Gills are in good shape

GILLINGHAM'S pitch can be a great leveller, writes Tony Garnett. It's one of Ipswich Town's shorter away trips of the season but by no means the most exotic.

GILLINGHAM'S pitch can be a great leveller, writes Tony Garnett. It's one of Ipswich Town's shorter away trips of the season but by no means the most exotic. The Priestfield Stadium has a capacity of 10,600. The only League club in Kent, apart from the London-based ones like Millwall and Charlton, is hardly palatial.

Yet one must admire their resilience. Not long ago they seemed in grave danger of going out of business.

Chairman Paul Scally has steadied the ship. Former manager Tony Pulis, now with Stoke City, started the lift-off from Division Three. Player-manager Andy Hessenthaler has carried on the good work. He is doing a marvellous job keeping the Gills' heads well above water in Division One.

It must be the primary objective for Gillingham that they avoid relegation. Resources are limited, but sometimes that produces a tremendous team spirit in the face of adversity.

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Who would have imagined, less than 10 years ago, that Gillingham would currently occupy a higher position in the league than Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City and Derby County?

Their success has been achieved by blending together a band of honest players. Gillingham are never likely to fall into the trap of becoming too big for their boots. They don't pay massive transfer fees or hand out contracts to players which they cannot afford.

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Gillingham are a bread-and-butter side who make themselves difficult to beat. At full strength they can be quite formidable, but a long-term knee injury to crack marksman Marlon King has restricted their goal output. King scored seven goals in 12 matches before breaking down in need of a knee operation.

Solid central defender Barry Ashby has been badly missed while out with a hamstring injury. Leon Johnson has been a valuable deputy.

Smarting from a 6-0 defeat at Wolverhampton last Saturday, Gillingham then hit back with a 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night against Sheffield United.

Ipswich Town can also expect a backlash because Gillingham's pride was hurt at Molineux. Furthermore those will long memories down in the Medway region will recall that Gillingham was the club replaced by Ipswich Town in the Football League in 1938. They had made themselves vulnerable by having to apply for re-election on four occasions.

The club was liquidated, reformed, and entered the Southern League before being restored to the Football League in 1950. The present time is just about the most successful period in their history.

Jason Brown is the established goalkeeper who has bounced back following a free transfer from Charlton. Brown is with the Welsh Under-21 squad at present despite having missed the debacle at Molineux because he broke down in the warm-up with a shoulder injury. He left the more experienced Vince Bartram to face the ferocity of the Wolves and Sheffield United. It will be Bartram again in action today.

Chris Hope, a £50,000 bargain from Nottingham Forest, is a power at the back. He joined Forest for £250,000 from Scunthorpe but it did not work out successfully at the City Ground. He has been ever-present with the Gills and just signed a fresh three year deal.

Nyron Nosworthy is a 22-year-old attacking right-back while Roland Edge, born in Gillingham, is a home-produced left-back. Paul Smith is the captain and club player of the year for the third time. Smith is the Matt Holland of Priestfield, popular and effective in midfield.

Paul Shaw, who cost £450,000 from Millwall, is a former Arsenal trainee, who operates just behind the strikers.

The three most experienced players on the books, all involved in big money transfers to fashionable clubs in their younger days, have had injury problems. When fit midfielder Simon Osborn (formerly of QPR and Wolves) and forwards Tommy Johnson (Notts County, Derby County, Aston Villa and Celtic) and Rod Wallace (Southampton, Leeds, Glasgow Rangers and Bolton) can all be match-winners.

Nicky Southall did well for Bolton Wanderers in the Premiership last season, David Perpetuini is a stylish left-footed defender who cost £100,000 from Watford while Mark Saunders is a versatile lad from the West Country. Danny Spiller, now 21, gained experience with a lengthy loan to Longford Town. Now he has signed a fresh contract until 2005.

Up front Cameroon six-footer Guy Ipoua can pose a big threat although Mamady Sidibe will be away on African Nations Cup duty for Mali against Eritrea.

Ipoua, who has played for Seville, Bristol Rovers and Scunthorpe cost only £25,000. It looks as though he will be on his way again when the season ends so he can take advantage of being in the shop window.

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