After leading Gillingham to Wembley for the first time in the clubs's history, Paul Scally's decision to sack Tony Pulis was wrong but not unexpected writes Paul Rodgers
The sacking of Gillingham manager Tony Pulis, while shocking and very annoying for Gills fans, does not come as a complete surprise. Rumours of dissent between Pulis and the club’s owner Paul Scally have been doing the rounds in Kent for well over a year now, but few expected him to be sacked only a month after Gillingham’s first appearance at Wembley in the Second Division play-off final.
Pulis arrived on June 30th 1995, the same day that Scally saved the club from oblivion as the Football League’s deadline for it to come out of receivership loomed large. The appointment was not popular as Pulis had had a brief, unspectacular spell as a Gillingham player and had been sacked from his previous managerial post at Bournemouth. He also replaced the popular Neil Smillie.
These reservations were quickly forgotten as a defensive Gills side won promotion in his first season, crowds broke the 10,000 mark and the club announced a profit. Once in the Second Division, the club spent heavily by its standards, investing in Andy Hessenthaler, Guy Butters, Iffy Onuora and Ade Akinbiyi, who cost £250,000 from Norwich.
By now, however, Scally had started to concentrate on rebuilding the ramshackle Priestfield. Pulis was soon rumoured to be leaving as he preferred any money to be spent on strengthening the side. Two seasons ago, with Akinbiyi looking unstoppable, the play-offs were a possibility until Onuora was sold at a profit with the transfer deadline looming. Akinbiyi followed, to Bristol City for £1.2 million, with youth team prodigy Jim Corbett also moving to Blackburn for £500,000.
For the second season running, rumours were circulated largely by local paper Kent Today (“The official paper of The Gills”) that Pulis would leave unless he was given sufficient funds to maintain our upward trend. They also started to report that certain players were unsettled by non-payment of bonuses.
Funds were forthcoming to strengthen the side, principally with Bob Taylor and Carl Asaba, and Gills established themselves in the play-off positions following a 17-match unbeaten run. Still Kent Today reported that all was not well, which Scally firmly denied. The unbeaten run finally ended at Walsall in January, and at this game word was that Pulis was to be sacked and replaced by Hessenthaler.
In February relations worsened further when KT wrongly quoted Scally as saying that being a manager was the easiest job in football. The paper was banned from the ground and all Gills staff were banned from co-operating with it. The ban is still in force, despite a subsequent front page retraction and apology.
Following the win over Bournemouth in April, which was live on Sky, Scally was seen to run to Pulis and embrace him. Pulis shrugged him off – the split was now public. By getting the team to the play-off final, Pulis made a convincing claim to be regarded as the best Gillingham manager ever, replacing folk hero Keith Peacock, who had been sacked six months after Gills failed at the same stage against Swindon in 1987.
The defeat by Man City at Wembley was bad enough. But even worse, on the following Tuesday the Mirror claimed Pulis had been dismissed. Scally denied it, but on June 30th he announced “with a heavy heart” that he had decided to dismiss Pulis on the grounds of “gross misconduct”. He claimed he had accepted Pulis’s resignation before the Wembley game, but that Pulis had had a change of heart. He also maintained the problems went back to an incident in November which left Scally on the verge of selling up. For “legal reasons” he could not divulge what “gross misconduct” entailed. The fans have strong suspicions as to the real reasons for the breach, but for the moment there is unlikely to be any kind of campaign against Scally.
All of which leaves several questions unanswered: How can a manager be sacked a month after leading a club to its joint highest ever finish and a Wembley appearance? Why reinstate a man whose conduct had allegedly been so unacceptable? Why sack a manager whose transfer dealings had been so successful? And does Scally really have no regard for public opinion?
One of the saddest things to come from this is that Gillingham have been made into a laughing stock: possibly to create a smoke screen, Scally had appealed for the play-off final to be replayed after match referee Mark Halsey was allegedly seen drinking with Man City fans in his hotel following the game. I would suggest that most Gillingham fans did not back Scally in that – and we don’t back him in sacking Tony Pulis.
From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month