Football: Forgotten club ready to surprise

Second Division play-off final: Desperate Manchester City face newly ambitious Gillingham at Wembley tomorrow; Unlikely battle of little and large

FOR ALFRED Jingle in the Pickwick Papers, "Kent is apples, cherries, hops and women." Had his creator, Charles Dickens, not died prematurely in 1870, he might just have considered adding football to the list - after all, the Royal Engineers, based down the road from his Rochester home, appeared in four of the first seven FA Cup finals - but the notion would not have endured into the 20th century.

Even Gillingham's chairman and chief executive, Paul Scally, owner of the county's only senior club and a man who makes Mr Micawber look like a bleak pessimist, says of the organisation he bought from the receiver in 1995: "They were almost the forgotten club of football, a place where players came to end their careers. There was massive apathy. People didn't expect to win, or be any better than they were. I couldn't believe they'd never ever been in the Second Division, or to Wembley, or anywhere really."

Four short years later, all of that may be about to change. A first trip down Wembley Way has already been arranged, and if Manchester City can be overcome tomorrow, promotion to the higher divisions will be achieved for the first time in the club's 106-year history. City have already received one unwelcome surprise, discovering that their opponents (average attendance 6,339) had sold 35,000 tickets in two days and would not therefore be redirecting crate-loads to Maine Road.

That sort of enthusiasm underlines an important point behind Scally's optimism, which is based on the very under-achievement of Kent football. In a glossy 28-page brochure produced recently to attract new investors, entitled The Path To Premier League Football, his mantra is: "Unique Position. Unique Population. Unique Potential."

With some judicious juggling of figures, this uniqueness is defined as comprising a population of 1.5 million within a 45-minute drive of the Priestfield Stadium, more than three times as many people as in the immediate catchment area of such football backwaters as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. "There is nowhere in the country with such a high population ratio to football teams," he claims.

A new motorway bridge across the River Medway, pounds 40m of improvements to the M2, Europe's largest shopping centre 15 minutes away at Bluewater, and even the Channel Tunnel are cited as further reasons to believe in the future of what had always seemed to be not so much a sleeping giant as a comatose pygmy. Furthermore, according to the brochure: "The possibility of a European super league in years to come makes Gillingham a prime location for a club to compete."

Not even Scally expects to see Champions' League matches at the Priestfield. His architects have already designed "a world showcase in leisure", a 40,000-capacity stadium on a greenfield site, with retractable roof and removable pitch, including a hotel, ice rink and bowling alley. All that is required is someone to fund it. In the meantime, two sides of the ground, including the beloved but outdated Rainham End, are being rebuilt with new stands at a cost of pounds 3.5m.

The brochure sensibly devotes no more than a single page to the club's past achievements ("moderate success over the decades"), giving an honourable mention to Steve Bruce as the most famous old boy, ahead of Tony Cascarino, and including an aerial photograph of the stadium taken at the 1948 FA Cup tie against Queen's Park Rangers, at which the attendance record of 23,002 was set.

What is not mentioned is that at that time the Gills were a Southern League club, having been voted out of the Third Division South in 1938 and not re-admitted until 12 years later. Oscillating subsequently between the two lowest divisions, they were 88th in the Football League early in 1995, when Scally, a lifelong Millwall supporter disappointed that he had never been invited on to the board there, saw on television that the club was in the hands of the receiver.

The manager, Mike Flanagan, had already been sacked and Scally teamed up with Tony Pulis, previously Harry Redknapp's coach and successor at Bournemouth, of whom he says: "We talk the same language, we're both a bit anti-establishment." Scally sacked most of the staff in his attempt to "transform attitudes and minds", while Pulis transformed fortunes on the pitch. Promoted in his first season, Gillingham missed the play-offs on goals scored in his third and have now finished as high as the club has ever been.

And so to Wembley, with a stout defence, a formidably hard-working midfielder in little Andy Hessenthaler and a successful striking partnership of Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor, bought with the profits of almost pounds 1m on the sale of Ade Akinbiyi. Long before even Dickens' days, Gillingham was known as the home of the shouting men, which remains the club motto. Men of Kent and Kentish men, 35,000 believe they are in with a shout tomorrow.

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