Published: 00:00, 04 June 2014
| Updated: 08:51, 04 June 2014
Andy Hessenthaler and Gillingham just can’t keep apart.
Since first arriving at Priestfield in 1996, he has forged an unbreakable bond – a bond that has stayed strong despite some testing times. He has twice left his role as manager but the highs of his time at Gillingham still far outweigh the lows.
Hessenthaler has been at the heart of many of Gillingham’s greatest achievements, none more so than when he led them as manager to their highest ever league position.
Punching above their weight, Hessenthaler managed to claim 13th, 12th and 11th place finishes in successive seasons during the club’s flirtation with the second tier of English football.
Hessenthaler – voted the club’s No.1 player of all time – had played a key role in their promotion to Division 1 (now the Championship) after linking up with the man who he describes as his mentor – Peter Taylor.
Taylor had arrived as manager on Hessenthaler’s recommendation and would become player-coach during the 1999/2000 season under the former England under-21 boss, as the club attempted to go one better than the previous season, when they had narrowly missed out in the Division 1 play-offs against Manchester City. The season ended in Wembley glory as Hessenthaler and the Gills beat Wigan in the play-off final.
In a memorable campaign, the Gills also reached the sixth round of the FA Cup, eventually losing to Chelsea.
Hessenthaler had been a virtual-ever present that season and when Taylor departed at the end of the season for Premier League Leicester City, chairman Paul Scally handed the reins over to the former builder.
It was Taylor who had plucked him from non-league obscurity while manager at Dartford and then, while assistant at Watford, helped engineer a move into the Football League for the no-nonsense midfielder, who at the time was playing for Redbridge Forest. In 2000, it was time for Hessenthaler to put what Taylor had taught him into practice, as the Gills embraced the second tier for the first time ever.
After an impressive first three seasons, the Gills only survived relegation in 2004 on goal difference, after a final day goalless draw at Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.
After a difficult start to the 2004/05 campaign, Hessenthaler tendered his resignation and chairman Paul Scally accepted. Despite a change of management the Gills were relegated, with Hessenthaler ending the season with Taylor on loan at Hull.
Hessenthaler returned for the 2005/06 season, as a player, under Neale Cooper. His appearance against Port Vale in December 2005 led to him breaking another record. At 40 years and 115 days, he became the club’s oldest ever player.
But his days as a Priestfield player were numbered and he moved to Barnet, before later taking over as player-manager at Dover, where he led the club to two straight league titles.
Only a play-off semi-final defeat to Woking denied him the chance of a third, and Dover a possible place in the Conference Premier. That summer the Gills had been relegated to League 2 under Mark Stimson and Hessenthaler was the man chosen to lead them back.
Two eighth-place finishes weren’t deemed good enough and Mr Scally was forced into making the difficult decision of sacking his good friend and a Gills legend.
Hessenthaler remained for another season, as director of football under the reign of Martin Allen, before leaving shortly after the club won the League 2 title.
After a season coaching for the Soccer Elite Academy and scouting for Burnley, when the call came again from the Gills, Hessenthaler, now 48, just couldn’t say no.
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