Published: 06:00, 04 May 2021
It’s exactly a quarter of a century since Jim Stannard set the British record for the number of clean sheets in a league season.
And such was the scale of Stannard’s achievement in Gillingham’s promotion campaign of 1995/96, it’s hard to see it ever being broken.
The big goalkeeper kept 29 shut-outs in 46 games as the Gills finished runners-up to Preston in the old Division 3. They ended their campaign on May 4, 1996, with a 1-0 win over Scarborough.
He conceded just 20 goals all season - six at Priestfield - as Paul Scally’s first year as chairman ended in glory.
Twelve months earlier, the club almost went to the wall before Scally saved the day.
Stannard, with hundreds of games at Fulham behind him, proved one of the best bits of business manager Tony Pulis did that season.
“I’d been at Fulham for 14 or 15 years,” recalled Stannard. “Tony gave me a call and said ‘Do you want to come here?’
“My contract was up at Fulham, I had a testimonial and I was going to stay there but I lots of ups and downs.
“I spoke to Paul and Tony and they sold me the club. I ended up at Gillingham and what a fantastic season we had in 95/96.
“I had all that time at Fulham and, to be honest, I never wanted to leave because it was a fantastic club for me.
“But things change, you move on and we all know how things went at Gillingham.
"I honestly believe that season put Gillingham back on the map because they’d been struggling for a few seasons.
“We got promoted, Tony brought in some fantastic players and that’s how the club ended up pushing on.”
There were modest expectations among a fanbase who were just happy to have a club to support when Scally took control.
They had no idea what was to follow as Pulis’ supremely well-drilled side marched to promotion, losing just seven games.
“I think Paul bought the club for £1 but he had to pay the debts off,” said Stannard. “He’s a businessman, so he obviously knew what he was doing, but I think the key was getting Tony in.
“He was a good manager who knew the division, he was a good coach who signed the right players, even though most of them were free transfers.
"He did his homework, looked at players’ backgrounds and we all gelled, and that’s what football is about.
“When you get a team like that, it's can they gel, and if they do, you’ve got a chance.
“Leo Fortune-West came in and scored some goals, Dennis Bailey came in who we paid a bit of money for, Dave Martin was a tough guy who played in higher divisions, and we had Richard Green, Neil Smith, lots of players with good experience.
“I just think he had a good atmosphere with the players, and to get that promotion the way we did, that will be a long time in my memory.”
Stannard, now 58, is proud of his record but credits the team for Gillingham’s phenomenal defensive stats that season.
He said: “It’s still a British record, 29 clean sheets in the league in one season, we conceded six at home and 14 away, which is 20 goals.
“As a goalkeeper you take all the plaudits and say it’s all me but it wasn’t.
"I’m a firm believer in the team, team spirit, the forwards, the midfielders, the defenders, you’re a whole team.
“It wasn’t just me achieving that - it’s the whole team - but obviously if you look back I’m in goal so it comes to me.
“I thought I played very, very well. There’s times we might have won 1-0 and I’ve made a tremendous save or a penalty save and that’s the clean sheet and the three points you needed.
“From my point of view, to have 29 clean sheets in a season is amazing really.
"When I look back all these years later and it still hasn’t been broken, that tells you it must be a great achievement.
“There’s always lot of goals scored in that division but with Tony, he worked on defenders, shape, pattern of play and we all knew our jobs.
“And we had characters in the team where if it was your mistake, you made sure you never made it again.
“We never took anything for granted but we were doing very well.
“Sometimes you have sticky spells but ours was when we kept getting draws and not wins.
“We only scored 49 goals to go up but because we didn’t concede, those 1-0 wins kept getting us three points.
“I always think what a good time we had but you don’t realise how quickly the time goes.”
Goalkeepers have to be thick-skinned, and Stannard more than most, as a target for opposition fans.
But Gills supporters loved him with their own ‘Big Fat Jim’ song belted out from the Rainham End with great affection.
“I had loads of songs at Fulham and Gillingham,” said Stannard, who’s now on the coaching staff at Maidstone.
“Away supporters always gave me a lot of stick, and I went with it, and I went with home supporters as well.
“When I went to Gillingham, they didn’t know me, they just saw a big fella coming in and they’re thinking, ‘What’s happened here?’ but hopefully by the end of the season all their minds were changed.
“I used to get letters from supporters saying how pleased they were and how great I was, which meant a lot to me.
“Twenty-five years later, people still text me about the song. It’s brilliant.”
Stannard left the Gills in 1999 after Peter Taylor succeeded Pulis.
Vince Bartram was already the No.1 by then and Gillingham would go on to reach the Championship.
“I had an injury but I’d agreed something with the club that I thought was going to happen,” said Stannard.
“It didn’t happen but you move on and I became a coach.
“My old manager at Fulham, Ray Lewington, gave me my first opportunity at Brentford so I went there and went to a couple more clubs and fortunately ended up at Southampton and Crystal Palace.”