the top from him did it. That’s my claim to fame. David Beckham pulled my calf.’
With a further glance at his watch, Gier politely checks that he’s not going into too much detail – a roundabout way of asking whether he’s boring me. It’s anything but boring, the kind of cockles-warming fairy tale that could prick up the ears of a Hollywood producer.
He’s been the national captain since 2012 and works for the PFF off the pitch – compiling match reports, watching videos of upcoming opposition teams, trying to uncover other European-based Filipinos. Aside from the on-pitch triumphs, Gier’s international career has also allowed him to reconnect with his Filipino roots. When he was originally called back in 2009, at the age of twenty-eight, it was the first time he’d been back to Manila since he was twelve. ‘Your time is so limited in the pro game. You only really get June off, so I never got round to going back. But when I did go back, travelling from the airport just felt so familiar, so natural. I knew straight away it was the right decision. And it was a real eye-opener going there – learning about where my mum came from, the hardships she had, meeting my family again. It’s not just been a big thing in my football career. It’s had a big influence on my life in general.’
He drains his coffee, drags himself to his feet and releases the brake on his trolley. His dad’s been patiently waiting for the last hour, parked up in a nearby lay-by ready to drive his son on the last leg back to Oxfordshire. It’s a long way from Manila to Gier’s home in Wallingford, but the frequent flying is never regarded as a bind, especially when it means he enjoys a life unlike that of any other non-league player.
The terminal’s automatic exit doors open and he looks back over his shoulder. ‘I get to travel the world and play football. What’s better than that?’
Updated 09:24 - 7 Dec 2017 by GAFC News