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The Horse with no Name
Oct 27, 2003
The wilds of Kent
before their game v Villa

From The Sunday TimesJanuary 4, 2009

Aston Villa face Gillingham dogfight
Villa’s aristocrats will find Gillingham snapping at their heels

Nick Townsend
The temperature barely rises above freezing on a raw morning at Gillingham’s Beechings Way training ground but the fires of boisterous expectation have been lit and provide all the warmth required. “Just call me Cafu,” yells someone to amusement all round as this bunch of unheralded League Two players stride back from their morning’s work.

Maybe the laughter helps players to quell understandable tension as today’s third-round meeting with Aston Villa approaches; yet, speak to any member of manager Mark Stimson’s squad and beneath the badinage you sense there exists an underlying faith that they can achieve the improbable.

Anybody who harbours any doubts need do no more than consult the veteran Simon Royce, the Gills’ much-travelled goalkeeper, who has had more stop-offs on his adventures than Michael Palin. “Who would have predicted that Wycombe, in the second division at the time, would have gone to Leicester, then riding high in the Premier League, got a geezer off the internet, a centre-forward, who comes on at the last minute and scores the winner?” Royce asks, still betraying just a hint of grievance as the man who had been on the receiving end that day.

The “geezer” in question was Roy Essandoh. His name and the date and place of Saturday, March 10, 2001 at Filbert Street remain indeliby etched into Royce’s psyche. At the time, he and his Leicester City team, managed by Peter Taylor and featuring such players as Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon, were fifth in the Premiership and an appearance in the final was starting to become a realistic prospect. In contrast, Wanderers were beset by injuries. Lawrie Sanchez, their manager, desperately needed a forward and posted a demand to that effect on the club’s website. It duly appeared as a news item on Teletext. Essandoh’s agent saw it and his out-of-work client, who had been born in Belfast but brought up in Ghana, suddenly found himself employed.

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The denouement was as improbable as Sanchez’s winner for Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang against Liverpool in the final of 1988. Essandoh appeared as a substitute and scored the stoppage-time decider in a 2-1 quarter-final victory. Having revelled in his transitory fame he disappeared back into a black hole in cyberspace.

“That game will stick in my memory for ever,” Royce declares grimly. “We were devastated. When we drew Wycombe, no disrespect, we thought we had a great chance of making it through to the final. Once you reach the semi-final, anything could happen. It would have been nice, but it wasn’t to be . . .”

The Leicester v Wycombe result is a vivid illustration that, on their day, given providence, any team can prevail. Not that Royce is making outrageous prophecies. Not in the knowledge that today he will have to be on top of his game to defy the likes of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor. “For me, Ashley Young is probably the brightest talent in English football,” Royce says. “I played against him when he was at Watford, when I was at QPR, and he had that arrogance about him, though he was only 17, 18 at the time. You need that to get on. I felt then he was one for the future.”

For Royce, the season after that ignominious FA Cup exit confirmed how capricious the profession can be.

A few games in, Peter Taylor was sacked. “Dave Bassett came in and we didn’t get on. Said I wasn’t in his plans.” Eventually, Royce went back to Charlton, one of four clubs, in a career spanning seven in all, to which he has returned. “That’s how it is in football. It can turn round so quickly.” As his young teammates will learn.

Now 37, but with plans to continue until he is 40, Royce must feel his age at times? “True,” he says with a smile.

“I’ve got a daughter the same age as some of them!

“I’ve always had a great work ethic. That’s why I’m still playing. And I’m really looking forward to Sunday, but it’ll be great for the young lads . . . especially people like him.”

He nods towards 21-year-old Stuart Lewis, one of eight non-league players brought in by Stimson. Because the captain, Barry Fuller, is suspended, Lewis will play at right-back, a responsibility that will include tracking Ashley Young. You suspect the task is unlikely to daunt Lewis.

Though the Gills include Curtis Weston, who played in a final for Millwall – or at least the final few minutes when he came on for Dennis Wise in 2004 against Manchester United – the tendency in north Kent is to recruit non-league players on the way up; characters who today will be determined to prove their merit against the elite.

An inspiration to them all is club captain and midfielder Mark Bentley, who started in Division Three of the Ryman League, “which is about the lowest of the low”. He made a living as a labourer, a cleaner and by working in a sports centre and not until he was 26 did he finally get the call from Southend manager Steve Tilson. “I was overwhelmed. All the hard work had paid off.”

It was a culture shock, in reverse. “I heard these footballers who’ve been professional since 17 moaning because they had to work until one o’clock. I thought, ‘If they started doing a proper job working from eight in the morning to six in the evening, they’d find out what life was really all about’.” Bentley enjoyed two promotions with the Shrimpers and could have accompanied them into the Championship. Instead he moved to Priestfield stadium. You suggest he must envy the lifestyles of the Gills’ Premier League brethren? “If clubs want to go out and give them £60,000 to £125,000 a week that’s their business,” retorts a player who turns 31 this week. “I’d have loved that opportunity. Maybe I didn’t work hard enough when I was young or maybe I didn’t have the breaks. But I’m happy with my life and with what I’ve achieved in the game.”

Even if that means there’s no Baby Bentley for him. At least not the motoring kind. He boasts, if that is the right word, a 2003 Ford Focus. “It’s a Mr Reliable car,” he shrugs. “Some of the fancy boys here would prefer to spend 20 grand on a flash motor. I’ve got a wife and two young kids to support.” With that in mind, he has just started a degree course in sports science, with plans to become a teacher when he retires.

As for today’s opponents, manager Martin O’Neill has vowed to “treat the competition with the dignity it deserves” and will field a full-strength side. He would be wise to do so. As Bentley says: “The Priestfield can be an intimidating atmosphere. In the first 25 minutes you’ll see us running around like loonbags trying to get in their faces. It all depends on whether they [Villa] really fancy it.”

Bentley and Royce, classic model professionals, as their names suggest, will be determined to take full advantage if Villa don’t.