Scally wagging the sleeping dog's tail

FOOTBALL COMMENTARY; Gillingham enjoying new lease of life n Wolves outfoxed n Barnsley demolished n Baggies buoyant n Pompey unlucky
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The Independent Online
Down on the north Kent coast a minor miracle is taking place. It should be noted by councils from Wimbledon to Exeter, by football's ruling bodies and by HM Government.

At a time when many clubs are being frustrated in their re-development plans, and others are on the brink of bankruptcy despite the game's growing wealth, Gillingham have become an unlikely illustration of football's potential and value.

Unlikely because this is a club that has never been in the top two divisions, whose ramshackle ground has a rarely-filled capacity of 10,500, and which has finished in the Football League's bottom dozen teams for the last six seasons.

Last year it also spent six months in the hands of the receivers and was within two days of being wound up before a buyer came in in June.

Yet, despite a surprise 1-0 home defeat to Colchester on Saturday, the club now sit on top of the Third Division. More significant was the attendance, 7,667, double last season's average, the biggest of the section and Gillingham's highest league gate for five years.

The figure reflected a rare source of civic pride in an area still suffering from the closure of the dockyard. It also underlined the difference football can make to people's lives and the mood of their towns.

For all football's new fashionable image, not everyone appreciates this. Many clubs, like Wimbledon, Exeter and Swansea, are having problems attempting to relocate. In most cases the local council is to blame, although it is the county council Southampton are having difficulties with and the Department of Environment who stymied Portsmouth's move.

The game itself is not always helpful. Many Premiership clubs want to keep their new wealth to themselves while the Football League seem bent on a policy of "natural wastage" - they are still witholding Gillingham's share of the television and pools share-out (about pounds 50,000) in case the club go under and the money is lost.

Gillingham's local council has been broadly positive, which helped with the club's survival. Soon, however, it may face a test of its commitment. Unlikely as it sounds, Paul Scally, the club's new owner, is planning to build a Canadian-style enclosed stadium.

"It would cost about pounds 20-30m, be 22,000-24,000 capacity, and be suitable for all sorts of events," the chairman said. "I would hope to start building in five years. This is a huge catchment area, the club is a sleeping giant."

This has all been heard before at many clubs, but Scally, 39, is convincing. He got into the club after seeing an item about its financial problems on the news while baby-sitting his children. Having sold off his businesses to spend more time with his family, he was looking for something to get involved in as they approached school age.

Having taken over in June he has already overhauled the internal personnel, fittings and attitude. "The supporters impressed me but there was such a negativity about the club," he said. "It was antiquated - I have got rid of the old-fashioned carpets and furniture and brought in bright colours and 1990s office conditions and practices. Gillingham has the image of being a small lower division club and, if it thinks like that, it always will be. That mentality is going to change."

The mind-set has already changed on the pitch. The new manager, Tony Pulis (who was wanted by Bruce Rioch at Highbury and Bobby Gould at Wales), took over a dressing room scarred by years of failure.

His solution was a change of staff so extensive that only three of Saturday's side were at the club last year. Among the newcomers is Dennis Bailey, who had his 90 minutes of fame when scoring a hat-trick at Old Trafford on New Year's Day three years ago. He cost pounds 25,000 (rising to pounds 50,000) from Queen's Park Rangers, Leo Fortune-West and Kevin Rattray cost pounds 5,000 each from non-League and the rest are frees.

The first match must have been like playing for a Sunday morning scratch side with everyone introducing themselves at the kick-off. But while Rioch asks for time to blend two players into a long-settled unit at Highbury, Pulis's jigsaw fitted so quickly Gillingham won their first four games.

However, his rejuvenated side failed to overcome a Colchester team who came for a point and made off with all three. Five bookings, including two for time-wasting, was a fair indication of their approach but they deserved something for their tenacity and concentration during a second half of Gillingham pressure.

The moment when the siege was crucially lifted came 15 minutes from time when Tony Dennis intercepted a poor back-pass from Tony Butler. The ball was transferred to Tony Adcock, who scored his 101st goal for the club.

A frustrated crowd was consoled with the knowledge that Gillingham remain top. Behind them are Doncaster, who threatened to fold last year; Northampton, who would be in the Conference if Kidderminster's ground had been approved two years ago; and, in sixth, Exeter, whose financial problems are worst of all.

That is three towns and a city where hope has replaced blind faith and a need for charity on the team-sheet. The quartet's renewed optimism underscores the need for local and football authorities to nourish, rather than neglect, the breadth and diversity of our professional game.

Goal: Adcock (75) 0-1.

Gillingham (3-5-2): Stannard; Butler, Harris, Green; O'Connor, Smith (Foster, 83), Ratcliffe, Rattray (Martin, 66), Naylor; Bailey, Fortune- West. Substitute not used: Carpenter.

Colchester United (5-3-2): Emberson; Locke, McCarthy, English, Cawley, Betts; Dennis, Kinsella, Cheetham (Mardenborough, 66); Adcock, Whitton. Substitutes not used: Fry, Reinelt.

Referee: M Pierce (Portsmouth).