The return of real football
By Matt Rowson
There's no denying that it's been a tough couple of weeks for English football. You wouldn't need to be told, you know...from the drawn faces of those around you, from the tut-tutting of Alan Hansen, from the voices of callers to "606", slightly more frantic than usual, from the throbbing behind your eyes. It's incontrovertible; international breaks, fortnights without domestic competition, are a pain in the arse. Thank heaven for the return of real football; thank heaven for midweek games at the Vic.
And, after surviving a season which saw only two evening kick-offs at Vicarage Road, it's thoroughly pleasant to look forward to four consecutive home Tuesdays. But whilst there are ostensibly bigger games to come, make no mistake... Gillingham are a bananaskin that we don't want to be slipping up on through focusing too far into the future.
History, for what it's worth, is firmly against us. This is Gillingham's first season in the second tier of English football, but the side is experienced with an average age of almost thirty. The last player to score a winning goal for the Hornets against Gillingham was Ross Jenkins over twenty years ago; meanwhile six members of the Gillingham squad that faced Bolton a fortnight ago scored against the Hornets during our two-season spell in Division Two. Tony Pulis may have moved on since, but rest assured that little of the brutish determination that characterised his Gillingham side will have been lost under the guidance of Andy Hessenthaler.
He's an interesting one, Hessenthaler. Wholehearted and heroic though many of his Watford performances were, the welcome he perhaps had a right to expect has never been forthcoming on his returns to Vicarage Road. A Kevin Phillips he is not...and there's a crucial distinction, one of the many nuances of football that I've learned from my Dad.
On the occasion in question, we were discussing the possibility of Scottish pinball David Speedie signing for the Hornets. I don't remember any basis in rumour or fact for the discussion, but remember being firmly against the possibility on the basis that Speedie was "a dirty little bastard". My Dad's considered response was a grin, and the retort "yeah, but he'd be our dirty little bastard". And there's the distinction. Whilst goalscorers are easily taken to the heart, dirty little bastards are just great only for as long as they're on your team.
In goal for the Gills will be former Arsenal understudy Vince Bartram, a reliable stopper but perhaps suffering from a lack of serious competition at the Priestfield... deputy Charlie Mitten, a Peter Taylor signing from Dover Athletic, has yet to make the first team.
Hessenthaler likes to play 5-3-2, and three formidable figures face the Hornets from the centre of defence. Chris Hope was a summer capture from Scunthorpe, the former Irons captain and a solid stopper. The monstrous Guy Butters started his career with Spurs... expect to see him joining attacks, and using his vicious left foot if set pieces are won around the box. Then there's Barry Ashby - originally a gangly midfielder and then a no-nonsense defender, he was always a hero of mine at the Vic and finished runner-up behind Hessenthaler in last year's player-of-the-year award at the Priestfield. Other possibilities in the middle include Adrian Pennock, who missed one of the crucial penalties against Man.City in the dramatic play-off a year ago, and Matt Bryant, although the former Bristol City stopper looks to be on his way out of the club, possibly to Cardiff.
Wingbacks are likely to be Nicky Southall, who scored a spectacular effort to knock Sheffield Wednesday out of last season's FA Cup, and Mark Patterson, who recovered from a broken leg last season. Other options are youngster Roland Edge and former Port Vale man Brian McGlinchey.
For a Hessenthaler midfield to be anything but gritty and energetic would be a huge surprise. Alongside the player-manager, still going strong at thirty-five, is club captain Paul Smith, like Ashby a signing from Brentford. Former Hendon man Junior Lewis has made up the trio in recent games, although Ty Gooden, once of Swindon, is expected to recover from a knee problem by Tuesday and may reclaim his place. Former Plymouth man Mark Saunders is another possibility, but Welsh international Marcus Browning is out with a groin injury.
Up front the Gills have plenty of options. Carl Asaba is the most prolific, leading the Gills' scoring with five before Saturday's fixture, but wage negotiations have lead to his being linked with a move to Burnley. Journeyman Andy Thomson has played alongside him, but former Millwall man Paul Shaw made a big impact when introduced as a sub in the Bolton game and may start. Other possibilities are the uncomplicated Iffy Onuora, in his second spell at the Priestfield following time at Swindon, and Marlon King, yet to score since his summer arrival from Barnet and fined for turning up late to the Bolton game.
Gillingham are not the most prestigious of our forthcoming visitors, but will suffer neither from Bolton's pretensions nor from Sheffield Wednesday's brittle confidence. However, if any of the eight Watford survivors of the 3-1 defeat at the Priestfield three-and-a-half years ago were able to hear the tannoy announcer on that occasion, they'll need no further motivation for this one.