Aston Villa's bid to avoid slipping on a Kentish banana skin at Gillingham today may come wrapped in all the traditional hype of a David versus Goliath cup tie, but it is in the Priestfield Stadium boardroom that the deepest contrasts in history, culture and class are likely to be observed.
On the surface, the two chairmen appear to have much in common – overseas homes, success, wealth and an interest in the wellbeing of their clubs – but that superficial view is unlikely to signal an easy companionship over refreshments today, or a comfortable outing for the visitors on their League Two hosts' pitch. Villa, seven-times winners of the FA Cup, are old nobility in English football, a club striving to restore success and status in a competition that has seen them eliminated in the third round six times in the past seven years. Martin O'Neill, formerly the manager of Wycombe Wanderers, knows the dangers better than most.
Gillingham, 74 places below the Premier League club in the pecking order, are fighting for local pride after relegation, are saddled with reporteddebts of more than £3 million and no longer own their ground; it was sold as part of a financial restructuring earlier this year. But the Gills are unbeaten in nine home games and fired with an ambition to win this first FA Cup meeting of the two clubs.
While Villa's owner, Randy Lerner,is riding a wave of popularity after preserving his club's fabric, heritage and hopes, his Gillingham counterpart, Paul Scally, has faced the wrath of fans after a rollercoaster 13 years at the helm earned him a soubriquet as "the Nationwide's Ken Bates" – until Bates and Leeds United slipped down the Leagues to join him. To put it bluntly, Scally has more than justified his reputation as a "colourful"figure during his tenure.
The former photocopier businessman from south London banned a prominent local supporter and leading local newspaper from his club, and is a confessed Millwall fan. He could hardly be more different to the cultivated Lerner, a lover of art who studiedlaw at Columbia, but relished his formative year at Clare College, Cambridge, while proving his Anglophile status by spending £4m restoring the Holte, a Victorian pub, at Villa Park.
Where Lerner has moved softly in the background, Scally has fired from the hip all the way from purchasing Gillingham, on the brink of closure in 1995, for £1 to refurbishing the stadium – three new stands now make it an all-seater arena – and labelling the hooligans who hurled stones at his car, in which his three-year-old daughter was a passenger, following a home defeat last March as "scumbags".
Since then, he has used his own company, Priestfield Developments, to purchase the stadium and, with the support of the Bank of Scotland, cut the club's debts from £12m. But it was not his first brush with supporter venom – one fan hired a plane trailing a protest banner to get his message across – and he was also handed a record Football League fine when he contravened their gambling regulations.
Scally's Gillingham enjoyed a rich spell of glory in the late 1990s, gained two promotions and appeared in two Wembley play-off finals, reaching a peak of 11th in the Championship in 1999 before the bubble slowly went down. It finally burst in 2004 as the spending spree was undone by the collapse of ITV Digital and the bills piled up. A protracted compensation row after sacking Tony Pulis, who led them to Wembley in 1999, showed Scally's willingness to act, let us say, unexpectedly – all the way to the High Court.
After their happy days, Gillingham experienced the downside of life with Scally as they fell back to the basement. The acrimony was predictable, and particularly so when the chairman said, "We have to ride this out" and then, last year, left to live in Dubai, where he is away from his critics and courting investors. But he remains, he said, "just as hands-on as ever" by returning regularly to the club, as he has this weekend, arriving last night in time for today's contest with in-form Villa, for whom Gabriel Agbonlahor (pictured left) is flying.
"I do a lot of work for the club over there and I keep popping back," Scally said. "It's the best of both worlds. It gives me time to work on strategy over there and a bit of peace and quiet from the day-to-day stuff, but I talk to our chief executive and the manager every day. I still sign the cheques and make all the big decisions."
His decisions late last season, as relegation loomed, were important. He chose to stick with the manager, Mark Stimson, and pursue his goal of moving Gillingham to a new, purpose-built stadium. He believes today's clash with Villa represents a signal that after surviving the worst of times, the future is bright again.
"We're coming back strong," he said. "The demons have been banished. The lads who took us to Wembley last time were a great bunch, but we've moved on. There will always be heroes and legends at this club and now we've got some new heroes. And the bank are impressed with how we are running the business in difficult times. Everyone says it's not about the money – the game is probably worth £250,000 to us – it's about the football, but these days it's about the money as well." And, he might have said, a replayat Villa Park will do very nicely.
Gillingham v Aston Villa (ITV1, 1.30pm kick-off)
Gills manager Mark Stimson gave a bizarre pre-match team talk when he said: "If [Villa] play to their potential, we could be looking at7-0 or 8-0 quite easily." Let's hope his players weren't listening to BBC Radio Kent at the time.
Southampton v Manchester United (Setanta Sports 1, 4pm kick-off)
All neutrals will hope United wear their infamous grey kit again. Sir Alex Ferguson blamed a woeful first-half performance at The Dell back in April 1996 on United's then new grey shirts, claiming the players were "invisible" to each other. They changed tops at half-time but still lost 3-1. Southampton could probably do with United staying in the changing rooms until half-time to have any chance today.
The draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup will take place straight after the Gillingham-Villa game at about 3.25pm on ITV1 today