By Matt Rowson
And some of you would do away with the play-offs. Oh my giddy Aunt.
They're "not fair", right? Well, excuse me. "Not fair?". What's not fair is Italian, English, German runners-up sauntering into the Champions League whilst the champions of "lesser nations" like Latvia, Slovenia, Scotland (ha) have to pre-qualify. Not fair is this self-sustaining state of affairs, whereby the "points system" determining number of qualifying teams favours nations with many existing Champions League places. Not fair is Port Vale, Wycombe, Canvey Island and others playing 734 games in the space of six days, and then listening to the normally likeable Gerard Houllier whingeing about the poor loves in his two teamsworth of internationals playing twice a week. As if Liverpool weren't part of the G14 who negotiated the format of the Champions League that Gerard and his charges are so desperate to qualify for (trundle on, tractor boys...).
Not fair is that people still take Jeff Powell seriously. No, they do, honest. And the paper he writes for, whilst we're in that ballpark. Not fair are Rob Styles, Rob Harris, Jon Macken, Gary sodding Bennett. Not fair is the cost of bloody weddings, I can tell you....
So can we please get things in perspective? The play-off rules are clearly defined at the start of the season. If you finish in the top two, you're pretty good; you deserve to go up. If you finish third then the chances are that you lost to Portsmouth somewhere along the line and you really aren't in much of a position to claim a right to Premiership status. You're not being unfairly treated. Strange, that it's always the team that finishes third that failed to comprehend the system at the start of the season - "What, no promotion? Why, that's so unfair!". Ah, but would you have finished third if the team in fourth had needed to finish a position higher? Or would you have bottled it again, Bolton?
Most of all, the existence of the play-offs dramatically reduces the number of meaningless games which, in our case, would probably have dominated the schedule since Christmas. Christ. I've just got Sky in, I could watch football at home every night, am I really going to drive a hundred miles up the motorway to watch an irrelevant game of football instead? Well, yes, obviously, but you catch my drift. In the face of an increasing number of alternatives, lower division clubs in particular need as many such favourable structures as they can get.
Also... Birmingham. Ha ha.
Gillingham are one of the few sides in the Division who are, at the time of writing, neither in sight of the play-offs nor realistically threatened with relegation. Although a particularly contorted set of results could still theoretically relegate them (far more contrived than that which would see us to the play-offs), the Kent side are sensibly safe. Conveniently, perhaps, they are one of fairly few sides who would have been perfectly happy with this state of affairs at the start of what was their first Division One season. For the rest of us, humdrum games are a slow, foreboding welcome to the summer, to no football, to bloody cricket, and to hours filled debating the question "why aren't there lager-flavoured crisps?".
And Hess is already planning for next season, introducing several of the Gills' promising crop of youngsters to first-team football amid plenty of discussion of possible summer arrivals. The left wing-back slot is thought to be one meriting reinforcement... the name of a certain Northern Ireland international is mentioned more than once on Gills messageboards.
In goal for the Gills is Vince Bartram, the former Arsenal reserve having enjoyed another steady season. His regular cover has been Charlie Mitten, but following some dodgy performances in the reserves he appears to have been overtaken by eighteen-year-old former Charlton youngster Jason Brown.
At the back, Hess is expected to revert to a 5-3-2 system for Saturday's tie at the City Ground, with Adrian Pennock, Chris Hope and ex-Hornet Barry Ashby to form the central trio. Hope has been extremely consistent this season having arrived from Scunthorpe in the summer. Pennock has been less impressive, particularly over recent matches - he was involved in both of West Brom's goals on Saturday. Ashby has been a mainstay of the Gills' defence since his arrival from Brentford. I may be alone in wishing we'd never let him go....
Wingbacks are likely to be the experienced Mark Patterson and youngster Nayron Nosworthy, an attacking player more comfortable in midfield. Cover at the back includes another highly-rated youngster Richard Rose as well as Ben White and the left-sided Roland Edge. Former Spurs and Pompey stopper Guy Butters is out with a knee problem.
In midfield, captain Paul Smith is in the running for the Gills' player-of-the-season award with some awesome performances this season, particularly in having to do twice the running since his energetic manager picked up a knee injury. The injury-prone Welsh international Marcus Browning is also likely to feature, as is Nicky Southall, one of those tipped for a summer move. The versatile Mark Saunders is another option, as is another former Charlton youngster Kevin James, but Ty Gooden is out with an ankle problem.
Up front, Marlon King was Hess's first signing - he is quick and sharp and has found the net regularly this season. The man in form, however, is the boisterous Iffy Onuora, whose form has confined new signing Guy Ipoua to the bench since his March arrival from Scunthorpe. With Paul Shaw out with a hamstring problem, Andy Thomson having left for QPR, and Carl Asaba having joined Sheffield United, the Gills are somewhat light of options up front.
The Gills' performance at the Vic was gutsy and determined, grabbing a draw during Watford's strong early run they were the first side to leave our place with a point. A lack of consistency has prohibited any thoughts of a surprise play-off challenge, however - only twice have they recorded consecutive wins. Something that we've been able to avoid since Christmas also, as it happens.
I mentioned that the Gills were one of few sides who might have been content with mid-table anonymity. Of the nine teams below the Gills at the time of writing, correspondents from five (including Tranmere, QPR and Palace) spoke of the play-offs in their predictions for our season preview in August. Only Grimsby, Stockport and Portsmouth showed any modesty. Wolves didn't deign to answer, too big a club.
The play-offs, you see, are the stuff dreams are made of. How can you better May 31st 1999? (And compare that emotion to what the Gills must have suffered the day before). Everyone's gotta have dreams.
So to close, here's a lullaby for Alan Smith and Crystal Palace...
Rock-a bye- Bog-eyes, on the tree top,
When the wind blows, the Palace will rock
When the bow breaks the Palace will fall
And we'll all laugh.*
Who said this season will turn out to be a disappointment?
* This preview was written prior to Alan Smith's dismissal on Sunday. This
also made us laugh, but we'd still like Palace to be relegated.