'Big fat Jim' blocks the route to goal

Glenn Moore talks to the last line of a defence that cost nothing and gives away nothing, and has taken Gillingham to the brink of promotion
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The Independent Online
The tightest defence in Britain goes on the road again today, seeking the 28th clean sheet of a remarkable season. Get it and they will be 90 minutes from staking a claim to being the best ever. Quite an achievement for a defence which cost nothing.

A year ago Gillingham were in the hands of the receivers, 18th in the Third Division, and wondering whether the club would even be around this season. Jim Stannard was also pondering his future. Having been offered reduced terms at Fulham, his side for 13 years, he was eligible for a free transfer.

Today he goes back to Craven Cottage as goalkeeper to a Gillingham side lying second in the Third Division, just two points from being guaranteed promotion. Moreover he returns with one record safely tucked away and a clutch of others in his sights.

In 44 League games this season Stannard has kept 27 clean sheets and conceded 20 goals - comfortably the best in England. Having passed John Simpson's club records he is two clean sheets away from breaking the British shut-out record, set by Ray Clemence in 1978/9.

That, admittedly, was in a 42-game programme, but the best defensive record over 46 games is also within reach. It belongs to Port Vale who conceded 21 goals with 28 shut-outs in 1953/54.

Stannard already has one, less desirable record, that of the heaviest current player. Although he claims the official Rothmans listing of 16st 6lb is a few pounds over he admits to being 16 stone. "I am over six foot tall," he said, "and I think my record proves you do not have to be 11 or 12 stone to play." Peter Schmeichel, the only other player listed at 16 stone, would agree.

Stannard's form and figure have earned him an affectionate chant from the Gillingham fans. "Big fat, Big fat Jim, Big fat Jim Stannard" goes the refrain."

"It is a bit of fun, I get on well with them," said Stannard. "I do have people come up to me in the street and say, "look, its big fat Jim" but they are only kids and you try to accept it. I had a very good relationship with the fans at Fulham and it was a big step, at 33, to start all over again but it has worked out well."

Stannard made a habit, early in the season, of celebrating each clean sheet by blowing an imaginary cigar. Now, he said, "I get given the real thing all the time. I've got a great big one, about a foot long, which a group of fans bought me. I'm going to bring it out for the last game of the season. The thing is, I don't even smoke - I have to give them away."

Stannard was one of eight free transfer signings made by new manager Tony Pulis at the start of the season and he admitted: "We never thought it would go as well. Everyone has been magnificent, sometimes we cannot believe it ourselves."

Having been rescued by Paul Scally, a locally based businessman, Gillingham made the perfect start in July with four straight wins and have not been out of the top three since. Crowds have more than doubled to an average of 7,000-plus.

More than half of them will be at today's match at which a lively atmosphere is certain. When the two clubs met earlier in the season two Fulham players were sent off, Gillingham's Mark O'Connor was carried off with a broken leg, and 10 players were booked. Both clubs were found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute by the FA and censured.

Stannard, who still has friends at Fulham, said: "The events in the other game are all in the past but it will still be tough, even though Fulham only have pride to play for. We'll be looking to go 1-0 up and keep another clean sheet."

'I think my record proves you don't have to be 11 or 12 stone to play' - Jim Stannard

The best defence ever?

GILLINGHAM 1995/96

27 clean sheets with two games to play

Jim Stannard, 33 (free transfer from Fulham)

Richard Green, 28 (free transfer from Swindon)

Dominic Naylor, 25 (free transfer from Plymouth)

Mark Harris, 32 (free transfer from Swansea)

Tony Butler, 23 (former trainee)

LIVERPOOL 1978/79

28 clean sheets

Ray Clemence, England international

Phil Neal, England international

Alan Kennedy, England international

Phil Thompson, England international

Alan Hansen, Scotland international

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