Football: Reality erases grand illusions: Priestfield dreams fade: While the fat cats lick their lips, have-nots settle for the scraps Glenn Moore reports

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The Independent Online
YOU did not have to be a Middlesborough fan for the opening day to be one of delicious anticipation - it is the one day when every club's supporters can believe that 'this year might be our year'. Ninety minutes is usually all it takes for reality to intrude and that was the case at Priestfield Stadium on Saturday; the dream may still be alive at Ayresome Park but for supporters of Gillingham and Hartlepool it is fading already.

Lured into forgetting those 'never again' promises of last winter by the combination of World Cup memories and August sunshine they saw their new season optimism quickly dissipated by a patchy goalless draw.

Before the match the club shop was doing a roaring trade in new shirts but it did not take long for cynicism to creep in. After five minutes the Radio Kent reporter told his office he would record commentary whenever Gillingham looked like scoring. 'Tell them to expect it in February,' interjected another local hack.

In the event it only took an hour and though on that occasion it was merely for a wasted corner, a previously awful match then became a good one. Gary Micklewhite crossed for Paul Baker, once of Hartlepool, to head against the crossbar, a diving header from Paul Watson hit a post and Neil Smith had a shot cleared off the line.

But Hartlepool held on for a point which represented a good result considering they lost the final game of last season 8-1 at home and have not won away in almost a year. Having suffered relegation and near bankruptcy last season their realistic dream is simply survival and, with the former Millwall goalkeeper Brian Horne one of several shrewd signings it should be attainable.

Gillingham's ambitions are not much higher, with manager Mike Flanagan seeking 'a top-half finish'. Hardly a clarion call but understandable since last year's sixth-from-bottom finish was progress after seven years of decline. But more disillusioned than any fan was the Hartlepool midfielder Keith Oliver, 18-years-old and only one league appearance as a substitute behind him. He found himself booked after three minutes and sent off after 82 for two tackles that would not have earned a caution last season.

Gillingham (4-4-2): Barrett; Dunne, Green, Butler, Palmer; Smillie (Ramage 70), Smith, Micklewhite, Watson; Arnott (Baker 56), Foster. Substitute not used: Banks (gk).

Hartlepool United (4-4-2): Horne; Ingram, Gilchrist, McGuckin, Sweeney; Honour, Ainsley, Oliver, Southall; Sloan, Houchen. Substitutes not used: Thompson, Lynch, Jones (gk)

Referee: D Orr (Iver).

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