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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/03/03, 7.45pm
By Matt Rowson

There are people in life who are always going to get stick. It's not hard to conjure up names... Robbie Savage, for example. Jimmy Hill.

Some will deserve this attention to a greater degree than others, it's true. It's difficult to concoct a criticism, punishment or retribution that wacky Irish funnyman Jimmy Cricket wouldn't merit, for example, not least for re-entering my consciousness after a good decade-or-so of absence. Most of the fitting penalties that spring to mind include tar, feathers and a large sledgehammer. Suggestions on a postcard... and if any excuse were needed not to attend Gillingham's St.Patrick's Day celebration at Paul Scally's "I've got a Great Hall and I'm going to use it" Priestfield venue, this is it.

As far as footballers are concerned, most stick is generally reserved for players that are either aggressive and abrasive, or those who left your club in "controversial" circumstances and come back with new employers. Hence perhaps why Andy Hessenthaler, falling in both categories, has generally been received less than warmly on his returns to Vicarage Road.

Which is more than a little bit harsh really. Irritating pain-in-the-arse of an opponent he may be, but for the best part of five years he was our pain-in-the-arse and consistently one of our more reliable and inspiring performers, arguably in all but his final season. One of the things that made the prospect of another dirge of a match against bloody Swindon a tolerable suggestion, frankly.

And the circumstances of his departure weren't all that controversial. Not really, not with the benefit of the more level-headed consideration that the seven eventful years since his last Watford game in the anticlimactic defeat to Leicester endow. Out of contract, he left for a club closer to home after a depressing season in which his own form had tailed off quite badly (he averaged 3.0 in our ratings here on BSaD in that final season - less than Ramon Vega last year, to set context).

Anger at the time was fuelled by rumours that the move had been financially driven, but what really hurt most was that, at a time when GT or no GT the club was at a very low ebb, here was our captain, the chaser-of-lost-causes of the previous five years, ostensibly opting out. Salt was ground into the wound in the March of his first season at Gillingham - just over six years ago - when he scored the opener as the Gills steamrollered our goal-shy side in a 3-1 win at Priestfield. The tannoy announcer at Gillingham - another candidate for that sledgehammer, albeit after Jimmy Cricket - probably sealed the deal with some rather graceless triumphalism.

On Tuesday, Hessenthaler is likely to record his 500th professional appearance. A significant landmark for any footballer, particularly so when - as any away programme squad profile afficionados of a certain vintage will be only too aware - he made a late start to his professional career, signing for us from Dartford at the age of 26. The first 200-odd of those appearances were for Watford, it's to be hoped that both club and supporters see fit to respect this achievement. A little mental arithmetic suggests that he's averaged well over 40 games a season since first signing for Watford, not too shabby for a now 37 year old midfield dynamo... and if rumours are accurate, this will be his last visit to Vicarage Road as a player, the suggestion being that he will be concentrating solely on management from this summer onwards.

That his current side are comfortably ensconced in the mid-table morass is no small achievement in itself, albeit Gills fans could probably do without too many more "meaningless" encounters to compare with Saturday's waste of time against Rotherham. Gillingham's position is built on solid home form - as we know only too well - but they've lost their last four away from Kent, and with a nervous and injury-hit defence and a general lack of pace throughout the side, are there for the taking on Tuesday evening.

In goal for the Gills will be Jason Brown, who has superceded former first choice Vince Bartram.

At the back, the Gills' defensive options have been reduced with the departure of three stalwarts already in the last twelve months without replacement, and with Barry Ashby missing with a hamstring tear options are reduced still further.

Nicky Southall, back on-loan from Bolton, has been playing on the right hand side of midfield, but will probably continue at right-back on Tuesday to permit Nyron Nosworthy to fill in for Ashby in the centre. Nosworthy's tendency to overplay it was reported to be a concern on Saturday, although this may be exaggerated by comparison with the man he replaces. Chris Hope, approaching his 150th consecutive outing for the Gills, will fill the other centre-back spot, he has just signed a new contract. Leon Johnson would be the other candidate to partner him, but he has appeared to struggle and has attracted some criticism in recent outings. Roland Edge, another not to have the entire Gills support behind him, will be at left-back.

Alongside Hessenthaler in the centre will be further experienced options in Paul Smith and Mark Saunders, with the talented but inconsistent Paul Shaw likely to be in the hole behind the two strikers. Simon Osborn's gradual return from injury is seen as significant but Kevin James, scorer of the third goal at Gillingham earlier in the season, is out with a cartilage injury. The ever-charming David Perpetuini is likely to start on the bench with youth-team product Danny Spiller, another to have recently signed a new deal.

Up front the Gills are further hampered by injury with Mamady Sidibe, colossal in the October game, out with a calf injury and Marlon King sidelined for six months with ligament problems. Guy Ipoua, himself back from two weeks out with chicken pox, is likely to partner Rod Wallace, apparently the chief threat with seven goals in the last eight. The less dependable Tommy Johnson will probably be on the bench.

With the play-offs looking an ever more fanciful concept for both sides this game has little immediate significance. However even if you consider April 13th to be the be-all-and-end-all for the rest of the season we will need to hit the ground running to have a realistic chance against Southampton. With Gillingham stomachs likely to be turning at the prospect of Thursday's evenings Oirish "entertainment", no excuses will be acceptable on Tuesday.