Monday, 8 November 2010

FA Cup R1: Gillingham 0-2 Dover

The Sun sets on the 2,300 Dover fans, and on Gillingham's FA Cup run (PIC: Stephen McCaskill)
There have been many low points in the recent history of Gillingham Football Club but few have been as humiliating as what occurred at Priestfield on Saturday. Gillingham were outplayed by their Kent rivals to the extent that a casual observer would be unable to determine which team played in the Football League and the other the Conference South. The result heaps further pressure on under- pressure manager Andy Hessenthaler who quit Dover to rejoin Gillingham in the summer. Many Dover fans understood that the lure of a return to the club where he was a legend as both a manager and player was too strong to turn down but the departure became acrimonious following Hessenthaler’s recruitment of his former coaching staff. Ian Hendon had been appointed the new manager at the club, but their former manager returned to recruit Hendon as his assistant and Nicky Southall as player-coach. These actions angered the Dover faithful and believed that it tarnished Hessenthaler’s legacy at the Kent coast club where he had secured two promotions in three years and narrowly missed out on a third.

There was a sense of inevitability that surrounded the FA Cup 1st Round Draw and even the Dover chairman himself believed that his side would face Gillingham. Admittedly, he predicted a home draw but Dover’s 2,300 travelling fans comprised a third of the total attendance and created a genuine cup atmosphere at Priestfield. As Hessenthaler came onto the pitch he was greeted by jeers from the Dover end and applause from the Gillingham fans while Nicky Southall was subjected to cries of ‘Judas’ from the visitors.

A minute’s applause in the memory of Gillingham and Kent football legend Buster Collins was held before the game and was respected by every member of the 7,457 in attendance, the largest at Gillingham this season. Collins joined the club in 1949 as a player and remained at the club for 60 years in various roles such as chief scout, reserve team manager and youth team coach before sadly passing away earlier this week.

Following the tribute to a club legend, the game got underway and Dover started the brighter of the two. The Whites went ahead thanks to Adam Birchall’s sensational long range effort.  Birchall had been in good form for Dover and his stunning strike proved why Andy Hessenthaler had thought about bringing him to the club in the summer.

While they were impotent going forward, Gillingham were also calamitous at the back with Dover outmuscling the opposition defenders and forcing errors. The Whites capitalised on poor defending from John Nutter as Luke I’Anson made it 2-0 with a tap in. Gillingham had reverted to long ball tactics in the hope that first half substitute Adebayo Akinfenwa would be able to produce something from often aimless passes. Boos echoed around Priestfield at the end of the first half as Gillingham went to the dressing room to face the wrath of their manager.

Gillingham improved markedly in the second half as they forced a series of saves from Dover goalkeeper Ross Flitney. Danny Spiller and Stefan Payne were both denied by Flitney who protected his team’s lead. Dover withstood the pressure and their victory was all but assured when John Nutter was sent off with twenty minutes to go. Baker found himself clear of the Gillingham defence but was tackled by Nutter, who was the last man.

The crowd was noticeably deflated after the red card and their attentions turned to Hessenthaler and Chairman Paul Scally who had defended his record at the club earlier this week after the stadium had been vandalised. Scally bought the club in the mid 1990s, saving it from bankruptcy and redeveloping the stadium. Despite this The Rainham End of the ground made their feelings known, chanting “We Want Scally Out”, to which the Dover fans humorously responded “We Want Hessy Out”. The Whites were revelling in the disarray that their opponents found themselves in and even optimistically sang “Que Sera, Sera”, hoping that this would be the start of an unlikely road to Wembley.

At the final whistle, the Dover fans celebrated wildly while another chorus of boos rang around the stadium. The Gills players looked dejected; especially Jack Payne and many were wondering whether this was Hessenthaler’s last game in charge. Hessenthaler has said that he will not walk away from the club despite the team’s poor form. He will hope to turn things around at a club where he is held in high regard, but yesterday was definitely a new low in an increasingly disappointing season.

In the other ties involving Kent clubs, Dartford were a whisker away from securing a place in the Second Round. The Darts led for much of the game but League Two high-flyers Port Vale equalised in the 84th minute to send the tie into a replay. Ebbsfleet United and AFC Wimbledon played out a goalless draw after both teams were reduced to ten men. The Dons will be fired up for the replay as the winner will face either Stevenage Borough or MK Dons, whose move from London to Milton Keynes resulted in the creation of AFC Wimbledon. Hythe Town were the lowest ranked club in the first round and they were defeated 5-1 by Hereford United.

Friday, 5 November 2010

From Kent to Wembley: FA Cup 1st Round

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)
The FA Cup starts this weekend and there are five Kent teams in the first round of this illustrious competition, the largest representation the county has had in the competition since the 1963/64 season. Once the most important competition in English football, the FA Cup has seen its stock decrease in recent years as Europe, promotion or survival has been the top priority for many clubs, but there is no danger of that happening this weekend.

The tie of the round from a Kent perspective is without a doubt the clash between League Two Gillingham and Blue Square South Dover Athletic. This Kent derby would be tasty enough but will be even more intriguing as Gills manager Andy Hessenthaler is facing the club he left in the summer along with coaching staff Ian Hendon and Nicky Southall. Dover will be bringing 2,000 fans to Priestfield who hope that their side can cause an upset and heap further pressure on the struggling Gills and their former manager.

Hythe Town are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition and the first Kent League side to reach this stage of the competition since the 1950s. Gills boss Hessenthaler had offered Hythe as many DVDs as they wanted in order to prepare for their clash with Hereford as they seek to cause a massive upset.  With Hereford currently rock bottom of League Two, the Kent club feel that there is a genuine chance of an upset on Saturday.

Dartford also face League Two opposition in the form of Port Vale, but the team from Stoke are doing considerably better than Hythe’s opponents. Dartford haven’t been in the first round for twenty years and this will be the first time that they compete in the FA Cup at their new Princes Park.

Ebbsfleet Town won the FA Trophy in 2008 and will be hoping for similar success in the cup as they take on non-league darlings AFC Wimbledon away from home. Wimbledon pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the competitions illustrious history in 1988, defeating Liverpool 1-0 in the final but their main focus this season will be a return to the league. With Ebbsfleet relegated last season from the Blue Square Premier, they will be hoping that the cup will provide a welcome distraction.

Away from Kent, there are a number of First Round ties that capture the imagination, especially FC United v Rochdale. FC United was formed in 2005 by former Manchester United fans disillusioned with club following the Glazer’s takeover. Since then the club has been rising steadily up the non-league pyramid and qualifying for the First Round represents a real milestone in the fledgling club’s history. The contest will also be their first appearance on television as ESPN will be covering the game on Friday night. Other plum ties include Southport v Sheffield Wednesday, Corby v Luton Town and Cambridge United v Huddersfield Town.

To have this many clubs at this stage of the competition is great for Kent football and a real good news story following the problems that have affected many clubs in the last few years. For Gillingham, anything but a win would be a disaster but for the other four teams it would exceed all expectations. Hopefully the weekend will end with four teams in the Second Round and challenge the statisticians to find out the last time that happened.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The astroturf is always greener on the other side

Following last months takeover at Maidstone United, plans for the club’s long awaited return to the county town have gathered speed, with the new £1m stadium at James Whatman Way earmarked to open in time for Christmas 2011. New owners Oliver Ash and Terry Casey are adamant that any return to Maidstone is dependent on a new state of the art 3G artificial pitch being installed at the new ground. Ash claims that such a surface is the only way that the new stadium could fulfil its role as a facility for all of the club’s teams as it could be used seven days a week, something that would not be possible on a traditional pitch. The 3G artificial pitches proposed by Maidstone United, and those used by a number of clubs across Europe, are vastly different to the ‘plastic’ pitches used by QPR and Luton Town in the 1980s that were so maligned, but scepticism of synthetic turf remains widespread within football. Clubs and supporters have long rejected the idea that football could be played on anything but natural grass, but has the technology advanced enough for critics to reassess their view and recognise the benefits of artificial pitches?

In 1981, Queens Park Rangers believed that they were changing football for the better when they installed an artificial pitch at Loftus Road and three other clubs, Oldham Athletic, Preston North End and Luton Town followed their lead. The pitches however, were hated by opposition players and managers who believed that they were unsafe and gave the home team an unfair advantage as they were used to the oddities of the surface. Jim Smith, the QPR manager between 1985 and 1988, acknowledged as much when he recalled his memories of the pitch, "It was a false game, I knew exactly when we were going to score. It was like robots playing. You got carpet burns and very bad backs if you played on them long enough. The likes of ourselves who played on it regularly had a big advantage”. The pitches were banned in 1988 and the hostilities towards them have been sustained since then.

The advantages that those ‘pioneering’ clubs saw in artificial pitches are still recognised today and FIFA has been active in researching and testing the new generation of synthetic surfaces. In 2001, they launched a licensing programme for artificial pitches and in 2004 they ruled that any FIFA approved pitch could be used for competition. This programme, entitled the FIFA Quality Concept, tests pitches for durability, joint strength, climatic resistance, player-to-surface interaction and ball-to-surface interaction. Tests are also carried out to see if the pitch causes any irritations to the players, such as the carpet burns that affected those who played on the pitches in the 1980s. Pitches that pass these tests are awarded a one or two star recommendation; the first is mainly for community and municipal pitches while the second is awarded to pitches that are suitable for professional football.

The benefits of these pitches are clear; lower maintenance costs, a longer lifespan and an increased resistance to adverse weather conditions. This may appeal to chairmen, but fans, players and managers remain hostile, believing that despite the improvements, teams that play on artificial pitches still hold a crucial advantage. The first competitive international on artificial turf in Europe was the Euro 2008 qualifier between Russia and England and the Luzhniki stadium. The pitch was manufactured by Fieldturf, a company whose surfaces David Beckham criticised after playing on one when he joined Los Angeles Galaxy. Before the game, many were alarmed at the possibility of England not playing on grass, believing it definitely gave the home team an advantage. It was also suggested that the watering of the pitch increased the England players’ unfamiliarity with the pitch and contributed to the 2-1 defeat.

As in Russia, the Swiss winter can be cold and the weather damaging to pitches and as such, some Swiss Super League Clubs have installed artificial surfaces in order to reap the benefits that their advocates stress.  Young Boys Bern and Neuchatel Xamax are two of the Super League clubs who have done this when they reconstructed their grounds. YB’s pitch at the Stade de Suisse (sadly no longer the Wankdorf) came under particular scrutiny after their Champions League qualifier with Tottenham earlier this season. Manager Harry Redknapp had just watched his team come back from 3-0 down to salvage a respectable 3-2 first leg defeat and declared "I played on Astroturf myself and hated every minute of it. We don't have it in England anymore and I don't think it should be used in a competition like this”. UEFA rejected these claims, arguing that a thorough pitch inspection had taken place and that UEFA regulations permitted the use of FIFA 2 star rated artificial pitches at all levels of European competition except for the Champions League final. Supporters are also against artificial pitches as demonstrated when FC Luzern, another Swiss Super League side, announced that they were going to install an artificial pitch at their brand new swissporarena. Fans were outraged, believing that grass was to be the new victim of modern football, following in the steps of standing areas although, fortunately for the fans of FCL, the decision was reversed a few months later.

Football is notoriously resistant to change and in the current era of corporate boxes, all-seater stadia and high ticket prices perhaps many fans believe that artificial pitches are one step too far. At the highest level, grass should always remain the first option as clubs have the resources to relay the pitch and have other facilities that the community could use. However, at lower league and non league level this is not always the case and therefore artificial pitches are an attractive option. In the winter of 2009, Maidstone United did not have a home game in six weeks, something that caused extreme financial pressure on the club and could be prevented again if the plans for the 3G pitch go ahead. The community aspect of the stadium has been integral to the plans for the new ground and if it is necessary to have an artificial surface, then I’m sure that the fans would rather have it than not return in Maidstone. The jury is still out on artificial pitches, but research should be received with an open mind rather than a Luddite refusal to hear any argument in their favour. Grass will always be the ideal situation but not even that guarantees a perfect surface as the problems with Wembley have proved.