Gillingham will have to persevere without their leading light in attack, as Haydn Parry reports
Gillingham will be spending the season without their leading scorer Marlon King, after the striker’s appeal against a conviction for handling stolen goods, namely a BMW convertible, was rejected in July. King’s sentence of 18 months, initially handed down at the Inner London Crown Court on May 10, will now begin from the date of the appeal.
The verdict in the original case had come as a big shock to the club, even though King’s imminent appearance in court had been no secret to fans as the season drew to a close. It was the stiffest jail term given to a British footballer since Mickey Thomas’s conviction in 1993 for passing forged banknotes.
“None of us foresaw this,” said midfielder Simon Osborn. “I’m completely shocked. I can’t work it out.” One moment King had been the toast of Kent for his goalscoring exploits, which included a notable strike against Arsenal in the FA Cup last February, the next his future prospects were thrown into considerable doubt. After King was sentenced, the normally sanguine Gillingham chairman Paul Scally said: “I am in complete shock. I genuinely believe the sentence is excessive considering the offence... He’s been a model professional at this football club. I don’t think there’s a bad bone in Marlon King’s body.”
However, Judge Nicholas Philpott rejected defence pleas that King should be allowed to pursue his career on the football field and referred to the player’s previous convictions, which were revealed to include wounding, theft and using a cloned credit card: “I have no doubt at all this offence on its own, quite apart from your previous record, is far too serious for a community penalty.” King is planning a second appeal. In the immediate aftermath there were inevitable debates among fans as to whether the club were aware of King’s “form”.
Now the dust has settled, supporters such as Chris Lynham of the fanzine Brian Moore’s Head are more circumspect: “I’m prepared to believe that it is possible that he got in with the wrong crowd, made a mess of things and compounded it by trying to cover up. But I’ve been resigned to a season without him since the day of the verdict and blanked him from my mind in the way you would a long term injury. The club’s view, I’m sure, is somewhat influenced by any potential transfer fee.”
Gillingham’s reaction been to support the player as he serves his time, with Scally insisting: “I don’t think his football career is in tatters. He won’t suddenly become a bad player.” From a commercial point of view, Gillingham have little choice but to stand by their man, as he is the club’s major on-field asset. The 22-year-old has scored 32 goals in 64 appearances over the last two seasons in the First Division, which raised his value as high as £5 million, by his own club’s estimation. Initially Gillingham had been optimistic that King might be eligible for early release on a tagging system. Yet when or even whether King will reappear in a blue shirt is now very uncertain.
It has all come as a major blow to the plans of Gills. Manager Andy Hessenthaler, like his chairman, has been a regular visitor to King in jail. He told the club’s website at the end of July: “He has kept his nose clean and was really looking forward to having his sentence reduced so he could gear himself up for doing what he does best. I was hoping we might be seeing him by Christmas, but even with good behaviour, it looks as if it will be a long time before we see him in action again.”
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month