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02/03: Preview: Gillingham
Opposition opinion
by Gillingham fans Sam Whitham and Ian Harris

What happened last season?
Sam: The usual season of extremes which keeps Gills fans perched just beyond the edge of their seats: Putting 7 past Preston but conceding 9 against Bradford, a hilarious 3-3 home draw with 10-man Stockport sandwiched by wins at Deepdale and Highfield Road, last minute victories, last minute defeats; the only thing it is safe to expect at Priestfield is the unexpected.

I’m not sure when newspapers started printing the league table after just one game, but on August 12th 2001 I actually had a look and found that they did. Tragically, I still carry around a screwed up bit of paper showing Gillingham topping the First Division. The good start was followed by a run of defeats which saw the Gills drop as close to the relegation zone as they would all season. Looking back, it does not feel as though we spent most of 2001/02 in a fairly healthy mid-table position, because the Gills fan is brought up to be cautious, tense, superstitious and generally pessimistic. So by the time Birmingham had inflicted our 9th defeat in 12 games, many were starting to believe the pundits predictions that we would have just a year or two at this level.

However, as unexpectedly as it faltered, the season got back on track with the introduction of a couple of new faces. Simon Osborn, never exactly a star at his many previous clubs, instantly looked and talked like a second captain and the midfield playmaker. Although similar in style to Marcus Browning, Osborn had confidence whilst Browning, no less gifted, played under the pressure of another trait of Gills fans; the need to have a scapegoat. J Lloyd Samuel, on loan from Aston Villa, received the kind of response caviar might get at Burgerking. Prior to his debut against Walsall, I don’t think I’d ever heard terms like ‘cultured centre-half’ or ‘Hanson-like’ whispered around Priestfield. Also, I don’t remember the last time we were missing a player because of ‘international duty’. The suit he wore when receiving his ‘Man of the Match’ award was certainly Premiership class.

Around January, Gillingham seemed immovable from top spot on page 2 of the Ceefax league table. Even the most negative Gills fans felt, although never said aloud, that we really should survive. Very few fans dared even speak of the mysterious play-offs, and so with the league season in this limbo state, we decided it would be nice to have another Cup run. Having caught Wolves on a day when they were practising for their promotion run-in, and after negotiating the horrifying visual obstacle of Bristol Rovers’ luminous away kit, Gillingham drew Arsenal at Highbury. We went their with the 4-3-3 system employed since losing to Man City in November, and matched them for much of the game. They scored so we scored. They scored again so we scored again. They brought on Pires and Henry, so we brought on Hessy, Nyron and Marcus, and they were obviously concerned enough to move up a gear, scraping a 5-2 win. A memorable day, largely because Mark Lawrenson, something of a Gilliphobe, was badgered into a spot of grudging praise on ‘Match of the Day’.

Aside from that, beating Millwall three times, once whilst tauntingly wearing their away kit, was a definite highlight. My personal footballing low point, despite a couple of heavy defeats, was a 1-0 victory for Sheffield United at Priestfield. I’m not sure whether the nationwide hatred of Neil Warnock has only really evolved after his fun and games against West Brom last season, but down here we’re proud to say that he has been utterly despised for many a year. This and the long-awaited return of sleepy Carl Asaba seemed to distract us from the fact that there was also a match, and by that time it was over and Warnock was busy ‘engaging’ with the crowd. Very miserable day, except for the banter with the United fans who deserve better than old Colin.

Regarding Watford, your old boys are doing very nicely. Ashby is, according to some, still not a Division One defender but, as far as I can see, is a defender who seems to do fine in Division One. Perpetuini was the best left-back at the club last year and showed glimpses that he could also become the best left-sided midfielder, and Hess has probably got another 6 seasons in him (“if the gaffer picks him.” Ha ha.) As for the match at Vicarage Road on the last day, naturally billed as a meaningless mid-table clash, of course Gills fans knew that a victory would propel us into the dizzy heights of page 1 of Ceefax 325, just ahead of Warnock’s ‘bigger club’ that Asaba ran off to. A goodbye goal from Iffy before Warnock also ensnared him, and the season finished in very much the mood it started.

What's going to happen next season?
Sam: 'Last season they were an unknown force, this season teams will know what to expect.’ So said the critics this time last year. This year’s argument for our relegation is much the same; that the opposition will be more aware of our tactics, and not take our small group of Second Division cloggers so lightly. However, it seems that Mr. Hessenthaler has anticipated this, and thus decided to do away with tactics altogether. The man who, before the Arsenal game last season, told the BBC ‘We haven’t have a gameplan’, three days before the start of the new season, has said, ‘…we won't really know until Thursday when I can name the team and hopefully work on things, such as tactics."

Signing three strikers in the close season, two of whom you have actually heard of, is like something from Championship Manager before it started getting realistic. In fact I’m sure a Gills fan somewhere has experienced the excitement of luring either Rod Wallace or Tommy Johnson to Priestfield in 2005 for about £2 million, so to do it in 2002, for free and (perhaps most importantly) IN REALITY is quite an achievement for the club. Mama Sidebe has also been snapped up as our obligatory big striker with a silly name; a position previously filled by Leo Fortune-West and Iffy. As we have never really had anything like a household name at Gillingham, nobody really knows how these signings are going to work out, because this is certainly not a club for prima donnas (not that Wallace and Johnson are). If it really is like Champ Manager, one will be quite good, one will be frustratingly inconsistent and the other will be injured all the time. Having said that you never had players banged up for possession of stolen goods in Champ Manager. Add to this the direct style (head down, arse out and run) of Guy Ipoua, the intelligent link-up play of Paul Shaw and possibly the ‘tagged’ (in more ways than one) Marlon King, and the Gills should have enough variables to continue with 3 up front this season.

Which is just as well, because with a few injuries Hessenthaler would struggle to field five in either midfield or defence. Osborn and club captain, Smith (imagine Bryan Robson with real bones and ligaments instead of plastercine and elastic-bands) will work hard in the midfield, but Browning’s stamina and vision, despite what some fans say, will be missed. Gooden, if ever fit, will probably replace him both positionally and in receiving unfair and unhelpful grief. If the team seems too attacking, expect Hess or Saunders to get a few games to support Smith; the guy is only human. At the back, Chris Hope, absolutely flawless for two seasons, has now agreed to stay, after an unexpected transfer request. No further observation on this, as I am desperately trying to stick to matters ‘on the pitch’. I, like everyone else, wonder how much longer Ashby, Butters and Pennock have at the club, but they keep doing the business with just the occasional dozy moment or skinning by a quick forward. As much as we all love them, J Lloyd Samuel’s brief stay was something of a free sample, and most fans would want to sign up ‘a young centre-back oo can play it a bit’. Whether we see one this season…

Nosworthy could be the next to be linked with a move up to big school and the Prem, or maybe Sheffield Utd. Still learning tactically, (Hess starts ‘tactics’ on Friday) Nyron has the natural ability and versatility to eventually play higher, although making the move this year, as I fear he might, could be a bit early. Remember Jimmy Corbett. For the first time I’ve ever known, the Gills have two keepers capable of being first choice this season; in the red corner the stumpy ‘Welshman’, Jason Brown, almost as wide as he is tall, and in the blue corner the saviour of many a game, Vince Bartram, who might also be described as wide. I honestly don’t know which will figure most over the season, but if it’s Brown, Vinny might well be on his way.

Other predictions: We will beat Preston, we will beat Millwall. Even if Bradford do go under and have to field an under-9 team, we will lose to them, home and away. Kevin James will get a run in the team (but please let it be on the wing and not as an attacking full-back). The national press will use the word ‘industrious’ to describe us at least once a month. Hess will use the word 't'riffic' at least once a minute. If we go down, Mr. Scally will avoid having to redevelop the Town End. If we stay up, we will be favourites to go down in 2003/04 because we are ‘unproven at this level’. An off-the-field event will overshadow anything the Gills might do on the pitch this season.

Can you recommend a pub for away fans?
Ian: I don't really know any 'unfriendly' pubs near Priestfield but that could be because I stick to one (the Britton Farmer) but the Southern Belle (next to the railway station) is generally popular with the away fans.

What's the nearest railway station?
Ian: Gillingham atation is the nearest (45 min journey from Victoria) and is a 5 minute walk from the ground (out the front exit turn left to double back on yourself and straight on).

Where is the best place to park?
Ian: The council have recently changed the parking restrictions near to the ground making it harder to park on matchdays. The car park near the railway station is generally the best option - it is where the visiting coaches normally park.

Soundbites (from assorted Census correspondents)
"you shouldn't diss hessie so much, there's NO way we paid him more than you did (so not greedy) and talks about you lot with affection (so not a judas) you should be proud of his achievements. for that....we thank you!"

"rod wallace will score at least 20 for us this season"

"Hessie is a legend"

"Come on the Navy Base!" ???

"Yeah, Brendan Plaice was truly awful !"

"Mickey Galloway is the best midfielder and shoul return to the Gills"

"Hands off Hess. Oh and I still like aubergine, but not with custard!!!"