Hero or villain?

After almost two years of waiting, the big court battle between Paul Scally and Tony Pulis ended suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving many pondering whether it really had been worth the bother.

Little emerged that was new, particularly to those who’d been paying attention to the Priestfield rumour mill since that ill-fated day in May 1999. Having said that there is no doubting that Tony Pulis left the courtroom with his reputation severely tarnished. Three days of cross-examination left actions and motives during the latter part of his Gills career looking highly questionable. It is difficult to understand why Pulis should be so keen to go into court – turning down the chances to settle right up to the last minute – only to surrender so meekly after three days of grilling and thus giving up any hope of seeing his arch-nemesis Paul Scally suffer similarly.

Sources close to the ex-Gills boss suggested that the reasoning behind this decision was that he did not wish to see the likes of Mark O`Connor and Lindsay Parsons have to go through the same process, and chose to settle there and then. Understandable possibly, but surely he must have known what he was getting into right from the start – or was he just badly advised? Paul Scally, meanwhile, came out of the courtroom smelling of roses, his reputation unsullied and only had to shell out a fraction of what Pulis was claiming. The Priestfield faithful, meanwhile, were left somewhat in the dark over proceedings until Scally helpfully decided to publish the full transcript of the case on the official website, having already given out a condensed version at the Priestfield turnstiles. Only one problem: did anyone actually manage to read the whole transcript? Rumpole of the Bailey it was not.

What was clear though, was the depth of ill will between manager and chairman. It is obvious now, if it wasn’t back then, that there was simply no way both could remain at the club, as their relationship had crumbled so badly as to be unworkable. In hindsight, I find myself wondering whether Pulis had taken us as far as he could anyway. Give him a broken down third division club with little money to spend and I’m sure he could repeat the magic he weaved at Priestfield, constructing a side of big smashing lads to sweep to promotion on a tide of 1-0 wins and a plethora of red cards. But could he do it in the more genteel surroundings of the first division? We will never know.

The aftermath of the court case saw the vitriol pour across the Gills message boards as two years of frustration erupted into cyberspace. The majority had judged Pulis, and found him guilty of deceit, greed, blackmail and stuffing club documents down his shorts. One person suggested he should be `air-brushed from the club’s history`. The anger was in many ways understandable. We’d put our faith in our manager, but it seemed that in the last months of his reign he was more interested in outing Scally than he was in getting us promoted. Certainly, the deep divide between supporters was not helped by a manager willing to leak stories to the local press, and to supporters groups in a bid to undermine Paul Scally. This to me is Tony Pulis’s greatest crime – not that he used dirty tricks in his anti-Scally campaign, but that he manipulated the press, supporters and even friends in his battle against the Gills Chairman. Everything else I can forgive, but that leaves a bitter taste indeed.

It must not, however, be forgotten what Tony Pulis did for this football club. Six years on, it has become quite difficult to recall just what a deadbeat outfit we were. The supporters were downtrodden and doom laden. Gates were at an all-time low and an air of depression hung over Priestfield. Yet, in a few short weeks the whole atmosphere was transformed, and the potential at the club, which for years had been talked about but never realised, had finally been unleashed.

Paul Scally has rightly received huge credit for the transformation of Gillingham FC, and of Priestfield Stadium. But he could not have achieved what he has without the successful team built by Tony Pulis. Scally is no Jack Walkeresque figure with a bottomless pit of cash to throw at the club. What makes the success of the last half dozen years all the more remarkable is that it has been largely self-financing. The Gills are now a model for small football clubs everywhere – held up as an example of what can be achieved for a limited outlay. If we hand Scally the credit for his business acumen and his willingness to gamble when past Gillingham chairman have been too cautious, we have to hand Pulis the plaudits for building the on-field foundation from which we are still benefiting to this day. The success of the Gillingham team these past half dozen years has been as much about team spirit as it has been about talent – an ethos engendered by Tony Pulis, which allows our seemingly less talented squad to compete with the first division big boys on an equal footing.

Anyone who doubts that Tony Pulis`s influence is still alive and kicking should take a look at the 2000-01 squad: – Vince Bartram, Mark Patterson, Paul Smith, Barry Ashby, Guy Butters, Nicky Southall, Andy Hessenthaler, Marcus Browning, Adrian Pennock, Mark Saunders and Carl Asaba – all major players last season – all signed by Tony Pulis. There may be those who will be unable to find it in their hearts to forgive Tony Pulis. But when time has passed, and the bitter memories have faded, his massive contribution to Gillingham Football Club will remain.

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