Gillingham wrest pride of Kent from Curbishley's idlers

Gillingham 3 Charlton Athletic 2
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The Independent Football

The FA Cup, like Christmas, brings people together. Like Charlton and Gillingham, who had previously co-existed in largely friendly rivalry for nearly a century primarily because the teams rarely met.

There was also the goodwill extended through sharing players. These customarily travelled down the A2 from Charlton to Gillingham as they aged because, apart from two heady seasons in the mid-1920s when Gillingham finished marginally higher up the Division Three (South) table, the Addicks have always been the superior side. Even now, when Gillingham are enjoying the loftiest position in their history, having established themselves in the First Division after 107 years toiling at lesser levels, they find Charlton flourishing in the Premiership.

On Saturday the Gills finally gained some recompense for all those years as the patronised neighbour when the FA Cup third-round draw provided the opportunity to highlight their own improvement. It was a chance they grabbed with alacrity, recovering from a first-minute own goal to inflict on Charlton their first Kent derby defeat since 1929.

Of course, some would argue that Charlton are not a Kent team but a London one. Paul Scally for one. The Gillingham chairman has been angered by Charlton's intention actively to recruit supporters from within Gillingham's traditional reach. "Charlton are in SE7, not Kent," said Scally. "They're no more a Kent club than Palace or Millwall. Why can't they get enough people to fill their stadium from the Charlton area?"

Scally's protests would carry more weight had he not eased Charlton's task by alienating some local support and media. In contrast to Charlton's fan- and media-friendly approach, Scally has banned one local newspaper group for four years, similarly the past chairman of the supporters' club, and laid into the Gillingham Supporters' Trust. Unsurprisingly, local papers as far east as Whitstable now give Charlton equal prominence.

With the club stretched by a £6m-plus overdraft, and Scally seeking to build an ambitious 28,000-seat ground by creating an improbable link-up between the council and a Las Vegas casino group, Gillingham need as much good publicity as they can get. Fortunately, the team came to his rescue with their fully merited giant-killing.

Charlton had Scott Parker absent but Gillingham were without their own dynamo, the player-manager Andy Hessenthaler. They were also missing seven other players and had been barred from fielding on-loan goalkeeper Nico Vaesen as Birmingham did not want him cup-tied. They thus had a fourth-choice rookie goalkeeper, Bertrand Bossu, a young Frenchman signed this season from Hayes, who was making only his second start.

There was no goalkeeper among a threadbare substitutes bench featuring one player, Darius Henderson, signed from Reading on the eve of the match, and four other with 12 League starts between them. Charlton had their own injury problems but could put five experienced professionals on their bench.

Beforehand, Hessenthaler had been worried about Bossu because the keeper was very nervous. This showed after just 35 seconds as he flapped at Paul Konchesky's cross, the ball going in off Ian Cox after Jonatan Johansson had glanced on.

The goal seemed to have set Charlton on their way. Yet while observers can think this, it ill behoves a team to do so. Charlton eased up and, on a fine pitch, Gillingham were allowed to show they can play some decent football.

Hessenthaler deployed a lone striker in Mamady Sidibe, wide players in Tommy Johnson and Paul Shaw designed to curb Charlton's width as well as supply it for Gillingham, and a tight midfield trio. With the centre-backs solid, and the full-backs raiding forward, the game plan worked beautifully.

Danny Spiller, a youthful Hessenthaler clone with his ceaseless endeavour and intelligent passing, complemented Paul Smith's midfield experience. Johnson, after an injury-hit 18 months, finally showed Gillingham he can still play. John Hills, at left-back, covered plenty of ground and Cox recovered from his own goal to deliver an imperious performance.

Gills levelled when Jon Fortune headed Spiller's cross to Johnson, who held off Hermann Hreidarsson before scoring at the near post. Two minutes later Sidibe rose to gloriously head in Nicky Southall's cross. Powerful and gangly, Sidibe is shortly off to play for Mali in the African Nations' Cup. Should Frédéric Kanouté join him they could be a handful.

When Dean Kiely compounded his mistake for the first goal by allowing Smith's long shot to bobble in, Charlton were done for. They knew it, too, when Bossu made a miraculous triple save, from Claus Jensen, Johansson and Graham Stuart, after 79 minutes. The goalkeeper broke down in the dressing-room afterwards he was so filled with emotion.

Paolo Di Canio did hit the post late on, and Carlton Cole scrambled a last-minute goal to prompt a tense finish, but had Kiely not redeemed himself with three second-half saves Charlton would by then have been humiliated.

This was Gillingham's biggest scalp. The three previous top-flight teams they have defeated, Sunderland in 1908, Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford four years ago, had all been struggling in the League.

"They did to us what we've been doing to teams in the Premiership," said Charlton manager Alan Curbishley. "They were hungrier than us and fully deserved what they got."

Hessenthaler, who was released by Charlton at 21, said: "I can't praise my team enough. I thought we were outstanding. We made Charlton look poor."

Incidentally, the 10,894 crowd was the Priestfield's highest in a dozen visits from Charlton across the 1920s, 30s, 70s and 80s. Something for Scally to ponder as he woos investors in Las Vegas today.

Goals: Cox og (1) 0-1; T Johnson (17) 1-1; Sidibe (19) 2-1; Smith (34) 3-1; Cole (90) 3-2.

Gillingham (4-3-2-1): Bossu; Nosworthy, Hope, Cox, Hills; Southall, Spiller, Smith; T Johnson (Henderson, 73), Shaw; Sidibe. Substitutes not used: L Johnson, Rose, Jarvis, Awuah.

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Kiely; Kishishev (Euell, 64), Fortune, Perry (Di Canio, 57), Hreidarsson; Stuart, Jensen, Holland, Konchesky; Cole, Johansson. Substitutes not used: Royce (gk), Fish, Hughes.

Referee: J Winter (Stockton).

Man of the match: Spiller.

Attendance: 10,895.