Haydn Parry interviews Gillingham boss Andy Hessenthaler about what can only be called survival – both on and off the pitch

It’s rough trying to survive in Division One without adequate money or any depth to the playing squad. Last season I had to keep what was left of the squad, after all the injuries, together. We were careful that we didn’t overtrain them and got every ounce out of each, including the youth-team players who had to step up. 

I did learn a lot last season. Especially from our home form where we lost 12 times – that’s just not Gillingham. Traditionally no one likes to come to Priestfield; we’ve always been a tough side with a strong work ethic that was especially built around our home form. Last season we just lost that and now I’ve got to get them back to it. I do think the players are better for the experience of last season, especially as I had to throw a lot of kids in and they’ve proved to me they can handle a relegation battle. But that’s what we’re all about. We survive. Every year I’ve been in charge we’ve been tipped to go down by the bookies. With the season we had last time that’s no surprise, but the three years before that we finished 13th, 12th and 11th – and I want to get us back to that and to improve on that 11th place.

Undoubtedly there’s a massive gap up to the Premiership now – but I wouldn’t say there was much between the top half a dozen teams at this level and the rest. Any club can beat any other in our division on a given day. But to get into those play-off spots and challenge regularly we would need more cash. Some people say it’s not about money, but right now it really is and you’ve got to have it to be able to compete. I am sure that Leeds, Leicester and Wolves with their parachute money will all be up at the top – but we’re still more than capable of beating them. We have to be realistic that the division will be tough this year, though. Plymouth coming up are very strong, although I think Brighton and QPR may find it tough.

We’ve now got an experienced centre-forward, Iwan Roberts from Norwich, who’s going to be coaching too and that can only help us. Last season there was only Wayne Jones, my coach, and myself. Wayne has had to take the training sessions and that puts a bit of pressure on him. As far as tactics go, sometimes at half-time I’ll point out something I’m not happy about that I’ve seen from playing on the pitch, but as the game goes on, my coach can see the bigger picture and I trust him to make the right decisions from the sidelines. That said, the advantage of being player-manager is that I’m always going through what my players are going through and so I can see their side of it.

It’s probably true that I’ve prolonged my playing career so long because I was in non-League until I was 25. You appreciate professional football at this level more when you’ve come from a background of doing what we like to call a proper day’s work. And I think it means that I’ve always worked harder. We always used to train two nights a week in non-League, but then I used to put in a lot of extra work myself on top of that. Now I want to play on until the legs tell me I can’t do so any longer.

Being Kent-born I do feel a special affinity with the club and the support. A lot is being said right now about moving the club out of the Medway towns and the chairman has been addressing that. We’ve got to go with that because if this football club are ever to progress and move up to a higher level, we need to move from Priestfield, unfortunately. To compete with the bigger clubs we need the revenue that a larger stadium and the support would bring.

For the immediate future, after last season I really want Gillingham FC to get back to what we’ve been like for the past ten years. Since I’ve been here, we’ve always been hard to play against and no one likes coming to play us at home. While there is no money, there is spirit – and there always will be as long as I’m in charge.

We have got one or two quality players but, above all else, we have still got a massive heart and that’s been the key to our success.

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month

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