Butler's hat-trick lifts Gillingham to top

SIMON O'HAGAN

Gillingham 3 Chester 1

The Third Division's top-of-the-table meeting produced an emphatic winner last night when a hat-trick in 17 second-half minutes by Steve Butler enabled Gillingham to leap-frog over Chester City into first place.

Butler, 34 in two weeks, was bought from Cambridge United for pounds 100,000 just before Christmas. It looked a lot for a player of his age, and Gillingham fans who remembered him best from the 1980s, when he played for the club's hated rivals Maidstone United, needed convincing that he was the man for the job. But he scored on his home debut to give Gillingham an important win over Plymouth Argyle on Boxing Day, and his single-handed dismantlement of Chester City, who were proving tough to crack, underlined the seriousness of the Kent club's challenge for promotion.

On the brink of extinction last summer, Gillingham's resurgence has been remarkable. While the supporters who have returned in their thousands may still be dreaming, the manner in which the team has gone about business has been nothing if not pragmatic. Tony Pulis, formerly the manager of Bournemouth, has built the team round so solid a defence that Chester's goal, a largely academic one late on, was the first Gillingham had conceded at home in the League since 2 September. Their record of eight goals against is by some way the best in any of the four divisions.

Chester played more of a passing game on the rare occasions when Gillingham relaxed their grip. Had Chris Priest and Stuart Rimmer not wasted good opportunities towards the end of the first half events might have turned out very differently.

But with the pace of Leo Fortune-West forcing the Chester defence to back-pedal repeatedly, and Butler's ability to hold the ball up and bring team-mates into the game, Gillingham were well worth a goal before the first arrived three minutes after half-time. A throw-in from the left was headed on by Mark Harris and Butler stabbed the ball in from a couple of yards.

In the 56th minute, Butler chased down a huge clearance by his goalkeeper Jim Stannard before lobbing Billy Stewart. His third, 10 minutes later, was presented to him when Spencer Whelan slipped as he thought about a back-pass. Jon Kenworthy's 86th-minute strike for Chester took only a little of the gloss off the victory.

Gillingham (3-5-2): Stannard; Green, T Butler (Micklewhite, 48), Harris; Smith, Martin, Ratcliffe, Bailey, Naylor; S Butler (Puttnam, 71), Fortune- West. Substitute not used: Glass (gk).

Chester City (3-5-2): Stewart; Burnham, Whelan, Alsford; Priest, Richardson, Fisher, Noteman, Rogers (Kenworthy, 57); Regis (Milner, 70), Rimmer. Substitute not used: Murphy.

Referee: I Hemley (Ampthill, Beds).

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