FOOTBALL COMMENTARY : Little pity for the poor relations

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The Independent Online
With the threat of headlines such as "Freddie Starr ate my club" having receded at Gillingham this weekend the club hamster was looking much more optimistic about the future. However, despite Saturday's 3-0 win over fellow Third Division stragglers Exeter City, few shared this outlook at either club.

Saturday's match, billed by the local press as the "battle of the receivers", was a stark look at the realities of life at the bottom. In the blue corner, Gillingham, £2m in debt and in an eight-year spiral of unremitting failure. In the red, Exeter City, £1.2m in debt and, like Gillingham, more concerned with whether they will simply be playing next season than in which league.

Gillingham have been in receivership since January, Exeter in administration since November. The difference, said Tom Burton, joint receiver at Gillingham, is negligible. In effect it means the club are run by accountants, not the board.

Many managers might believe this would be an improvement but Mike Flanagan is not among them. The former Charlton and Crystal Palace striker was made redundant by Gillingham four weeks ago. He now joins the list of creditors. Interestingly, the decision was not seen as an example of interference, but as a good move by most supporters.

With no money available to bring someone in, the winger Neil Smillie, once of Watford and Brighton, took over and Saturday's win was his first game in charge. It was quite a relief, especially as it was preceded by speculation that Malcolm Allison would replace him as part of a showbiz takeover. Along with Starr, who has denied all knowledge, Mick Jagger and Eric "monster" Hall have also been mentioned but, curiously, the consortium concerned are yet to bother making contact with the receivers despite conducting a very public press conference. Since 85 groups have contacted the receivers, and four are involved in negotiations, they are clearly not difficult to reach.

Locally the suspicion is that the "takeover" is simply an attempt to gain publicity. That the club are worth such a stunt has come as a surprise to supporters used to scouring the nationals for a small paragraph on their team's performance.

Exeter, having been the subject of a similar "bid" by the same people, have nothing but sympathy. Their position is, if anything, even worse than Gillingham's. While Smillie was allowed to bring in one player on a swap deal with Colchester, and recall another, the left-back Eliot Martin, from Chelmsford on a free, Terry Cooper could have spent transfer deadline day on the golf course.

The Exeter manager has been under a transfer embargo since taking over in August. Last week he was even refused permission to employ a player who would not cost a fee and would be prepared to play for nothing. In consequence he has to operate from a squad of 18, five of whom are aged 18 or under. On occasion all five have played together this season and, when their veteran goalkeeper Peter Fox was injured in December, Cooper had to play a 16-year-old, Ross Bellotti, in goal.

Fox was back on Saturday and beaten in 44 seconds by Adrian Foster, who was lured from Torquay with the promise that Gillingham attract more scouts because of their proximity to London. Chris Pike, a £15,000 mid-season signing from Hereford, made the goal and, four minutes from half-time, added a penalty after Paul Watson had been fouled. Exeter were poor and Gillingham could have had six but both strikers missed further chances. However, it was Foster who neatly controlled Watson's free-kick and squared for Tony Butler's second goal for the club in more than a 100 games.

At the centre of most Gillingham moves was Gary Micklewhite, once of Derby and Queen's Park Rangers and now Smillie's assistant. Exeter's plight could be seen in the choice of 38-year-old journeyman Trevor Morgan at centre-forward. He was among their better players.

The win took Gillingham above Exeter but, as it appears no one will be relegated, the result was academic. Macclesfield, runaway leaders of the Conference, are unable to gain a Football League ground grading. But, said Cooper, "the problem is next season". Exeter will be pleased to just get there. By late May they, like Gillingham, must provide guarantees to the League that they can complete next season's fixtures. That depends on agreeing a relocation deal. Yet, said Cooper, the council planning meeting to consider the options has been put back to June.

Both clubs are outposts in a division dominated by northern teams. On Saturday Exeter had left at nine in the morning and hoped to be back home by 11 at night. They only stay overnight when the journey takes more than five hours' drive. Wigan and Lincoln are day-trips; Manchester United stay overnight when they go to Leeds.

Gary Nelson, the chairman of the supporters' club, said the location makes it difficult to attract players. "We have to pay silly money and clubs like us are also suffering the knock-on effect of the rise in Premier League wages."

Nelson noted that the National Lottery had hit the clubs' own lottery, a vital source of income. Gillingham made £125,000 from their lottery last year which equates to their entire expenditure on transfers for three seasons. The advent of scratchcards will hit income even more. The supporters' club has restocked the club shop and covered travel costs for the rest of the season, others collect in buckets in the town. Even the receivers have bought season tickets. "We were shamed into it," Burton said. "It is the first time I have had little old ladies sending me a tenner to help save a company."

The Football League, helpful as ever, has done its bit by fining the club £500 for late return of some forms. Soon the League will deliberate on these clubs' fate.

Goals: Foster (1) 1-0; Pike (pen 41) 2-0; Butler (62) 3-0.

Gillingham (4-4-2): Banks; Dunne, Butler, Green, Martin; Smith, Carpenter, Micklewhite, Watson; Pike, Foster. Substitutes not used: Lindsey, Trott, S Barrett (gk).

Exeter City (4-4-2): Fox; Minett, Came, Richards, D Cooper; Phillips, Brown, Anderson, Gavin; Morgan (M Cooper, 80), Cecere. Substitutes not used: Thirlby, M Barrett (gk).

Referee: P Rejer (Tipton).

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