3rd March 1984
Near misses that count for nothing
Exeter 0 Gills 0 by Andy Bradley
Two points lost, rather than one gained, has got to be the way the Gills consider the result of Saturday's scrappy game at St. James' Park.
Struggling Exeter, bottom of the table and having suf fered seven consecutive defeats, should have been beaten. If Gillingham are to figure prominently in the promotion race, they really must win this sort of game, regardless of whether they deserve to or not. Indeed, had they won on Saturday, the extra points would have improved their standing in the Third Divi sion table, because almost all the leading sides were involved in drawn fixtures. It would have been an ideal opportunity to make up lost ground. As it was, Gillingham came extremely close to winning and can point to two efforts which hit the woodwork, a header that was cleared off the line and half-a-dozen other attempts that all went close.
At the end of the day. though, near misses count for nothing. Goals win matches. To be fair, it was a bad day for football. High winds and a bumpy pitch there were more lumps on it than in my mother-in-law's porridge made ball control and passing a difficult business.
Gills, however, generally controlled the game, without ever mastering it or the conditions. They had all but one of the best chances in the first half and went desperately close to taking the lead with just nine minutes gone. Dave Mehmet and Terry Cochrane combined to create an opening for Tony Casea rino, whose drive from 15 yards smacked against the crossbar and back into play. Three other opportunities came from corners, one from Cochrane sandwiched in between two taken by Mehmet. From the first - needlessly conceded by player/ manager Gerry Francis, Steve Bruce headed just over and, from the next, the same player got in a shot which Len Bond dived to save. Bruce was out luck (again) at the third, this time with a powerful header which was cleared from under the bar by Hugh Atkinson.
Bond also made a brave stop to prevent John Leslie from converting a Brian Sparrow free kick, flicked on by Cascarino. Bruce and Peter Shaw both had impressive games for Gillingham and were dominant figures at the back. Shaw made two completely different but notable contri butions to the first period. both of which are worthy of mention. Having taken one free kick and seen the whole Exeter defence rush forward to play the Gillingham attackers offside, Shaw altered his strategy. On the next occasion, he ran over the ball as the back line moved forward and did not take the kick until the players had regrouped. A simple and most effec tive cure, for Exeter did not employ the offside trap again. In the 38th minute, the big Cefender raced across to tackle Steve Neville, who had been put clean though by a fine pass from Francis. Iron ically, it was from the corner he conceded that goalkeeper David Fry was extended for the first time. Even then it was a comfort able save, falling to his right to gather a header from Simon Webster. Otherwise. Exeter's shooting consistently lacked either power or direction and some times both, as Neville will testify when he missed a great chance possibly the best of the game with the second half less than a minute old. A superb cross on the turn by Ray Pratt found him unmarked at the back post But from fairly close range he was only able to send a weak diving header bouncing past.
Young Phil Handford, Gillingham's most competitive performer in midfield, battled all afternoon and often won possession to change the direction of play. From a move involving him. Gills won another corner in the 52nd minute.
Bruce's header, from Mehmet's flag kick, was redi rected by Leslie and this time Exeter were saved by an upr ight. Cochrane, fired by the last of several crude tackles by skipper Keith Viney, for which he was booked, proceeded to take on the whole home defence single-handed. Gaining inspiration from the catcalls of a meagre crowd, Cochrane used his international ability and trickery to ghost past a series of challenges on more than one occasion. Yet, despite his endeavours, Gills created few other openings. The Devon club had a couple more themselves, both from balls centred by Mark O'Connor. Pratt headed over from the first and then Webster did likewise from a more favourable position. For a long time it looked as though one goal would decide it, but neither team was able to hit the target and the encounter finished as a disappointing goal-less draw. In normal circumstances. such a result for Gillingham at Exeter would be consid ered a good result. particularly as St. James' Park is a venue where they have not tasted the delights of success for many years. Not since Boxing Day 1961, in fact, when the team, managed for the day by late chairman Dr. Clifford Grossmark (Harry Barratt was indisposed) registered a 3-1 victory. How Gills could have done with that result on Saturday! Indeed, that scoreline would not have been an unfair reflection on the afternoon's events.
Exeter: Bond: Marker. Viney. O'Connor. Webster Atkinson, Neville. Rogers. Sims, Francis. Pratt. Sub: Harrower.
Gillingham: Fry: Sage. Sparrow. Bruce. Shaw. Handford. Cochrane. Musker, Leslie (Cavener 76 mins.), Mehmet, Cascarino.
Referee: John Hunting (Leicester). Attendance: 2,801,