Football: Nationwide triumphs and traumas

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The Independent Online
THEY stood silently in their thousands, shoulder to shoulder in the afternoon sun, hoping against hope that someone, somewhere, could achieve what their own team could not. The wait was as agonising as the 90 goalless minutes that had preceded it.

Then Priestfield Stadium's Tannoy barked into reluctant life: "Bristol Rovers 2, Brentford 1; Southend 1, Wrexham 3." That was it, all over. There was to be no place in the play-offs for Gillingham, no debut trip to Wembley, no chance of finally reaching the uncharted land of England's upper divisions. Some turned for home and confirmation on the car radio, some remained as the weary players, sapped by the mental and physical rigours of the last act of a draining season, returned to show their gratitude.

Forty miles up the Thames, from muddy Estuary to grassy riverside, another group of players and fans were sharing emotions, but theirs were joyous. Fulham had lost at home to Watford but, because of Gillingham's failure to defeat Wigan Athletic, they were in the play-offs. Mohammed Al Fayed's pounds 6m investment on transfer fees with wages to match had paid off and the tragic emnity between Gillingham and Fulham fans gave the celebrations an added edge.

As the results came in it was glee all round at the Cottage for Bristol City's defeat at Preston meant Watford would be going up as champions. The division's dominant team deserved the honour which further rehabilitates Graham Taylor's reputation. It also underlines the importance of wealthy individuals at this level, while neither Watford nor Bristol City have spent as heavily as Fulham, their wealthy chairmen, Elton John and Scott Davidson, have been a significant influence.

Fulham now meet Grimsby, relegated last year but turned around by the return of Alan Buckley, in one play-off semi-final; Northampton Town, promoted through the play-offs last season and well organised under Ian Atkins, meet Bristol Rovers in the other. Rovers' pounds 200,000 summer gamble on Stevenage's 26-year-old striker Barry Hayles has been well rewarded. Rovers and Fulham pipped Gillingham and Wrexham on goals scored. Hayles, with 23 League goals including Saturday's winner, is the section's top scorer.

Rovers' victory relegated Brentford, who go down in turmoil a year after reaching the play-off final. It was a bitter end to a traumatic 12 months for Micky Adams. Last season he led Fulham out of the Third Division only to be sacked in the autumn to make way for the Keegan-Wilkins "dream team". A brief and unhappy spell at Swansea has now been followed by relegation and, judging by rumours of a Ron Noades takeover, probably another dismissal.

Also joining long-gone Carlisle and Southend (who have gone straight from the First Division to the Third Division) are Plymouth, beaten in a tense game at Turf Moor. More than 10,000 had filled Priestfield and 17,000-plus were at Craven Cottage but Burnley had pulled in 18,811, the highest of the division and more than Coventry and Southampton achieved in the Premiership. Andy Cooke's brace saved Chris Waddle the ignominy of a first season relegation but an uncertain future awaits and, unlike his old Geordie team-mate Kevin Keegan at Fulham, he was in no mood to celebrate.

Coming up from the Third Division with champions Notts County and Macclesfield will be Lincoln City, prospering after John Beck's dismissal. The play- off contenders are Torquay, Scarborough, Colchester and Barnet. There is much support for an increase in movement between the Nationwide League and the Vauxhall Conference. Macclesfield, Lincoln, Scarborough, Colchester and Barnet have all emerged from the Conference since promotion and relegation was introduced 11 years ago. That Lincoln and Colchester, like this season's Conference champions Halifax, were previously relegated provides some hope for Doncaster Rovers.

Lincoln had attracted nearly 10,000 to Sincil Bank in a further justification of the play-off system. Not everybody likes them, but gates have now increased for 12 successive seasons since their introduction. This season's total Nationwide attendance of 13 million-plus was the best for these three divisions since 1971-72.

The impact of the play-off system could be seen at Gillingham. Rescued from bankruptcy three years ago, they remain short of funds even having to sell last year's top scorer, Iffy Onoura, for pounds 125,000 to Swindon in March rather than lose him for nothing under Bosman in the summer.

That sale, while Fulham were buying Tony Thorpe for pounds 800,000 from Luton to sit on their bench, further weakened a thin squad that had climbed from 17th in December. But two months hovering around the play-offs gave them hope and there was a heady mood of expectation before the game.

This was quickly replaced by nerves as Wigan, beaten 4-1 at home by Gillingham earlier this season, put up unexpected resistance. Wigan, backed by the JJB sports millionaire, Dave Whelan, boasted an experienced side and they played on Gillingham's anxieties, twice hitting the woodwork in the first half.

With the Nigerian World Cup hopeful Ade Akinbayi looking jaded, Gillingham's main hope was their precocious 17-year-old winger, James Corbett, who gave Scott Green, a veteran of 220 appearances for Bolton, a chasing at right-back. It was not until late on, however, as Paul Smith took over from David Lee and Roberto Martinez as the game's dominant influence, that they exerted serious pressure, but it was almost enough. Just two minutes remained when Nicky Southall looped a shot from the edge of the box towards goal, it curled over Roy Carroll, struck the inside of the post and rebounded out rather than in.

It was as close as that. Instead of planning for the play-offs Gillingham fans were left to look to next season and wonder how much of the proceeds from the likely sale of the pounds 2m-rated, 22-goal Akinbayi will be spent on the team.

There was one optimist left, Radio Kent's vox-pop reporter who bravely tried to gauge reaction as the fans filed out. "Sir, desperately disappointing afternoon..." began his first question. The reaction summed up Gillingham's mood but it was neither broadcastable nor printable. Hope may spring eternal but it could take until August for the first green shoots to reappear in Gillingham.

Gillingham (3-4-3): Bartram; Masters, R Green, Bryant (Statham, h/t); Galloway (Southall, 62), Hessenthaler, Smith, Pennock; Akinbayi, Fortune- West (Butler, 65), Corbett.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Carroll; S Green, McGibben, Newman, Bradshaw; Lee, Johnson, Martinez, Rodgers; Lowe, Barlow (Jones, 85). Substitutes not used: Sharp, Greenhall.

Referee: A Bates (Stoke)

Bookings: Gillingham: Akinbayi. Wigan Athletic: S Green.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 10,361.

Nationwide League: the final reckoning

First Division

Champions: Nottingham Forest

Runners-up (also promoted): Middlesbrough

Play-off semi-finals

Sheffield Utd v Sunderland

Ipswich v Charlton

(First named teams at home in first legs on 10 May; second legs on 13 May; final at Wembley on 25 May)

Relegated: Manchester City, Stoke, Reading

Second Division

Champions: Watford

Runners-up (also promoted): Bristol City

Play-off semi-finals

Fulham v Grimsby

Bristol R v Northampton

First named teams at home in first legs on 9 May (Fulham v Grimsby) and 10 May (Bristol Rovers v Northampton); second legs on 13 May; final at Wembley on 24 May

Relegated: Brentford, Plymouth, Carlisle, Southend

Third Division

Champions: Notts County

Runners-up (also promoted): Macclesfield

Third (also promoted): Lincoln

Play-off semi-finals

Barnet v Torquay

Colchester v Scarborough

First named teams at home in first legs on 10 May; second legs on 13 May; final at Wembley on 22 May

Relegated (to GM Vauxhall Conference): Doncaster

Promoted (from Conference): Halifax Town.