Hessenthaler – Stoke vs Gillingham – 2000

3 02 2011

Gav Stone is the editor of Les Rosbifs – a fantastic site dedicated to English footballers playing overseas. You can follow him on Twitter @LesRosbifs .. Here is Gav’s favourite goal (it’s No.1 at the end of the video below):

Being a Gillingham fan is something of a labour of love. Success is about as rare as incisive punditry on Match of the Day. Times were particularly bleak in the early 1990s though, with the prospect of relegation to the Conference and/or administration a real, live possibility every weekend. In 1995, with time running out before the gates were locked for good on the club, a bespectacled, Millwall-supporting photocopier salesman by the name of Paul Scally took control of the club and immediately set about freshening the Priestfield Stadium up. In came Tony Pulis as manager, Leo Fortune-West as the go-to guy in attack; out when a string of has-beens and never-will-bes and the tea ladies. Donald Rumsfeld would have casually called it a “Regime Change.”
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“Never Look Back” was an oft-used phrase by Scally as he set about pulling the club out of the Medway marshes and into a respectable Football League club again. It was time to get a good feeling going about the club and in the community, and automatic promotion out of the fourth tier in 1995-96 was the perfect start. The Gills struggled initially in the old Division Two in 1995-96, but a spate of astute signings by Pulis – including a busy, bustling 5foot 7inch central midfielder – turned the season around.
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Andy Hessenthaler seemed to play forever. He also seemed to run forever, every time he put on the predominantly blue Gillingham shirt. He was 41 years old when he finally moved on from playing for the Gills, having served the club in 303 league matches, including those two play-off finals and a number of matches as player-manager in our halcyon years in the early 2000s, when the club graced the Championship. His presence in the side was never in doubt and there were many occasions – some memorable battles against the evil Sean Gregan of our nemesis, Preston North End, stand out – when he would boss younger, technically better players in the centre of midfield.
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His goals were few and far between, but usually when he found the net, it was a vital strike. The leveller against Millwall in 2000, when we were 2-0 down in a matter of minutes springs to mind (“Two-nil and you ****** it up,” sang 4,000 Gills fans at the New Den). Yet one goal in particular stands out. It was not a match winner, yet the significance of the strike made all the difference to the 1999-2000 season. It was his strike in the play-off semi-final away to Stoke City.
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The match could not have got off to a worse start – and that was before a ball had been kicked. Police presence was high and tension was certainly in the air. We had travelled with good numbers before, but 4,000 on a hot, sunny May day was a good, hearty number who would no doubt make their presence felt. We did not stand a chance. 18,000 Stoke fans made a little noise, but the annoyance of blasting out their songs and chants through the PA system, direct into the end Gillingham fans were camped drowned everything out. It was deafening; like being stuck next to the speaker at a teenage disco.
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Spirits were sapped even further when the Potters raced into a two goal lead after just two minutes. Clearly we were suffering from a hangover from the previous week, where we gifted automatic promotion to Burnley following our abject capitulation at Wrexham. Even the home fans were starting to out-sing the PA system, while the Gills fans just looked on in shock.
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As the half wore on, our midfield pairing of Hessy and Paul Smith – by far the stand-out midfield partnership of any Gillingham team in the club’s history – started to steer us back into the match. Iffy Onoura, using that ample backsideage of his in attack, was causing a nuisance too and midway through the first half, we bumbled a goal back thanks to Ty Gooden.
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The match continued to be slightly closer for the rest of the first-half, but the feeling was that Stoke were not done, especially with Peter Thorne being the proverbial in our side. Midway through the second half, the inevitable happened, when the greying Graham Kavanagh (he must have been born grey) set Thorne up to make it 3-1.
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We looked dead and buried. That pesky PA system was going at it again. Some Gills fans were leaving, as were a number of Stoke fans, seeing as they had it in the bag. When the clock reached ninety minutes, it looked inevitable that our hopes were going to be destroyed. That noise from the speakers was now informing the home fans when the Wembley tickets would go on sale! This would have been met with more incredulity by Gillingham supporters, had we not been here before so many times, with hopes shattered and dreams in tatters.
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Four minutes of stoppages, the fourth official’s board proclaimed. It was petering out, with the home players employing some age-old time-wasting tactics, when Hessenthaler collected the ball some thirty-five yards out by the left touchline. Using that crouched running style (almost head-down, not looking), the 35-year-old ran round into a central position, with a Stoke player keeping him in front of the defence, albeit with a little space. A free-kick here would be dangerous to give away from this range. From 22 yards out, Hessy struck it.
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Immediately, everyone in the stadium knew it was going in.
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His head went down, the right foot pulled back and, as quick as the trigger of a pistol, it cocked forward with ferocious power right through the ball. It lifted to a good height and then, unusually, it just did not seem to deviate from that height. Gavin Ward, who was a couple of yards off the line, did not stand a chance. It was 3-2. Gillingham fans could not believe it, yet it seemed so apt that Hessenthaler had scored the goal that kept us in the play-offs. Dare I say, it was inevitable.
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Looking back at the goal after more than ten years, it is remarkable how clear the imagery of the strike remains in the mind. The ball was just struck perfectly. Flat, well-pitched, at a regular speed. It was the sort of shot where, had there not been a net in the way, it would have continued at the same speed and trajectory until it hit a Gillingham fan in the stand behind square in the face. The ball could easily have been on rails, such was the way it moved.
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The second leg was slightly more difficult than we expected, even with Stoke having two men sent off. In extra-time, Gillingham recorded a 4-2 win, to return to Wembley with a 6-5 aggregate victory, twelve months after our crushing loss to Manchester City. We would win the final this time around though – justice being done thanks to a 3-2 extra-time win over Wigan Athletic and a late, late diving header from Andy Thomson.
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The goal may not have the goosebump-factor of many of the Carl Asaba or Bob Taylor goals of the era, nor the ‘wow’ factor of the great ‘Elsey Rocket’ of the 1980s. In terms of sheer, unadulterated joy, it is not a match neither for the Gazza goal against Scotland in Euro 96, nor the John-Hodge-cross-to-Super-Bob-Taylor in the last minute at home to Kevin Keegan’s Fulham in 1998. Yet if ever a goal defined an era and summed up the “Never Look Back” feeling around the club, this was it. The fact that it was scored by the player who defined the mood at the club better than anyone else made it all the more significant.

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2 responses

3 02 2011
Hessenthaler – Stoke vs Gillingham – 2000 « Scissors Kick

[…] “Gav Stone is the editor of Les Rosbifs – a fantastic site dedicated to English footballers playing overseas. You can follow him on Twitter @LesRosbifs .. Here is Gav’s favourite goal (it’s No.1 at the end of the video below)…” Ghost Goal […]

24 10 2011
DonQuixote

Gillingham won the second-leg 3-0 to win 5-3 on agg.
DonQuixote

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