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03/04: Preview: Gillingham
Opposition opinion
by Gillingham fan Sam Whitham

What happened last season?
Another good season for a club of our size really: overachievement and improvement in the league, and perhaps most importantly, not a single administrator seen at Priestfield all year. To relieve the boredom of spending September to May in mid-table, there were the usual worried mutterings of a possible slide towards relegation, plus quite a few going against the typical Gills pessimism/realism/superstition by suggesting we should make the play-offs. In truth, neither ever really looked probable. After the middle of September, the Gills never climbed above 8th in the table, and never dropped below 17th.

For the second season running, we actually started playing from August, topping the division for the first few games. After being the first team to face the dilemma of whether to take fans to the heavily boycotted Wimbledon, we saw off Derby at Priestfield in what at the time seemed like an excellent win over a serious promotion favourite. The now customary victory over Millwall, who were starting the season like Gillingham normally would, was followed by a game at Norwich which saw the start of another theme to our season.

Simon Osborn's ruptured Achilles tendon left us without a player capable of regularly finding the strikers from midfield ("Ee gives us sumfin' different" as Hess might have put it). As it was, most of the strikers Osborn would have been supplying were usually within kicking distance of him on the next treatment table. On top of Osborn's misfortune, knee injuries ended both Kevin James' and Marlon King's season before February (King had only just got the ball and chain off his ankle) and three useful squad members, all heroes of our time in Division 2, were forced to retire. The appearance of regular right-back, Nyron Nosworthy up front for the last three games showed the extent of our injury crisis, with all five of the squad's strikers unavailable.

However nobody was really surprised when Nosworthy had to cover in the centre of defence for four games, including a 6-0 thumping by Wolves. I'm still not sure how we coped with just two recognised centre-halves for the whole season. When Man United or Arsenal tag a player 'indispensable' it usually just means that they are expensive. For Gillingham though, a long spell out for either Barry Ashby or Chris Hope on top of all our other injuries, would have left us with only a handful of young defenders who had started about 3 games between them. I like to think that if it had been necessary, Hess would have gone for experience at the back, and played himself alongside Rod Wallace in a Smurf-esque central defensive partnership. Fortunately, Ashby missed just a handful of games, whilst Hope was ever-present to the extent that he even turned out alongside Bob 'the Cat' Bevan and David Baddiel in an end-of-season charity match.

Anyway, what of the matches themselves? After a number of recent stuffings, we finally beat Bradford (twice for good measure) but replaced them with Walsall as our new bogey-team, losing home and away. I'm personally delighted that Wolves have finally found their bottle and escaped the division, as they nicked a couple of lucky wins against us (4-0 and 6-0). I don't know if football has ever made me more ashamed than when reading a Wolves website's match report which delighted in the realisation that our players could be called Chris no-Hope and Nyron Not-worthy. Ho ho; oh to have been brought up with such stoic names as Billy Wright and Steve Bull.

It's a shame that Forest didn't follow Wolves up, as they were the only other team to look an absolute class apart from us, both home and away. Happier personal memories of the season include running around Copenhagen trying to find the result against Leicester, to eventually discover that I had missed one of the better games, and probably the best result, of the season. Likewise, meeting Leeds in the cup at just about their lowest ebb (and getting El Tel more than a little narked) was good fun. The most national coverage we got all year was for Hessy's reaction to one in the eye from Mark Viduka, who appropriately had taken to Priestfield's desert-like surface like a big lumbering camel. 'Hessenthaler wasn't really hurt' cried Leeds, a club with a fine record of player morality and discipline. Well, as Gills and Watford fans will know, Hess is generally too angry, hyped up or busy to do 'hurt'. However, this time he stayed down. Could a man who once asked '...will I be okay to play next week?' whilst lying in an ambulance with an 8" by 2" cut in his knee, really be capable of milking a challenge? Yes, he could, bless him, and it wasn't the only time last season! I like to think of the occasional extravagant fall or roll as an extension of Hessy's whinging and moaning; it's simply a more physical reaction to a heavy challenge, rather than the verbal reaction which would invariably get him booked. In any case, Viduka kept his arms down in the replay, got his chin up and showed that he is certainly more mobile at Elland Road.

In the write-up I did for 2001/02, I nominated home defeat by Sheffield United (and in particular Messrs Warnock and Asaba) as my own personal low point. When Gillingham went to Bramall Lane last season three days after Wolves had knocked us for six, I seriously feared the worst-case scenario of a cricket score pushing Warnock towards promotion, and us towards a slow fizzling-out in the bottom half of the table. Well, any notion of form goes out of the window with Gillingham, but the one thing you can predict is that after a sound beating, our players quite often really pull together and battle their way to a good result. Unfortunately, they are also rather prone to following famous and unexpected victories with woefully lethargic and complacent performances.

However, in the game at Brammall Lane, the 2-2 draw which United did well to get, instantly eased the pain of the Wolves thrashing, and made it my highlight of last season. I suppose for every jibe of Not-worthy, there's a headline about being King or having the Edge waiting to be written. And there's always Hope.

What's going to happen next season?
Grimsby's relegation leaves us as the most obvious name that, to most pundits, just doesn't belong in Division One. Therefore, it goes without saying that we are amongst most bookies' favourites for relegation again. Without wanting to curse us, I believe we are the only team in the football league to have improved our finishing position every season for the last eight years.

Anyway, Gillingham generally play better as underdogs, so we are more than happy to represent the unfashionable element of the First Division. At least one Premiership player, facing relegation last April, stated that he didn't much fancy visiting 'places like Gillingham next season' (clue: he probably won't have to, as he's just been bought to warm Chelsea's bench). Perhaps he was just planning to visit the town, in which case I can understand his reluctance.

The first thing that will happen to Gillingham this season is that we will play in blue, or rather black with the odd blue stripe. The white shirt originally introduced as our new home kit went down like Jim Davidson at a UN Conference, and fans started to research exactly how many years we'd been blue, ready to argue the case. Angry letters were written, calm but concerned letters were written, protests and boycotts were planned and even a few abusive phone calls were made (although possibly not from the Medway area) to the club sponsor, Seafrance, who many assumed were behind the switch to white. Seafrance rightly got upset and threatened to take their ball home, but there was obviously enough reasoned protest for Mr. Scally to reconsider. As a shrewd businessman though, he was never going to simply change back to the blue, so we were all encouraged to 'vote with our wallets'. With a fervour that made the whole thing seem like a carefully planned marketing ploy from the start, Gills fans got out their credit cards to save the heritage of the club (even though our original colours were black & white stripes). Switchboards jammed, shirt sales rocketed, blue was reinstated, Seafrance didn't seem to mind, the new shirts were displayed and everyone decided they actually quite liked the white kit after all. And fans at Wimbledon, Luton and Oldham think they've got problems.

In my predictions for BSaD last season, I suggested that Hessy might have had a 'Champ Manager moment', in signing 3 (2 well-known) strikers in the space of a month (Rod Wallace, Tommy Johnson & Mama Sidebe). I also stupidly said that if Champ Manager was at all accurate then 'one would be quite good, one would be frustratingly inconsistent and one would be injured all the time'. Yep, those were my exact words; check if you don't believe my uncanny ability to foresee what any Bolton, Swansea or Kilmarnock could have told us anyway. Now, a year on, most Gills fans also have no problem picking out which one has still got it, which one has got to work on it, and which one is at home with an ice-pack on it. It would be great to see Tommy J. get a run in the team this season, although worryingly it wasn't so much a long term injury that held him back last year, more a knack of picking up minor knocks.

At the moment, most people's first choice front pairing would be Wallace and Marlon King, but both have missed pre-season, so Johnson should get a chance and certainly has the skill to take it. After completing just six full matches, it's probably a bit early to label him a bad buy, although if he doesn't stay fit this season, the knives will be out as well as the scalpels.

Although he hasn't exactly got Alex Ferguson's track record, I still feel that Hess hasn't yet made a clear bad signing (unlike Peter Taylor, who provided a whole reserve team of them). The jury's still out on players like Johnson, Perpetuini and Sidebe. All have the potential to do well but, rightly or wrongly, each has had their effort and commitment questioned by either fans or management. I would expect Sidebe to get a few more games this year, as much because of the style we play as anything. For a big fella, he wins surprisingly few headers, but he does somehow cause defenders problems. We have just played RC Lens on a pre-season mini-tour of France, and a literal translation from their website summed it up as well as I can: 'Made impotent, the British (Gillingham), practitioner the "kick" without the "rush"!!' Basically, if we're up against it, we do tend to just hoik it.

Our two signings this year have been a little less glamorous, but both seem like good buys. John Hills is a direct replacement for Roland Edge who turned down a new contract. He appears to be the attacking fullback that Edge wasn't, but whether that will leave us missing Edge's positional sense, is not something that friendlies against St. Albans and Folkestone will reveal. The main concern about Ian Cox, who has signed from Burnley, is again over his fitness. The club's medical facilities are probably one of the first things shown to prospective signings, because, although we are not yet a registered charity, the club does seem to take on a lot of players with known injury problems. To be fair, players like Pennock and Browning gave more than their money's worth, and Cox has not come with a doctor's note to rival either of them. He is a player who has always looked solid against the Gills for Burnley and Bournemouth before that.

His arrival should have meant that we at last had cover for the centre-backs, but Hess seems intent on developing a 3-5-2 system this season, with Hope, Ash and Cox all starting. Perhaps he gets a buzz from the thrill and danger of having no defenders on the bench (He's certainly played a few matches with no sub-keeper, although goalkeeping might be Nosworthy's next feat). Having said that, Leon Johnson, after 20 appearances last season, must be considered good first team back-up now, although I feel he looks more comfortable as a left-back than in the centre. Also, young Dean Beckwith, after a few years as a fixture in the reserve team when fit, has been given a squad number this year.

The midfield will certainly be weakened by the unexpected loss of Simon Osborn; unexpected because fans were told he had signed a new contract just two weeks before he left, out of contract, for Walsall. The official line is that Walsall made him an offer he couldn't refuse which, with no disrespect to them, does not say much about our ability to financially attract and keep players. The more plausible reason for Osborn's departure might be found in his thankyous to Gills fans, players and coaching staff, with no mention of the chairman. Whether Gills fans will thank him in return when Walsall visit Priestfield is unclear. Whilst every football fan realises (although doesn't want to believe) that footballers have no loyalty to clubs, there is certainly a feeling that after seven months injured, Osborn owed us something.

Every cloud has a silver lining though and the gap left is likely to see Danny Spiller get a run in the team this season. Not really like Ossie in style, Spiller is more a Hessenthaler for the 'Blazin' Squad' generation. Hess has probably only got another eight seasons left in him, so Spiller will only be 30 and a ready-made replacement when the gaffer calls it a day. A Gills midfield of Spiller, Hess, Smith and Saunders would certainly be one of the gutsiest and most fearless in the division. How many bookings they would collect between them is another matter.

Although none of these players are total cloggers, much of the creative spark comes from Paul Shaw, last season's player of the year and top scorer from a position behind the strikers (I can't say 'playing in the hole behind Marlon King' without thinking of what poor old Marlon might have had to endure in jail). Although a bit lightweight at times, Shaw will run at defenders through the centre or down the wings, and also is quick enough upstairs to link well with the front two. Kevin James provides similar options, although with less nous and more out-and-out pace, making him a useful substitute running at knackered defenders. The main problem as I see it, is the lack of creativity a little further back. Without wishing to go on about him, Osborn would have provided it. Gooden, before his retirement last month, might well have done. Now I would say that the opportunity is there for David Perpetuini or Nicky Southall who, since returning from Bolton, is perhaps less exciting but has developed a wider range of passing and seems a more intelligent player (in football terms at least).

Much of the talk last season was of Gills captain Paul Smith being past his best. Similar things were said about Andy Hessenthaler the season before, and he was probably just off a podium place for 2002/03 Player of the Year. Smudger has come back from indifferent form before, and even when he is well below his high standards, the team and the formation struggles to function without him on the rare occasions he is unavailable.

That leaves the goalkeeper, and with Jason Brown contracted for a while, the future looks good. He doesn't half look stumpy (unless stood next to Hessenthaler or Rod Wallace), but he takes a lot of credit for our league position last season and there's every chance he could make it into the full Welsh squad this season. Not only do we have the Vince Bartram Suite (bizarrely the smallest of Priestfield's 'player tribute' Conference Rooms) but the man himself is still around, very definitely second choice now but still a hero.

Two former Gills managers will be returning this year in Tony Pulis and Glenn Roeder. There are mixed feelings towards Pulis. I don't suppose he'll ever be on the chairman's Christmas card list and his exit from the club certainly did him no credit, but many still remember what he did for the team. There are also many who remember exactly what Glenn Roeder did for the team, and that is precisely why the fans will give him the reception he deserves.

Our chances this year depend upon us having better luck with injuries than we did last year. The squad is smaller having lost six players and gained just two, although youngsters like Beckwith, Crofts, Phillips and Awuah may soon be ready to join Spiller and Rose in the first team reckoning, with Knowles, Wallis and Edusei not far behind. They all might be needed, as already things are looking ominous. Laying a nice new pitch and hiring a club nutritionist is not much use when, before the season has even started, one player has done his knee ligaments falling downstairs, and another has knackered his ankle falling over a plastic cone that he was trying to dribble around. A third mid-table finish in a row would do me fine, as after two years I'm still so proud that we're in Division One. Whatever happens it's never likely to be dull at a football club that continues to make you both you cry with pride and laugh for all the wrong reasons.

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

What's the nearest railway station?
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?
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.

Word Association
Gillingham Gypsies
Beckham sub
Milton Keynes R.E.M. playing at the bowl
The Premiership Sorry, the what???
Division Two play-off final. i'd rather not think of division 2 in a future context.
Barry Ashby girl on 'blind date' boasting to cilla about an affair with him.
Watford eastenders; that's watford isn't it?
ok, Kenny Jackett

Soundbites (from assorted Census correspondents)
"I'm not sure if I really ate 7 Heinz varieties in the last year. I can't remember"

"I thought it was accomAdation!"

"The Rainham End doesn't sing any more. And now the Town End is having a stand built on it, they probably won't either."

"I hope your website is nothing to do with those moaning tossers slagging priestfields bogs off on BBC1."

"I'm not from round here"

"I am insulted by the penultimate question"

"I'm going to the Terminator 3 premier on Monday night Ave it"