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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/04/02, 2pm
The truth about Barry Ashby
By Matt Rowson

Barry Ashby was bloody ace.

Not in any conventional sense, of course. But in the sense that when he ventured into the first team at the age of 18 he was a gawky, graceless inspiration to all aspiring footballers who hadn't yet learned to kick straight. His debut, a 4-1 drubbing at Portman Road in the Full Members Cup in 1989, was witnessed by sixty-or-so travelling Hornets. I was privileged to be one of them, and Ashby was a hero from the moment he stepped off the bench.

His Watford career, coming as it did during a relatively fallow period in our recent history, is somewhat bereft of highlights. A thunderous goal against Sunderland at Vicarage Road in 1993 sticks in the memory, and of course Ashby remains the most recent recipient of a red card for a brutal hack in a Watford - Luton derby, that coming at the start of the same season. (Jason Drysdale's was more recent by a matter of minutes of course, but that airy-fairy wave of the elbow hardly counts).

So a general shortage of incident, but in some ways that was the definition of the man. Having survived being shuffled from pillar to post for a couple of seasons by a number of different managers (including a particularly ill-advised midfield "experiment" by Steve Perryman that lasted several games too many), Ashby filled out and developed into a bloody hard Football League centreback.

There was always this suspicion that he wasn't quite good enough, but his was a triumph of industry and application over (lack of) ability in a truer sense than Tommy Mooney, for example. Ashby never played with Mooney - his final game was a week before Mooney's debut - and the centre-back moved down the road to Griffin Park in part-exchange for Keith Millen. That our defence tightened up immediately and the prospect of relegation was improbably and dramatically rebuffed never tarnished Ashby's star in my eyes.

Eight years later, Ashby is a member of a squad that boasts several Hornets of winters past. Enough water has flooded under the bridge since Andy Hessenthaler left Vicarage Road for the ill-feeling that persisted after he left to have been forgotten. Hess is now largely remembered in a positive light for his career at the Vic, and respected all the more for what he has achieved at Gillingham. A point on Sunday would lead to the Gills exceeding their total last season when Hessenthaler guided them to thirteenth in their first year at this level.

David Perpetuini is another familiar name, albeit one who will probably be less fondly remembered than either of his colleagues and Richard Hill, whose career at the Vic was Bassetted before it really began, is on the coaching staff. With Hessenthaler confirming his intention to renew his bid for Darren Bazeley in the summer (he failed a medical shortly before the transfer deadline), and coyly failing to deny interest in Barnsley's player-of-the-year Bruce Dyer, the number of ex-Hornets in Kent could rise still further. It's therefore perhaps a surprise that Freddie Payne, released by another of Hessie's old clubs Dagenham & Redbridge last summer, remains without a team...

In goal for the Gills will probably be Jason Brown, a Welsh U21 keeper who displaced Vince Bartram at the beginning of March and has impressed since.

Injuries look like limiting Hessenthaler's options at the back: David Perpetuini is unlikely to recover from an ankle injury (shame) and Adrian Pennock has only recently returned to the reserves after a long layoff. Nyron Nosworthy is out with a torn hamstring, and Mark Patterson and Roland Edge have both been out although both are back in training this week.

It seems likely therefore that the Gills will field the same defence that conceded three goals to Manchester City on Saturday. Versatile youngster Richard Rose will play at left-back... he made his full debut in the 3-0 at the Priestfield at the end of last season. Barry Ashby and Guy Butters form a charismatic if kinetically challenged pairing in the centre whilst Chris Hope, reportedly the best defender at the club (surely some mistake), is out-of-position covering at right-back.

With the departing Mark Saunders out with a back problem, Ty Gooden limping off at the weekend with a groin strain and Simon Osborn not yet over an achilles problem, the Gills have further limitations in midfield. Paul Smith, captain and Player-of-the-Year for a second successive season, will play alongside Welsh international Marcus Browning. Candidates to come in for Gooden include former Charlton man Kevin James, and the club's ageless manager.

Up front Paul Shaw should tuck in behind the forwards, who are likely to be leading goalscorer Marlon King and veteran bulldozer Iffy Onuora, sent off in the earlier encounter this season for a tussle with Robbo that he may regret. Cameroonian Guy Ipoua would be another option.

I should perhaps acknowledge that I may be unusual in the regard with which I remember Barry Ashby's time at Watford. That's fine, he's a personal hero of mine and will remain so. But Sunday is also significant in that it marks the last day on the playing staff of someone far more befitting of the label of a Watford hero. Someone who has started 466 games for the Hornets and made his debut in the UEFA Cup. This preview is too flippant and not nearly significant enough for a proper tribute - that'll come later - but Gianluca Vialli could claw back some much-needed brownie points by naming Nigel Gibbs in the sixteen on Sunday...