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Nationwide Division One, 17/3/01
By Matt Rowson


How is it that this can matter so much? That something as unreliable as a bloody football team, particularly this football team this season, can be entrusted with such responsibility? We've all tried explaining it, the importance of it, to a non-believer, and faltered as the double-barrelled emotion of our argument crumbles in the face of evident scepticism. Because it's ludicrous. Clearly. The whole football fanatic thing. Not a passport to a stable life, a well-balanced sense of perspective. It would be funny. If it wasn't so important.

So after Saturday, everything's fantastic. One of far too many non-believers in the office at work knew on Monday morning from my gait and expression before I'd said a word. "You won then?". And what a win, what a wonderful, colourful putting to the sword of a side who suddenly looked so very inferior. The sun is now shining, everything's marvellous. Here comes another ridiculous chaaaaaaaaarge to the play-offs and beyond, obviously. Because the team's clearly got its tail up, and none of the sides we've got left to play have a hope of resisting an onslaught like Saturday's. Come ON!

Tuesday. Burnley. Bollocks.

Yes, I know we didn't play that badly. I know that on another day, maybe with a Gifton or an Allan Smart up front or a Nordin or Nicky Wright burrowing into the uncomfortable crevices behind the defence, it might have been a different story. Nevertheless, bollocks. So much for the charge into the play-offs. A big ugly side with little more of a game plan than bootering it as hard and as decisively as possible and chasing the odd scrap up front did enough to beat us. Bollocks bollocks. Still, at least teams won't be beating us like that if we make the Premiership....

Gillingham, if truth be told, are precisely the sort of side that we've run into problems against all season...witness last Tuesday, witness also the Gills' visit in October at the heart of arguably our best month of the season when they withstood no end of pressure to gain a 0-0 draw. On the face of it, the Kent side have problems of their own...they've been comfortably in mid-table all year, but this will count for little if their current slide towards the bottom continues. They've not won in five games, and also have selection problems...injuries, suspensions and the odd acrimonious departure reduced Hessenthaler to twelve available players with first team experience for Saturday's trip to Bolton.

On the other hand, Ashby and Shaw return this weekend, Hessenthaler is very actively on a recruitment drive, and the hotchpotch side fielded at the Reebok earned a 3-3 draw. Which is more than we managed. Bollocks bollocks.

In goal for the Gills will be former Arsenal stopper Vince Bartram, enjoying a fine season. His cover is provided by Charlie Mitten, who the Gills' official site claims "gave up a job in the City" to join the club. Whether this is Manchester, Coventry or Bristol City is not specified, strangely.

At the back, the ever present Chris Hope, a former Scunthorpe captain, has been impressive since his summer arrival and former Bournemouth man Adrian Pennock is also enjoying a very strong season. Former Hornet Barry Ashby will return from a one-match ban on Saturday, but at Bolton Hessenthaler employed a flat back four with Nayron Nosworthy impressing on his debut on the right, and experienced Geordie Mark Patterson on the left. Guy Butters is out with a long-term problem, and the left-sided Roland Edge has a knee injury. First year pro Ben White and another youngster Richard Rose were on the bench at Bolton...neither has first-team experience.

Midfield options are severely restricted...the current injury list includes the inspirational manager, also out with a long-term problem, Ty Gooden, who hurt his ankle in training, and Mark Saunders, doubtful with an arm injury. To compound this, Junior Lewis has rejoined Peter Taylor at Leicester on loan and is close to sealing a permanent move. The energetic captain Paul Smith is certain to feature, as is the versatile Nicky Southall, out-of-contract in the summer and attracting Premiership interest. The injury-prone Marcus Browning, Gillingham's only current international, may also appear, and winger Kevin James, a former Charlton trainee, made an impressive debut at the weekend. Although Paul Shaw has been fielded up front this season, it's suspected that his most effective position would be "in the hole" behind the forwards. He missed the Bolton game as his wife gave birth...that Hessie sanctioned his absence in the face of injury problems says a lot. Given the choice between this approach and Trevor Francis' famous refusal to grant Martin Allen the same respect at QPR, who would you rather play under?

Up front, Marlon King is the main man following his arrival from Barnet. He is quick and sharp, if a little lightweight, and has continued to improve throughout the season. Lightweight is not an accusation that could reasonably be levelled at his partner Iffy Onuora, in his second spell at the Priestfield. Andy Thomson, suffering from a lack of opportunities at Gillingham, will be missed if he departs...his critical play-off final goal will last long in Gillingham memories. Christian Lee, meanwhile, is on loan at Leyton Orient, whilst Carl Asaba has joined Sheffield United for a paltry fee. Asaba, who would have been out of contract in the summer, turned down a move to Wigan earlier in the season on the basis that postponing his departure would secure him a greater proportion of the transfer purse. If I had the energy, I'd discuss this attitude at length. As it is, bollocks to him.

Hessenthaler's attempts at recruitment have included forwards...Scunthorpe's Cameroonian striker Guy Ipoua had agreed terms at the time of writing, although the clubs had yet to settle on a fee. Either way, our opponents' squad could be reinforced by the weekend.

We haven't beaten Gillingham for over twenty years. It would be nice to get back on track by ending that run on Saturday. The Premiership, after all, is our objective, and doesn't contain sides that beat you by being big and ugly and kicking the ball hard (don't count Middlesbrough...they never win, ha ha). The Premiership also doesn't contain Millwall.

However, after such giddying swings of tempo in the space of ten days, we should maybe just hold onto the rails and try not to get blown away by the next gust of optimism, not to get buried by the next avalanche of rugged defenders who kick the ball very hard. I'm too exhausted for much more of this.