Great Football League Teams 44: Gillingham 1999-2000
Number 44 of our Great Teams sees us return to the turn of the Millennium, a year which has not yet featured among our selections although David Moyes’ Preston North End dynasty were Champions of Division Two that year and you can read more about the lilywhites’ subsequent fate in our last installment penned by Jo Breen. One of the most impressive teams of that era, however, were Gillingham and here, David Field looks back to some Medway glory days.
I must confess I have never seen Rocky. However, from what I gather, the story for most episodes of the franchise is this: close to glory, Rocky falls at the final hurdle, hurting and subject to a major shock, he eventually drags himself up from this and gets back on the road pushing towards the big prize. Then, during the big, climactic fight, he suffers a seemingly terminal setback but somehow manages to get that last killer punch in to be declared champion. Well Hollywood, if you want a new spin on this classic movie formula I present to you the 1999-2000 Gillingham side.
The close season has seen a cluster of familiar managers and players moving on from where they had become semi-permanent fixtures. One of these is the distinctively pragmatic tracksuit and baseball cap sporting figure from Newport who managed to transform a sleeping giant in Stoke City into a solidly mid table Premier League team.
But if you thought that the Stoke board were acting ungratefully when they dispensed with his services this summer, then to the outside world his axing from Gillingham in June 1999 looked incredulous.
Gillingham had floated like flotsam and jetsam between the third and fourth tiers as a fully paid up citizen of the lower leagues, with Chairman Dr. Clifford Grossmark and the legendary Brian Moore as Director attracting much goodwill to the club.
However, by 1995 the Gills were in dire straits with the administrators looking to asset strip the club in preparation for its demise. They started by calling in the services of an unemployed manager to value the players for the inevitable fire sale while at the same time, an ex photocopier salesman who made a few bob selling his company and was studying at a local university was watching a local news report detailing the club’s plight. He bought in and reasoned that the adviser valuing the squad might be better placed in a track suit rather than a business suit.
So began the tempestuous relationship between Paul Scally and Tony Pulis.
Pulis started as he meant to go on in 1995, building a strong powerful team based around the principles of making sure that the team would never cower. A physically and mentally resilient core with players such as Dave Martin, Mark O’Connor and Leo Fortune-West bullied their way to second place in his first season. The avuncular Big Fat Jim Stannard had a record breaking season, only conceding 20 goals in a 46 game campaign with each of his 29 clean sheets celebrated by miming the smoking of a big fat cigar to the adoring throngs of the Rainham End.
Life in the third tier was harder but over the next three years significant investment in the playing squad saw a strong core of personnel gathered. This included a rock hard defensive core of Guy Butters, Barry Ashby and Adrian Pennock, club legend Andy Hessenthaler and Paul Smith providing midfield steel, Nicky Southall lending expertise at set pieces and a lethal strike force of Super Bobby Taylor and Carl Asaba. Gillingham rose consistently up the table with eleventh, eighth and fourth places finishes up to 1998-99.
Things behind the scenes were never easy between two characters that were not used to taking no for an answer. Indeed, it would appear in hindsight that, no matter the result at Wembley against Manchester City, the relationship was going to end in tears.
Even so no one could imagine how heartbreaking the final game of his Gillingham career would end. Late strikes from Taylor and Asaba would give the Gills a seemingly unassailable two goal cushion going into injury time, only for Paul Dickov to wreck the hearts of the massed ranks of Kentish Men and Men of Kent, scoring past his best man.
Paul Scally took his time and made a coup by signing up Peter Taylor who had great success as the manager of the England U21 side. Taylor promised a more cultured approach than Pulis – so much so that a football was apparently spotted in the first week of pre-season. Signings were more workmanlike with veteran target man Steve Butler, languid playmaker and Taylor talisman Junior Lewis and nifty poacher Andy Thomson signed for a pittance in comparison to earlier seasons.
Early results were not that promising, with inconsistent form as the Gills adapted to a more aesthetic style of play, taking 6 games to get their first three points – one moment that stuck out was an incident at Blackpool away where Nigel Worthington ordered his side to attack after Gills had kicked the ball out for an injury to a Tangerine player, leading to their equaliser.
In the autumn months, the Gills started to warm up, led by a superb run of form from Taylor. In the 16 games until Boxing Day, 12 games were won, producing a real a surge up the table. The striker scored two spectacular hat tricks against Bristol City and Wrexham convincing Manchester City to prise him away with a hefty cheque while young players were also coming through – Nyron Nosworthy emerging as a quick, powerful utility player across the back and midfield and Roland Edge winning plaudits at left back.
As well as the league there was a record breaking cup run, which saw the Gills pass through Cheltenham and Darlington (in the only FA Cup game where both sides advanced to the next round as the Quakers were given a second chance due to Manchester United’s ill fated winter break in Rio) with panache and verve. A win against Bradford City, a Premiership side in these days, set up a fifth round tie against a Sheffield Wednesday side in a death spin.
The stereotypical cup upset ensued, featuring a hastily assembled side stand, John Motson shivering in his sheepskin jacket in a swaying gantry, choreographed team celebrations and the dad of a friend from school standing on his roof allowing Gary Lineker to state he would celebrate a night on the tiles. Nicky Southall, with his lethal right boot, applied the coup de grâce to unleash an epidemic of cup fever. Sadly, Chelsea were to end the run in a 5-0 rout, with a certain John Terry scoring his first goal in professional football.
With the departure of Taylor and a tough run of fixtures due to the FA Cup run, Taylor reinforced the side with the first two signings of the Millennium; left winger Ty Gooden arrived alongside the returning colossus of Iffy Onuora while the team suffered some inconsistent form with no wins in the league in January.
However, Spring saw the Gills emerge as contenders and a steak of 13 wins in 19 games saw the XI on course for automatic promotion. Big results in this run included a 2-1 win over Wigan, a 3 nil away win at Burnley and a lively 2 all draw in front of 17, 000 at the New Den as well as the result that saw the Gills place their own fate in their own hands on the final game of the season- a 4-1 win versus Cardiff that included a Carl Asaba hat trick, relegating the Bluebirds to the basement.
Over half the crowd at Wrexham on the final day had travelled from Kent hoping to see the Gills seal the deal but Mark McGregor broke Kentish hearts with a pile driver in the early stages – leading to an agonisingly slow strangulation of automatic promotion hopes.
So it was to be the play-offs, again, with Stoke City the opponents. The Potters raced to a 3-1 lead at the Britannia when, past added time, Andy Hessenthaler picked up the ball on the left hand touchline and strode towards the edge of the area with purpose, picking out the top corner. The second leg saw Rob Styles go down in Staffordshire infamy, dishing out red cards to Graham Kavanagh and Clive Clarke. Gillingham eventually prevailed over the nine men to book a second trip to Wembley.
The play-off final against Wigan would not go down in history like the year before but provided its fair share of thrills and captain Paul Smith was dramatically dropped to the bench. The Gills took a slightly undeserved lead with Onuora prodding the ball over the line.
The second half saw Wigan take the game to extra time and should have won it with Nicky Southall clearing a ball from behind the line – however they did have a man sent off and Taylor made three crucial substitutions, bringing on the skipper Smith and crucially extra fire power up front in Butler and Thomson.
The Latics took the lead from the penalty spot but two crosses from the left wing from Lewis and Gooden resulted in two glorious headers from each; the former’s assist coming just 18 months after turning out for Hendon.
With Butler and Thomson winning the game and taking the Gills to the promised land of the second tier. 40,000 fans from Kent had their Hollywood ending: they got their world champ belt.
Peter Taylor would not manage the Gills in the Championship and went to have an ill-fated campaign with Leicester in the top division, taking with him Junior Lewis who found the top tier beyond his abilities. Andy Hessenthaler would be player manager in the First Division and would help to keep the Kent side in the second tier for five years.
The heroes of 1999-2000 would go down as the most successful of Gillingham’s history. This team went further than any other in the FA Cup and the League in the Gills’ 107 year history. As Scally said when he took over the club in the mid-90s ‘Never Look Back.’