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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 02/11/04, 7.45pm
Five Minute Football
By Ian Grant

ITV is awful.

This is not news. Particularly not for Matt's friends and family, for his metronomic text messages on the subject - "BAN ITV!", "SHUT UP, PLEAT!" and so forth - were a notable feature of the summer's European Championships. Nevertheless, for those of us who support proper football teams and are generally content merely to cast a bored, cynical eye at everything else, it's been possible to ignore the whole ghastly channel to some extent. It hasn't taken that much effort. Does anybody really know or care what's happening in the Champions' (ha) League any more? Does anybody even vaguely understand how the UEFA Cup works? Did you see Andy Townsend last season, except in a fast-forwarded blur?

The problem is that ITV is no longer just the official station for over-blown, over-hyped nonsense. As probably the only people in the known universe to be able to say "The Championship" without either inserting "erm" in the middle, sniggering knowingly, or launching into a lengthy explanation, they're now in our back yard too. ITV is here...and this time, it's personal.

There is, of course, some pleasure to be found in that. It will be a long time before I tire of hearing Peter Drury's attempts to drool and swoon convincingly as he describes Preston versus Millwall to a sparse audience of hungover zombies. It's a bit of a dream, really...a joy, a righteous victory...much like finding the Cranberries playing a gig in a particularly scabby local pub, being heckled and ignored by the regulars. For Drury, it's not been a good year: his irritation at commentating on a Greek victory over his French heroes was evident and amusing, and it's just not possible to pull his old "AND IT'S BERGKAMP...DENNIS BERGKAMP!" trick with "AND IT'S TAGGART...GERRY TAGGART!"....

They're not quite beaten yet, though.

There's The Championship, for a start. Typically trite, editing the bottom two divisions into a minimal five minutes, and oddly placed in a Sunday morning slot that's thus far proved completely impossible to remember. That this week's episode featured the afore-mentioned Andy Townsend asking a poor Leyton Orient striker whether he was "going to try to get on the scoresheet today" (can you guess the answer? Can you? Can you?) rather indicates that, yet again, ITV has found novel and inventive ways to avoid satisfying our desires. Just show us the football and spare us the rest, for heaven's sake.

This week, Gillingham were also featured. Specifically, the Priestfield Stadium itself, recently nominated as the worst in the country by someone-or-other (because we didn't beat them to it). So, what did we get? A supporter's eye view? A chat with some visiting fans? A tour of the stands, perhaps? A visit to the spiders in the gents' toilets in the away end? Or Paul Scally gleefully and proudly whisking a relaxed, jovial reporter around behind the scenes: the call centre, the restaurant, the dressing rooms, the stupid rotating-fountain-thing in reception? Go on, guess.

Because, obviously, the stupid rotating-fountain-thing is a key factor in any supporter's view of their visit to the Priestfield. That's what matters. And not - to pick a completely random example - that you get to spend two hours sitting on top of some rickety temporary seating, exposed to all of the elements in an away end that boasts facilities that wouldn't be out of place in a festival field. No, that couldn't be it, could it? Jesus, you'd only have to ask one visiting supporter for their opinion to get to the heart of the matter. Just one. That's not even research, that's not even showering Paul Scally with a healthy pinch of salt, that's just having some bloody friends.

This is a dump. Everyone knows it, and any Gillingham fans who wish to contest that opinion are very welcome to join us in the away section for our next visit. I'll even buy them a cup of tea from the Brian Moore Food Court (no, really). That, apart from one victory in an end-of-season friendly, we haven't won here since football was invented clearly doesn't help matters...but even if we'd snatched three points in injury time last night, the sound of our celebrations would've drifted away into the night sky and the joyous jumping around would've been tamed by the awareness of the scaffolding beneath our bouncing feet. A fanciful idea, anyway. And a point gained, whatever.

Before kickoff, we were honoured with the chance to pay tribute to ITV's very own Andy Steggall, legendary anchorman for Meridian's startlingly bland football coverage and former face of the sadly-defunct "Look at the Stars" TV. But not even the Steggallmeister could've put much of a gloss on this one. Hard work, this. At some point during the first half, Rupert wondered whether anyone would bother coming to football if it was reduced to a mere five minutes in duration...and the obvious response, given our location at the time, was that it'd be something of an improvement. As it turned out, Five Minute Football was exactly what we got. Foolishly, we arrived ninety minutes before kickoff.

Really, much - most, in fact - of this doesn't merit description. As it happens, there were quite a lot of shots on goal, but they were distinguishable from the general hum of dreary activity mainly by virtue of going up the pitch rather than across. Even that wasn't always true, for Jermaine Darlington had a crack that went out for a throw in the second half...not quite the equivalent of that memorable Wayne Brown effort at Selhurst a while back, but close. The drizzle of shots, mainly scuffed wide or tamely to one of the goalkeepers, made it into my notebook...but I can't really face the sheer spirit-sapping mundanity of transcribing them here for your perusal.

Instead, we'll skip lightly through all of that, pausing here and there to cast a brief glance at moments of particular interest. It won't take long, promise. We can even speed through an encouraging opening spell, in which we were much the more controlled and competent side in a similar manner to previous successes on the road. It didn't amount to much - in fact, a free kick from the bandaged Henderson that slammed into the advertising hoardings after eighteen minutes provided the first almost-excitement of the match - and it gradually became muddled and was eventually lost, but we look like a confident, well-drilled outfit at the moment, and that run of games without a win seems to have quietly turned into a run of games without a defeat.

There were promising moments - Danny Webber showed a willingness to run at opponents and shoot when given the opportunity, even if the end product didn't match the ambition - but we were never able to shake off persistent, if largely dismal, opposition. It's not hard to see why Gillingham are struggling so badly, yet there's still a bit of spirit here, not least in the shape of the ever-green manager. Thirty-four minutes, and Henderson picked up Johnson's cross, charged into the right of the penalty area, and drove at Richard Lee's near post, bringing a sharp save from the keeper. A little longer, and Neal Ardley's touch at the other end opened space for Heidar Helguson, blazing over when a low drive into the far corner would've been just the thing.

That's the first half, then. We could note, in passing, that Brynjar Gunnarsson showed few signs of his recent injury troubles, offering the most elegant and stylish interventions in an otherwise tawdry match that didn't even have the grace to be truly ugly. We could note that Lloyd Doyley provided some lively and confident contributions in attack, as well as his usual defensive tenacity; we could note that Jermaine Darlington is starting to look like the player that I remember, versatile and inventive; we could note that Sean Dyche is a bloody immense presence, and, one imagines, an enormous help for the inexperienced but very promising Jay Demerit. We could, we have...and we'll detain each other no longer.

Because we've still got the second half to plough through, before the Five Minute Football kicks off. Not much of great significance to report here either, in truth...unless you count the fact that it started to get a bit chilly and that a brief, desperate rendition of "We 'Ope It's Chips, It's Chips" produced an extraordinary and short-lived moment of barber-shop harmony in surroundings that scarcely deserved such artistry. Oh, and Jarvis scampered through, hurdling Jay Demerit's mistaken tackle to break into the area, then getting all excited at the vital moment, and swiping his shot into the night sky. That was after sixty-five minutes, and it took two more for Heidar Helguson to send a free header tamely to Brown from a hooked Ardley cross.

Still nil-nil, and therefore slightly better than expected...although some wild optimists insisted on claiming that a) Gillingham were rubbish and that b) we could therefore beat them. The former was true, the latter was fanciful nonsense. To prove the point, the one moment of genuine significance went against us...and not just in Danny Webber's failure to turn in Heidar Helguson's skidding cross at the far post, stooping to head and then thrusting his chest at the ball as it bounced awkwardly. He made no contact and, in doing so, he collided with the upright, withdrawn on a stretcher to sympathetic applause with what looked horribly like another shoulder injury. Life isn't fair.

This, by far the closest that either side had come to scoring, set a minor climax in motion. Minor, for the five minutes had yet to begin. But Neal Ardley stung Brown's palms with a walloped drive from a free kick, then the keeper had to react well to turn away Brynjar Gunnarsson's near post header from the resulting corner. At the other end, Iwan Roberts' sole contribution, apart from getting booked for a flouncing protest, was to steer a header over the bar from Spiller's cross; the kind of chance that he's stuck in the top corner throughout his career. And Richard Lee was a little fortunate when Spiller's low cross-shot squirmed out of his hands with strikers in attendance, smacked clear by defenders just in time.

Ninety minutes of waiting, which is more than enough. Let the Five (well, four) Minute Football commence...!

One minute, and we're piling into Gillingham already, eager to secure the result in the time available. Neal Ardley's tremendous cross from the left finds James Chambers storming into the penalty area, hurling himself at the ball, and sending in a diving header that Brown saves awkwardly at his feet before Heidar Helguson can pounce in the six yard box. The time's flowing onwards, and we're thinking that we won't get another chance before it runs out.

But there's plenty of time, as it happens. Almost immediately, we're back on the break, and Neal Ardley is feeding Heidar Helguson on the left of the box, and the striker is striding to the by-line, looking up and smashing a low cross into the danger area. And it's James Chambers again, pretty much playing as an extra striker in this shortened version of the game. He's there, ahead of his marker, a few yards from goal. Brown's there too, but he knows that he'll be beaten and he's just jumping randomly. The ball's there, at Chambers' right foot. Just smack it home, thump it into the roof of the net, stick it away. Put your foot through it. Or, if you prefer, try to side-foot it, slice it completely, and put it in the back row of the stand. It's an option, I suppose.

As the teams trooped back into the dressing rooms, Chambers looked thoroughly distraught, responding only momentarily to the visiting fans' applause. Shame; he'd played well. But even after that extraordinary miss, there was enough time left to win the game. Enough time for Bruce Dyer to supply a sublime finishing touch to Lloyd Doyley's fine cross, looping a superb header over the helpless Brown from in front of the near post. We watched it float towards the target, expecting - naively, for let's not forget that this is Gillingham, where we'll never, ever win - it to drop into the far corner. Instead, it sat briefly and cheekily on top of the crossbar, then dropped for defenders and strikers to contest inconclusively. Bugger.

Yes, bugger. But there were plenty of wry, amused smiles among the homeward-bound away fans, for the Five Minute Football experiment was one of the more novel, entertaining ways of failing to beat Gillingham that we've stumbled upon. An improvement in our situation, albeit in a confusing, inconsequential, and distinctly Kafka-esque fashion.

What does this mean? I have no idea. Is it good? It could be, or not. Will we ever win against Gillingham? No, quite impossible. Must we play them again in February? Yes, apparently.