23 July ~ Which is the last club you would want to see your star player transferred to? In the case of Dover Athletic fans, “anyone but Gillingham” covers all bases. So when Whites favourite Adam Birchall made that move last week for a “significant undisclosed fee”, the racket usually generated by the world’s busiest shipping lane was briefly drowned out by collective tutting. It’s easy to see why Birchall might see the move as ideal, as he lives just down the road in Maidstone and is due to become a father for the first time later this year.
It was, of course, Gills boss Andy Hessenthaler who resurrected Birchall’s career in the semi-pro game at Dover after it had run out of steam at both Mansfield and Barnet. The player has also joined old Dover team-mates Matt Fish and Ross Flitney at Priestfield, a ground at which all three excelled in a 2-0 FA Cup win last October which many in our little corner of the country suggest was ordained by a higher power.
Of course, Dover fans – or fans of any other Kent club for that matter – do not kid themselves that their team enjoys a serious rivalry with the Gills. Only once, briefly, did we even come close to competing in the same division. Gillingham have always been by far the biggest and best supported club in the county. However, in Kent this is akin to calling yourself the best dressed man at an Iron Maiden concert, a fact that has given the boys from the Medway a somewhat delusional view of their own adequacy. Further, under Dubai-based chairman Paul Scally they seem to have written a code of conduct that is all their own.
Until recently, our problem hadn’t so much been with Gillingham as a local media that rams them down our throat at every given opportunity. However, when Hessenthaler left Dover to return to his old job, perspectives changed radically. In fairness, Hess always told us he’d love to manage in the full-time game again and we all knew he’d return to his spiritual home one day. Had he done so without treating us all as idiots, nobody would have minded a jot. Evidently, Hessenthaler and Scally hadn’t even spoken 12 hours prior to his appointment.
What happened was that Hess, with seemingly no indication that his application would be successful, chucked in his job at Dover and threw in his hat with 40 other “top quality applicants” at Priestfield. Well I believed him, but I also once went off on an errand to collect a tin of tartan paint. Hessenthaler left us saying he would do everything in his power to help the Dover in future. So when his first act as Gills boss was to appoint Ian Hendon as his assistant – a couple of weeks after Hendon agreed to become Dover’s new manager – we wondered if his help might reasonably be something we could do without in future.
After a quiet summer, the offers came thick and fast for Birchall who scored 46 league and cup goals in 2010-11. Although Newport County was first out of the blocks with an offer that nobody seemed to take too seriously, Birchall put in a transfer request almost immediately. As expected, Gills soon expressed an interest and came up with a bid that fell a little way short of derisory. Indeed, Dover chairman Jim Parmenter claimed that the proposed transfer fee would “barely have covered the cost of a cab fare to go to Gillingham and talk about it”.
Luckily, both Swindon and AFC Wimbledon were looking to sign a player rather than simply sod about and made realistic offers, meaning that Gills would need to be serious if Parmenter were to tear up a contract, signed in the winter with this eventuality in mind, which still had two years to run.
When, a couple of days later, Birchall moved to Gillingham many of us said things we probably didn’t mean about a smashing lad who has simply accepted a good offer to return to the full-time game. But can we wish Birchall the best and Gills the worst simultaneously? It seems too much to hope for that he’ll score 40-plus in a side that gets relegated, but stranger things have happened. Mark Winter