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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
||R.E.M. playing at the bowl
||Sorry, the what???
||play-off final. i'd rather not think of division 2 in a future
||girl on 'blind date' boasting to cilla about an affair with
||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"