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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 19/10/02, 3pm
They're rubbish!
By Ian Grant

It goes like this...

Gillingham are rubbish. Predictable rubbish. Unsophisticated and crude, their tactics have evolved no further than the basics of First Division football - hacking around in midfield, throwing the ball forward to gigantic, thumping strikers and hoping for a lucky break. They're way down the evolutionary scale, Sheffield United with French accents. And a team with emerging promotion hopes shouldn't be losing to them....

And so on, and so on. So much bollocks.

You see, I like Gillingham. For five years or more, they've stuck to that basic formula...and that's because it's also a rather good formula. A midfield involving Andy Hessenthaler, either as player or manager, is never going to be anything but hard-working and competitive, yet the addition of pacy, powerful strikers and plenty of width and movement makes it far from dour. It's not rocket science and it might not be beautiful to watch in a Johan Cruyff sense...but, well, it's more Graham Taylor than Dave Bassett, if you know what I mean.

And this was a good, old-fashioned ambush. GT would've been proud. The scoreline flatters the victors more than slightly...but they deserve that flattery for an opening assault that was as ferocious as it was unexpected, and that reduced our half-fit, patched-up side to utter disarray within minutes. True, we were unfortunate not to reduce the deficit and make more of a fight of it, particularly after the interval...but it's easy to forget that we were also fortunate not to be further behind. It was, in so many ways, perfect First Division football.

It was too much for us. Perhaps our concentration might've been better, perhaps we might've reacted more quickly...but, essentially, Gillingham found our weaknesses and exploited them without hesitation. There were too many players still short of full fitness (which possibly explains the use of Allan Nielsen, struggling with a calf injury, in a wide role while Neal Ardley played in the centre in the first half) and there was simply not enough aggression in midfield. The best midfielder on show was, predictably, an apparently tireless thirty-eight year old player-manager, who yet again planned and directed the downfall of his former colleagues. We couldn't compete, and one wonders why Jamie Hand was absent entirely.

So, they beat us again. While I'm not terribly happy about that, it's hard to feel too downhearted either, in hindsight. We've come a long way in spite of the effect of injuries and suspensions on an already thin squad...but there are limits, and they include dealing with Gillingham in full flight. No problem there, no need to be too concerned. As before, we'll just have to bounce back. That we tried extremely hard to do it before the end of the ninety minutes is cause for optimism, as far as I'm concerned. One defeat doesn't make a winter, or something.

Gillingham kicked off, the referee whistled them to a halt, Gillingham kicked off again. It was their only moment of hesitation. Less than two minutes in, and the ball arrived in the penalty area via Nosworthy and a flick from Ipoua...and suddenly the hugely impressive Sidibe was in, poking the ball past Alec Chamberlain to give Gillingham an immediate lead. And we couldn't recover our composure...a fine move from the left five minutes later, and Saunders slid a pass across to Hessenthaler on the right of the area, stretching to fire across and narrowly wide. Immediately, Smith nearly lobbed Alec Chamberlain from long range, his effort landing on the roof of the net, and we were all over the place....

The first ten minutes were awful, watching our unbeaten run ripped to shreds. There were moments of respite after that searing opening period - when Neal Ardley was hacked down on the edge of the box, Brown was required to make a fine save to keep out Stephen Glass' awkward, bobbling free kick, and Heidar Helguson was denied by a linesman's flag shortly afterwards - but they were brief, as we couldn't find any rhythm amid a barrage of tackles and blocks and general pressure. We lost possession too easily, we weren't allowed to keep amounts to much the same thing.

And Gillingham continued to trouble us. Twenty-three minutes, and a corner was played out to Shaw, whose ferocious drive through a forest of players missed the post by a few inches and crashed into the advertising hoardings. A floating shot from Neal Ardley, struck with the outside of his left foot, momentarily promised an equaliser as it drifted towards the top corner...but it didn't have the power to beat Brown, who calmly plucked it from above his head. We were beginning to threaten, yet we were simply unable to gain any kind of control.

And then they were further ahead, with a fine goal. Nosworthy's chipped pass on the right found Hessenthaler, who'd spotted and immediately moved into an enormous space behind the defence. His cross was superb, lifted over the keeper at the near post to find Ipoua, who ducked down to head into the empty net from six yards. We were getting slaughtered, and the third nearly arrived instantly as Perpetuini's raking pass from the left touchline sent Sidibe clear, Alec Chamberlain slipped as he advanced and only the restrictive angle caused the striker to fire into the side netting.

True, we were unlucky not to pull one back before the break, as Danny Webber curled in a fabulous effort from the left edge of the box that arced over Brown and smacked against the crossbar. Also true, however, that Gillingham still might've added the decisive third, as Shaw again lurked in space at a corner and, when the ball was headed clear, volleyed low through one of Big Ron's "crowd scenes" to bring a decent save from the keeper.

We'd been given a battering, frankly. That's not to say that there weren't below-par performances here - Micah Hyde and Neal Ardley, struggling to exert any influence in a frantic midfield; Allan Nielsen, completely lost on the right; Neil Cox and Sean Dyche, barely coping with Ipoua and Sidibe - but you should give Gillingham a whole load of credit for that. They were terrific. We weren't. That simple. The team needed the dressing room, we needed large quantities of lucky chocolate.

It didn't happen, as you know. In one respect, the game changed entirely after the interval - my notebook records just two Gillingham shots in the second half, both in injury time. In another, it changed little - the home side remained as fiercely competitive as before, even if they were unable to attack so regularly. Thus, we were able to dominate to some degree...yet, as the midfield remained the domain of Hessenthaler and company, our attacks were generally of the "long and hopeful" variety. Encouraging, I guess, that we can look at several near misses and fine saves, moments that might've seen us clamber back into contention...but it took a while.

The first half hour offered little indication that anything would change. Danny Webber was unfortunate again, picking up Micah Hyde's pass, cutting inside a defender from the right and smacking in a shot from twenty yards...but Brown was there, diving across to shove it around the post with both hands. Stephen Glass drove wide from a mile, Neil Cox blocked magnificently to prevent Saunders from adding to our woes.

Really, the game was going nowhere, and we were left to seek solace in a marvellously tenacious, bustling performance from Lloyd Doyley. He's growing into a tremendous footballer, and this was just excellent. There's the firm, unflustered determination of Nigel Gibbs about him, that quietly competitive streak...and, on a day when opponents got the better of us, nobody got the better of him until the irrelevant third goal. On one occasion, he was beaten by a smart turn by Sidibe on halfway and left trailing as the striker advanced. Neil Cox back-peddled, the terrace coaches behind me screamed at the captain to get a tackle in, Sidibe pulled his foot back to shoot...and Lloyd Doyley stuck a boot in to take the ball away, having chased all the way back to recover. Man of the match, by a considerable distance.

Then the barren half hour ended, and we damn nearly turned it around. First, Danny Webber dragged a shot wide after a neat interchange with Heidar Helguson, an unusually coherent move at that stage. Then, Neal Ardley floated a fine cross towards the back post, Helguson climbed with his marker and looped a header over Brown... and it drifted across, bounced gently against the foot of the post like a stray balloon from a children's party, and was cleared before Tommy Smith could stick it in the net. A minute later, Danny Webber sprinted in from the left, played the ball to Smith, and he waited for a glimpse of goal before firing low towards the bottom corner. Brown's save, down to his right to push the ball wide with his fingertips, was the best of the match.

Time was running out. From successive corners, Sean Dyche thumped a header over at the near post and then nodded wide from a central position. The latter was probably the best opportunity, but either might have yielded that precious goal. Forty minutes, and Neal Ardley's free kick cleared the wall and the crossbar, and people began to drift away from the open terrace. Even now, a goal might've made it interesting...but we just couldn't find it. Not quite. Not our day.

As injury time began, James lobbed a harmless shot in the vague direction of Alec Chamberlain from the edge of the box. It was their first effort on goal since the re-start. As injury time finished, with nearly every Watford player committed forward for a long throw, James screamed away from Lloyd Doyley into the vacant half. From experience, you rather suspect that Doyley might've caught him if he'd hesitated for a moment before finishing...but he didn't, whipping a superb shot into the top corner as he reached the penalty area. Irrelevant, of course. Harsh, though, especially on Lloyd Doyley.

"Where was our defence?!" shrieked the terrace coaches behind me. Because, obviously, they'd have been full of praise if we'd had four players in our own half when losing two-nil with a minute left. We didn't do too much wrong here, in all honesty...and that was reflected in generous applause for the departing players. We were just ambushed, and we put up a decent fight once we'd worked out what was going on.

For a moment, I thought of remaining behind to applaud Andy Hessenthaler too. Always a personal favourite, I still love watching him. Aggression, work-rate, determination, vision, versatility, leadership...such a splendid player of the game at this level. I would've been on my own, though...and besides, he had eight thousand Gills fans to sing his praises.

Thing is, Ray Lewington is building a Watford team with many of the same qualities. Through all the disdain thrown at Gillingham from the away terrace, I couldn't help thinking that I'd be perfectly happy to be on a par with our hosts. No shame in that. No shame at all.

It's the First Division. Fourth place for one week doesn't mean a thing.