Peter Taylor achieved historical feats in his short reign at Priestfield, but tentative question marks always hung over his activity in the transfer market. This was no doubt due to our perceptions of the comical Christian Lee, the never quite up to the mark Charlie Mitten and the decidedly average Brian McGlinchly and Barry Miller. Time has come to show that he in fact conducted a number of shrewd deals (Thommo, obviously, but the contribution of Iffy and Ty Gooden cannot be understated since their arrival), plus I was never quite clear on who were his recommendations during the last close season but few had any gripes with Chris Hope, Marlon King and Paul Shaw.
It seems to be Taylor’s way to gamble on promising prospects based on his knowledge of the lower leagues, as he has proved again in recent months. Alongside the high profile signings of Dennis Wise and Ian Walker he has plucked Kevin Ellison from Altrincham and Ashley Lythe from Scarborough for a combined outlay of £500,000 – still a considerable fund but peanuts to anyone in the Premier League (Peter Taylor calls it his “chancer’s fund” and it is to the Foxes’ chairman’s credit that he has made such a fund available given the grief Taylor received towards the end of last season for relying on lower league players seemingly unable to cut it in the Premiership when Leicester tumbled down the table). No other Premiership manager has Taylor’s knowledge or contacts in the lower reaches – you couldn’t imagine Houllier or Rannieri throwing a player from the Unibond League on for his debut at Old Trafford as Taylor did with Ellison last season. It seems to me that Taylor is prepared to attempt to unearth gems for relatively small outlays on the understanding that they may not always work out. Miller and Mitten didn’t make the grade but they arrived with respected pedigrees in the Conference, with a number of clubs sniffing round Miller in particular hence the squabbles that ensued between Farnborough and the player.
And so we come to Junior Lewis. He too came with a formidable non-league track record as a goal-scorer at Hendon and a play-maker at Dover. There are undoubtedly some at Priestfield who would say he was another gamble that flopped, that we were right to grab the 150 grand that Leicester offered us and run. Well, with some concern I regularly voiced the opinion over the summer that the squad that finished the season was weaker than the one that started it. We can all point to Asaba in this respect but in terms of team effectiveness it was Lewis who was more sorely missed. Quite simply, the team played better with him in the side and the results bore this out.
He was slowly introduced to the first team in the difficult early days of the 99/2000 season and received a lukewarm reception. This was partly a reaction to his gangly and sometimes undignified posture on the pitch, partly due to Taylor talking him up which was perceived by some to be our new manager’s attempts to impose his own views and players onto the club in the aftermath of the Pulis departure, an episode which ended with a further public attack on the Kent Today over their matchday marks for Lewis in comparison with the Pulis players that were inherited by Taylor. Lewis just got on with it and despite never looking comfortable on the ball we soon got used to his playing style and learned not to panic as he never did actually tread on the ball or slice it out of play as his stance would often suggest he would. He even notched a couple of goals but his crowning moment came in the home game with Wigan. A massive fixture against the faltering early season pace-setters, Gills successfully mixed the physical power of the previous regime with the new patient passing game and destroyed the Latics thanks to a late strike by our lanky enigma. The more you see it, the greater you realise the goal was. 81 minutes in after a sustained spell of pressure, and the ball falls to Big Bird on the edge of the area. The keeper has spilled a cross, is prostrate and out of action but there are two defenders on the line. I remember screaming for him to hit it but being impressed that he took his time, controlled it and lofted it into the Rainham End net. On closer viewing, he didn’t take his time at all – he controlled it on a filthy surface, decided what to do in a split second and in one movement placed the ball in the only square foot of the goal not being guarded by the two defenders. The goal was significant in two respects. Firstly, from play-off hopefuls we were catapulted into the automatic promotion frame. And secondly, it meant we had nothing to fear when it was all finally concluded at Wembley as arguably our best home performance of the season had earned the result it deserved.
Junior scored other crucial goals of course – the first against Millwall, the one off his hand when we were struggling against Scunthorpe, the equally debatable last minute winner against Oxford – but the part played in our success went far beyond goal-scoring, illustrated by his role in both of our late goals in the play-off final. It was the style introduced by Taylor and epitomised by Lewis on the pitch which enabled the side to slow things down, dictating the pace and playing their way out of trouble when the need arose. Two early goals down in crucial games at Millwall and Stoke would have seen most if not all other Second Division sides crumble but Gills put it out of their minds, got the ball down and passed it about to the extent that their hosts were outplayed for much of those games, and the necessary results were achieved. No disrespect to the likes of Neil Smith, Mick Galloway and others who have featured in our recent successes through passionate, workmanlike performances, but you need someone with both the speed of thought and the accuracy of touch and passing to be able to control the flow of a game that is slipping away. Still many were unconvinced, and even more felt that his role would be diminished in the First Division where he just wouldn’t be afforded the time and space on the ball he always seemed to relish.
The opposite was true. It was clear for most to see that Gillingham played better with Lewis in the side as he complemented the styles of Hessenthaler and Smith. He flung his spindly frame to head home the goal which sealed our first ever victory at the level, and was responsible for one of my favourite moments of the season when he scored the equaliser at Stockport, rounding the keeper and slotting home, following up with his trademark celebration in front of the Gills fans, many indulging in glory flaps of their own along the touchline. You couldn’t explain what was happening in most games, but with the ball being channelled through Junior the results were definitely better, particularly during the mid-season run which effectively cemented our place in the division for another year.
At half time against Chelsea I overheard some tosser under the stand lambasting Junior for another incompetent performance. Just as he no doubt did every time he pulled on a Gillingham shirt. He was off the pace that day but could hardly be blamed for the 3-0 defecit, and I’m sure most fair minded Gills fans felt he was an instrumental part of the side. Three days later I was lounging about, a bit drunk, on a hotel bed in Birmingham. Match of the Day came on, and Ray Stubbs announced that Leicester’s side for the visit to Southampton included “Junior Lewis, signed on loan from Gillingham.” I nearly dropped the aspirin cocktail I was concocting in an attempt to stave off a hangover in the morning. A few weeks later he was off for good, for a bargain £150,000, the club again being screwed by the peculiarities of the Bosman ruling. It still leaves us short of options in midfield, plus the bitter taste of losing for pittance a 26 year old who went on to establish himself in a Premier League side. I always expected to look in the papers or listen to radio phone-ins to see and hear Lewis singled out as the soft touch for criticism as Leicester embarked on their losing streak, but it never happened (poor old Ade seemed to bear the brunt of the Filbert Street wrath). I don’t think Hessenthaler rated him in the same way as Taylor did (he’s certainly not exactly a player in the same mould) but he is an enormous loss to the squad and he will need to be replaced. Unfortunately our entire transfer kitty is pretty much the same as Peter Taylor’s “chancer’s fund” so we may not see the like – in a number of ways – of Big Bird at the club for some while.