Gillingham learn the surival game

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The Independent Football

Gillingham's first ever win in the First Division at Priestfield Stadium yesterday was always in doubt, not because of any prolonged threat from unimaginative Wolves but because the winning goal came so early that its achievement had to be defended for seemingly a lifetime of worry.

Gillingham's first ever win in the First Division at Priestfield Stadium yesterday was always in doubt, not because of any prolonged threat from unimaginative Wolves but because the winning goal came so early that its achievement had to be defended for seemingly a lifetime of worry.

Much as Gillingham wanted, and needed, to improve on their opening few First Division results, yesterday was also about realising that after years of simply surviving among the journeymen of the League, they were up there with some of the most famous names in British football.

Wolves may be a frustrated club, living on faded memories and seemingly endless frustrated hope, but for Gillingham they themselves represent a symbol of all that they have achieved or at least what Peter Taylor had inspired before being called to the Premiership. Meeting Wolves in a league match would have been a daydream for those fans who followed them through so many humdrum seasons in the Third and Fourth Divisions.

In the event yesterday, Wolves were depleted, having lost Carl Robinson and Ryan Green to international duty and being without the injured Andy Sinton, Robert Taylor and Michael Branch. As a result they were almost immediately in defensive difficulty. Gillingham's player-manager Andy Hessenthaler prompted and prodded the attack and after only three minutes laid the ball back on the right side for Nicky Southall to centre deep. Junior Lewis stooped, in an unchallenged position, near the far post and powerfully headed in, before Wolves had passed the halfway line.

Playing with a three-man defence, Wolves needed to pick up Gillingham's attacks in midfield but consistently failed to do so. Marlon King ought to have penalised them again when clear going into the penalty area but shot wide, and from a penetrating free-kick from Ty Gooden, Chris Hope's header was spectacularly handed over the bar by Michael Oakes.

Gradually Wolves managed to defend further upfield but with Temuri Ketsbaia well shadowed by Lewis, and Neil Emblen finding it difficult to win the ball in the air, improved possession failed to be turned into real opportunity. On the other hand, Gillingham's attack, strongly led by King, completely dominated aerially in the Wolves penalty area.

As Wolves slowly won some more promising position in midfield, so Hessenthaler countered them with his enormous energy. He broke up attacks, started his own team's building movements and claimed some of the most positive long passes you could possibly wish to see. Wolves replaced Emblen with Darren Bazeley and Lee Naylor for Mohamed Camara without a marked change in their faults. Losing possession cheaply was the worst of them. A lack of pace also deprived them of the opportunity to make much of their counter attacks.

Wolves' frustration brought them three bookings and when George Ndah came off with a groin strain their hopes of recovery receded even further. When they did have a rare opportunity to make Vince Bartram, in the Gillingham goal, earn his money, they were unimpressive. Substitute Colin Larkin had the clearest opportunity but stabbed at his shot, allowing Bartram to push the ball away, but at least Scott Taylor's strong header clipped the crossbar.

In spite of deserving to hold their lead, Gillingham's fear that Wolves might catch them on the break was etched on the faces of both players and fans. In reality the work that the team did in support of the attack was so unrelenting that there ought not to have been any serious doubt about the outcome. Even so, to hold asingle-goal lead for 87 minutes strained the nerves and powers of endurance. But this could be a season in which Gillingham and their supporters will have to get used to a long and often fretful struggle.

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