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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/12/03, 3.00pm
By Matt Rowson

The danger in permitting yourself the undisciplined excitement of eager anticipation on a frequent basis is that you're all too easily disappointed.

There are exceptions, naturally. The quite monumental "Return of the King", for example, has been keenly awaited not just since the release of "The Two Towers" a year ago but for decades prior to that. One of the greatest of the many joys of the trilogy is the knowledge that it would have been so tempting to do the thing lazily as a money-printing exercise; that even with the best of intentions it would have been so easy to stuff the whole thing up. But they haven't. The trilogy as a whole is fabulous, the final film is the finest of the three. I'm one of the many who knows the books upside down and back to front; I knew what was about to happen at every turn and yet I was still gobsmacked by much of that third film. Fantastic.

It's fair to say that the Boxing Day trip to Gillingham is the source of far less excitement, much less anticipation. I didn't make the Stoke game, but the text message reports were as harrowing as such brief summaries can be. Coupled with that recent memory is our track record against the Gills - one victory in a relatively unimportant end-of-season encounter in the last ten encounters - and a pretty ropey recent Boxing Day record of one win (and one goal) in the last six of these games.

Still, at least we're unlikely to be disappointed.

On the plus side, the Gills aren't in a much stronger league position than ourselves and have selection problems at either end of the pitch.

Most severe appears to be the goalkeeping situation. With popular first-choice custodian Jason Brown out with a thigh injury and veteran Vince Bartram out and, reportedly, on the verge of retirement following a wrist injury, former Hayes keeper Bertrand Bossu is the only option between the sticks. He will make his second league start if, as appears likely at the time of writing, Hessenthaler is unable to bring in a loan signing before Friday.

At the back, Chris Hope and Ian Cox form a respectable central pairing with former Hornet Barry Ashby benched for the last month or so. Nyron Nosworthy is back at right back after his secondment to the front line... he is quick and aggressive, but can't head the ball for toffee. Richard Rose can cover here, although Ashby tended to be shoved out to the right when Nosworthy was moved upfield earlier in the season. Left back is former Blackpool man John Hills.

In midfield, Nicky Southall has been playing on the right, a fixture since returning from Bolton a year ago. He limped out of Gillingham's last game against Preston, but with the postponement of the weekend tie at Forest will have had the best part of a fortnight to rest his ankle by Friday; his thirty-eight year old manager is likely to stand in otherwise. The thoroughly pleasant, decent and likeable David Perpetuini has been playing on the left of midfield; in the centre, team captain Paul Smith, who seems to have been described as on the wane persistently for the last three years, and Paul Shaw, who always manages to score against us. Other options include another veteran, Mark Saunders, and the busy Danny Spiller, a scorer at Vicarage Road earlier in the season and probably the pick of the Gills' up-and-coming players.

All sorts of circumstances are conspiring to limit the Gills' attacking options; goalscorer Marlon King has left for Forest and not been replaced, although the Gills are reportedly to increase their bid for Cambridge United's Dave Kitson this week. Should this bid be successful Kitson's debut will have to wait... he's currently out with a hamstring injury. Out, too, are Rod Wallace and Tommy Johnson, although the latter might be back on the bench on Friday. Mamady "Big Mama" Sidibe is off to the African Nations Cup with Mali in the new year but is available for the moment, and should partner converted midfielder Kevin James. Described as talented but lackadaisical, Watford fans might remember James' spectacular goal in this game last season; the fact that Gills fans too still talk about that goal as his most notable achievement fourteen months on is probably significant.

It goes without saying that this is a massive game, but they all are until we start winning again and do the quality in the squad a bit of justice. Try to have a good Christmas in any case; let's just let Friday come.

You never know, we might be pleasantly surprised.