Mr Gillingham; A Tribute to a Club Legend

The word legend is one that is used in sport – especially football – rather a lot, and some may argue that it is thrown about all too easily.

So what constitutes being a legend?

Longevity, likeabilty, loyalty, passion, success, ability?

Andy Hessenthaler – a true Gillingham legend.

If so, then one individual who today ended a near two decade long association with Gillingham Football Club is certainly a legend.

That man is Andy Hessenthaler.

Over 300 playing appearances, numerous crunching tackles, plenty of battles, important goals, more than one managerial stint, and two trips to Wembley have been sandwiched in between him signing from Watford in 1996 and today taking up an Assistant Manager post at Leyton Orient.

Shortly after arriving in 1996.

Some may point to the fact that his managerial record at Priestfield wasn’t the greatest, that his initial success as gaffer was more to do with the players he inherited, and that his second spell was ultimately a failure as he twice missed out on the League 2 Play-Offs.

But Hessy’s time at the club was about so much more.

He joined a team looking to consolidate in what is now League 1 in the summer of 1996, having gained promotion from the basement division the season before

His experience of that division would prove vital as the Gills held their own in finishing in the safety of mid table.

Fast forward to 1998-99 and the skipper was now the driving force and inspiration behind everything his side was doing.

Yes there were others who grabbed the headlines – the Robert Taylors, the Nicky Southalls and the Carl Asabas – but Hess made them tick.

If games were tight or niggly, his tenacity would be the difference between a draw and a victory.

Hess playing for the Gills during the 1999-00 campaign.

This was a trait that summed up his whole playing career in Kent.

And he didn’t care for reputations, or who he was up against.

There were memorable battles in the late 90’s, most notably with Preston’s Sean Gregan, but Andy would happily stand toe to toe with anyone, as he proved during the 1999-00 FA Cup run.

During an adventure that saw the Gills see off Premier League sides Bradford & Sheffield Wednesday, he took on and outplayed players supposedly vastly superior to himself.

It lead to then Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates stating that he was interested in signing the midfield terrier until he was surprised to be told that he was nearly 35 years old, after the Gills bowed out valiantly at Stamford Bridge in the quarter finals.

Hess is nearly 35?!? You’re having a laugh?

That was Hessenthaler’s way.

If you weren’t willing to battle him and battle hard then you would lose, simple as.

Opposition players, managers and fans hated it, but the Gills faithful adored him.

You always felt with him in the team you had a chance, because he just wouldn’t give in or know he was beaten, and more importantly he wouldn’t let his team mates stop battling or stop trying either.

Of course the pinnacle of his playing time with us will surely be that spring day at Wembley in May 2000.

Wem-ber-ley!! Hess celebrates the Gills’ promotion to the second tier.

Just a year after the Gills had been so cruelly denied at the famous old ground versus Manchester City, Hess helped his side see off Wigan 3-2 in extra time and banish the previous year’s heartbreak.

In doing so the club reached the promised land of the second tier for the first time in their history.

Nobody deserved it more than Hess, by now a player coach.

He was soon to be fast tracked into the role of manager, as Peter Taylor left his post to take over at Premier League outfit Leicester City.

Despite a tiny budget and minimal managerial experience, he guided the club to three mid table finishes – 13th, 12th and 11th – from 2001 to 2003.

Showing all his usual aggression, despite no longer playing.

Both he and the club were punching well above their weight.

Obviously, as with any good fairytale, it couldn’t last forever, and at the end of the 2003-04 campaign – where Gills only avoided relegation on the final day – it was clear that the team that had thrilled the fans for a number of seasons was in serious decline.

Hess doing all he could to ensure Gills survived in 2003-4.

With no improvement at the start of 2004-05, Hessenthaler tendered his resignation, which was accepted.

Despite still being registered as a player, his appearances were becoming more and more fleeting, and it was clear that this particular chapter of the Andy Hessenthaler story was coming to an end.

He would return to the club in future years with far less success than he had experienced as a player, but at the same time he didn’t disgrace himself.

He had two seasons in charge between 2010 and 2012, but despite his efforts the club narrowly failed to make the League 2 Play Offs having been relegated back into the basement division at the end of 2009-10 campaign.

He was relieved of his duties and eventually left the club in 2013 having spent a year in a new role as Director of Football.

Hess’ second spell in charge was not as fruitful as his first.

His final return came in the summer of 2014 to assist his former gaffer Peter Taylor, and he stayed on when Taylor was sacked in December, first as part of a four man caretaker team, and then as assistant to new boss Justin Edinburgh.

All of us will have our own thoughts on Andy Hessenthaler, both as a man and as a player.

I have had the pleasure of talking to him a few times – most recently this morning as he was saying his goodbyes to those he has classed as family for nearly 20 years – and he has always come across as down to earth, humble and honest.

On the pitch he was everything you wanted in a player.

Having come into the professional game later than most, he perhaps thought he had to work harder than everyone else to succeed, and boy was he a grafter once he crossed the white line.

However, he need not have worried, because he could play a lot more than he was given credit for.

No Gillingham fan will ever forget him, because down the years he has given us all some wonderful memories.

My personal favourites are his second half equaliser live on Sky Sports versus Bournemouth in 1999 (smashing home into the top corner in front of a packed Rainham End terrace), his battles with Sean Gregan in many an encounter versus Preston, his early goal against the same opposition in the 1999 Play Off Semi Final, and of course that strike against Stoke a year later.

If history repeats itself then Andy Hessenthaler, or Mr Gillingham as I have nicknamed him over the years, may one day again return in some capacity to the club he adores.

If not, he has created one hell of a legacy.

Thank you Hess, the pleasure has been all ours.

UP THE GILLS!!

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