The much-anticipated, yet not so long-awaited, Premier League clash of the season takes place under the Culver Road floodlights on Thursday, with both Brighton and Gillingham struggling to convince anyone that it’s just another game.
It was the fixture that whetted the appetite ever since it emerged that Gillingham’s highly rated manager, James Marrs, had left the club that he led to second place last season for a new challenge at Brighton.
And after 11 of his squad followed him to the south coast, the match was always going to have that extra piquancy as players who had been team-mates during a shared adventure from the depths of the division to the brink of success suddenly became opponents.
Moreover, the perceptions of the two clubs and their capabilities have been transformed almost overnight, with Brighton now much fancied for the Premier League Southern title and Gillingham up against it, having had to build almost from scratch during a frantic pre-season.
Sent Her Forward background story:
Marrs leaves Gillingham for Brighton Super League challenge
Sought-after coach leaves a big hole to fill
Sussex’s pride set sights on Super League
Gillingham join men in bid to achieve Super League goal
Former Gillingham midfielder steps into ladies’ hot seat
Ratcliffe aims to put the heart back into shellshocked Gillingham
Marrs to face former club in early crunch match
The club, now part of Gillingham FC, have had to rebuild around the handful of first-teamers who did not move to Brighton and the fringe players, who are now likely to see a lot more first-team action than they might otherwise have expected.
They appointed Marrs’ replacement, Simon Ratcliffe, only two weeks before their Premier League season began, amid concessions by club officials that what had once looked like a promotion-chasing season would now be one of consolidation and hopefully, from their point of view, survival.
By contrast, Brighton, who experienced a difficult season, finishing in mid-table, were suddenly imbued with new assets – not only a highly rated coach and some high-quality additions to a squad already featuring many talented players, but also a coaching and playing philosophy already familiar to half the new-look squad.
There have no doubt been some fireworks behind the scenes at both clubs since Marrs switched camps, perhaps some lingering resentment at Gillingham at what Ratcliffe described as having had the heart ripped out of the club, and possibly among some of those Brighton players who may no longer figure or have even had to leave as a result of that “heart” transplant.
But Jay Blackie, one of the key figures in the summer upheaval, having captained the Gills until taking on the same role at Brighton, insists there are no hard feelings between her former team-mates and those who left them in a bit of a state.
Scouting with old friends
She revealed some of the players took advantage of Brighton’s day without a match on Sunday to watch the Gills in action in the Premier League Cup, where they beat Ebbsfleet 15-0 to record their first victory under Ratcliffe in emphatic style.
Blackie said it was less to “scout” their next opponents – most of whom she said were already familiar to the ex-Gillingham contingent, even if they had not actually all played together – than to catch up with old friends and ex-team-mates.
Ratcliffe, though, views it rather differently. He says he took it as a compliment that Brighton players were at the Ebbsfleet game. “In a way, that was quite flattering,” he told Sent Her Forward. “They wanted to come and look at us, so it was just as much for them as it was for us.”
Whatever the motive, Blackie insists there is no ill-feeling between the players – although she acknowledges any friendships will be forgotten for 90 minutes when her Brighton, who opened the league season with a win over Copsewood Coventry, battle her former club, who lost at Spurs.
“People like (Gillingham’s) Lauren Phillips – we’ve been playing football together since we were 16 years old. We’ve known each other for a long time,” she told Sent Her Forward.
“We will continue to be friends before and after the game. It’s completely different to when we’re on the pitch. That’s the way football works.”
Blackie said: “At the end of the day, it’s three points, it’s a league match, and we need to approach it exactly the same (as other games).”
But the Brighton captain did acknowledge that for her at least, and no doubt many others involved, also at stake is a feeling of vindication – that she, but equally those who didn’t leave, made the right decisions.
“It’s like when I play against any other club that I’ve played for previously, I need to feel that I’ve made the right decision and I’ve progressed from that club to the club I’m now at.”
And while it must be impossible to ignore the added significance and underlying points-scoring at stake, she insists both sets of players should not be distracted from the game itself.
“When something means so much to you, sometimes you become more focused,” she said. “We know how we’ve got to play to win the game and they know how they’ve got to play if they want to win the game.
“No-one’s going to want to walk away from Thursday being the team that doesn’t come away as the winner.”
Yet the new Gillingham manager sees a danger in such intensity. He admitted that while many of his squad have no direct connection with the Brighton contingent, some might find it difficult to achieve the right balance between focus and over-enthusiasm.
The former Gillingham, Brentford and Norwich midfielder said: “When you get too het-up about a game, at any level, the danger is that you are over-cooked by the time you go out, and you go on the field and do silly things; silly fouls; get angry; try too hard.”
He cited his experience of playing for Brentford in a local derby with Fulham that could have taken his side to the brink of promotion.
“You could see [the Fulham players] in the tunnel. They were so fired up for a local derby. And they were too fired up – we were 4-0 up at half-time.
“That is an example where, I think, we did it well. We played well. But they were trying to foul us, doing all the usual things, and it was too far over the top.”
Ratcliffe says he has no strong feelings about the situation he walked into at the Priestfield Stadium. Most of the personnel had been brought in or identified by Gillingham FC staff, who had also overseen pre-season training before his arrival.
He knows it was not ideal. Sunday’s win over Ebbsfleet was only the third game he has overseen, and he doesn’t try to hide what a big learning curve it is for all concerned to assimilate all the information necessary in time to make a decent fist of their season.
“I’m quietly trying to get the girls to do certain things, and they are trying to do them,” Ratcliffe explained. “It will take time. Some of them haven’t played at this level before. If they show little bits of improvement, I will be happy.”
He added: “We haven’t had many pre-season games, so the girls are going to get fitter anyway. They are not as fit as they could be; they’re not as fit as they should be. And that will improve over time.
“They are being asked to play differently than last year. Certain things were banned under the previous regime. I don’t ban anything, as long as it’s the right decision. So that’s different for them.”
The reference to the previous regime is one that is often quoted to me – as often with enthusiasm as criticism, as Marrs extolled the virtues of a passing game, with minimal use of the long ball.
However, his captain, who followed him from Crystal Palace to Gillingham before doing the same when he left for Brighton, says some people get too hung up on his philosophy without seeing what she sees as the inevitable benefits of following those beliefs.
“When you realise what a good coach he is, it is not always so much that you have to believe his philosophy straight away, but you want to learn. It’s not going in there and saying, ‘don’t ever do this because you can’t do that or I don’t want that’. He’s teaching you.
“A lot of these players, even at the age they are at, in their early-20s, mid-20s, they haven’t been lucky to have a good coach, so they’ve only ever done what comes naturally.
“So if that’s kicking the ball long, whether that’s thinking they should run over there, now they’re being told, ‘can you do this? Can you see this?’ And it puts them in a mindset where he’s teaching them, but he shows them, so they end up seeing how it should look or seeing what they could do.”
Brighton 3 (Gibbons 2, Gurr) Copsewood Coventry 1
Tottenham Hotspur 3 Gillingham 0
Brighton v Norwich City (Brighton walkover)
Gillingham 15 (Hincks 6, Phillips 4, Keogh 3, Tune 2) Ebbsfleet United 0
Marrs’ outlook took a while to filter through to the players when he took charge at Gillingham. From the evidence of what appears to have been a successful pre-season (played behind closed doors) and certainly an impressive first league win, the message is being received and understood a lot more quickly this time around, when almost half the squad is already familiar with it.
But Blackie insists there is a long way to go before she – let alone the head coach – is satisfied.
Equally, she knows that not too much should be read into Gillingham’s goalfest on Sunday. She points out that Ebbsfleet were a shadow of the side that the Gillingham that she was part of beat 5-0 in last season’s Kent Challenge Cup.
But she acknowledges that the 15 goals were likely to be a confidence booster. “It makes them more dangerous for Thursday because they are now quietly confident that they have got that attacking threat.”
Unsurprisingly, Ratcliffe, too, is not letting that win – welcome as it was – go to his head… or that of his players.
He acknowledged that Ebbsfleet were not as strong as they might have liked to be, and he identified plenty of shortcomings in his own players’ first-half performance.
“In the first half, we didn’t move the ball quick enough,” he said. “I asked them to move the ball quicker and show some more energy and positivity, and they did so in the second half, so that was pleasing.”
Whether they have yet learned enough to overcome their former club-mates will not be apparent until Thursday night.
Sent Her Forward will report on Thursday’s game, at Lancing. Kick-off is at 7.45pm.