Chris Hope •
Friday 01 Feb 2013 14:33:00
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If you look up the word consistent in the Oxford English dictionary it says, 'unchanging or constant.' If you were to pick a player who best sums up that word you wouldn't go far wrong with former Gillingham defender, Chris Hope. The defender was a model of consistency in his time at the Priestfield stadium, playing 250 games for the club over a six year period. That sort of consistency came during a period for the club that was as successful as any in our history.
Having begun the early part of his football career as a trainee at Darlington, Chris made the move to Nottingham Forest where the legendary figure of Brian Clough was still very much involved with all things Nottingham Forest. Hope learnt quickly in his time at the City that Cloughie senior could teach you a thing or too; "Clough had a massive influence on my early career. It didn't matter who you were, he knew every player at the club and knew what you were about. Whilst I was at the City Ground I learned how to be confident on the ball, how to conduct myself on and off the pitch and it was grained into me how to work hard. Brian Clough was a great man and manager, and every story you have heard about him is true."
After failing to make a single appearance at the City Ground, Chris made the move to Division Three club (now League Two) Scunthorpe United. Whilst at Glanford Park the sort of consistency that was the hallmark of his whole career came to the fore front. From 1995 to 1997, Chris played 177 consecutive games for the Lincolnshire club, which still remains a record to this day.
It was during his time at Scunthrope when Chris first introduced himself to Gillingham fans. The centre half gave Scunthorpe the lead at Glanford Park in a 1-1 draw during the 1995-1996 season.
After seven seasons at Scunthorpe and 288 appearances, Gillingham came calling in the summer of 2000. The Gills had just been promoted to Division One (now the Championship) and new player-manager Andy Hessenthaler was on the hunt for new players. Hope first learnt of the Gills' interest from departing manager Peter Taylor; "I was 28 years old and had been at Scunthorpe for seven seasons. In the summer of that year I had interest from Scottish premiership side Dundee United and also heard of the interest from Peter Taylor and Gillingham. However, I continued to train with Scunthorpe until I had a phone call from my agent. Brian Laws, the then Scunthorpe manager, had received a bid from Gillingham, which they accepted, and allowed me to speak to Andy (Hessenthaler) and the chairman. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to play at a higher level. I admit though I didn't know much about the Gills before I signed."
Along with the majority of the Gillingham squad during the 2000/2001 season, the defender made the transition from Division Two to the second tier of English football with ease as the club finished a respectable 13th in their first ever season at that level. The club played 52 games that season and Chris was involved in all 52 of them. That sort of consistency was just what the club needed as it adapted to life in the higher echelons of English football. After making his debut against Stockport County at Priestfield in the club's first game in the Division One, Chris went on to play 145 consecutive games in his first three seasons. "I feel I have been lucky with injuries. I also did my best not to get sent off and that meant not over complicating things whilst defending. I also made sure I had a good diet, did extra in the gym and I was not a big drinker. Whilst I was not always a ten out of ten player every week, I was a consistent one and hopefully my managers appreciated that."
Not since the days of John Meredith, who played 192 consecutive games for the club in the 1960's, and John Simpson, whose record of 617 club appearances has yet to be beaten, has the Priestfield faithful seen a player as consistent and regular. In his first four years at the club, Chris made a total of 176 consecutive appearances. This all came at a time for the club when the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United, all ex-Premier League teams were regular visitors to Priestfield, making every game that little bit tougher than the last.
There were many highlights at Priestfield for both the supporters and the players between 2000 and 2004, no more so than the club finishing in 11th position in the Championship at the end of the 2003/2004 season. The key ingredient to the success of that season was a team that played for each other; "Those first two seasons in the Championship were a learning curve for us. We were happy just to survive in the Division. However, as the seasons went by and we kept the core of the squad together, we felt as a group we could give any team a game. We had great team spirit, we knew each other’s games well and we didn't panic in games when the chips were down. Other teams and managers may have looked at us and felt we had players over the hill and underestimated us, but we knew as a team we were a match for anyone in the Division on our day".
The core of that 2002/2003 team had been at the club for a long period of time having been brought to the club by former manager Tony Pulis between 1997 and 1999. However, having played under Hessenthaler in his first four years at the club, the defender feels that a lot of success the club achieved was down to Hessenthaler's management ; "Andy was fantastic as a player and as a manager. He inherited a great set of players from Tony, but he also brought in the likes of me, Paul Shaw and Marlon King. I played a lot with those players and they had great enthusiasm for playing football and were fantastic for the club. Ok, sometimes that enthusiasm boiled over in games but it also showed the passion every player had for the club".
After such great success in 2002/2003, the following season, 2003/2004, the club just managed to avoid relegation on the last day of the season. However, even after that narrow escape the club were still struggling on the pitch midway through the 2004/2005 campaign and by December of 2004, Hessenthaler had stepped down as first team manager. Ex-Burnley manager Stan Ternant took the managerial reigns but failed to save the club from relegation. Hope feels things may have turned out differently had Hessenthaler not stepped down; "I felt when Andy stepped down it was the wrong decision. We felt as a team we could still turn it round. I personally don't think we would have got relegated. The players were still very much behind the manager, we were a tight knit group who had come a long way, but hey that's football. Stan came in and did things differently and as a group we adapted to his methods".
After relegation with the Gills in 2005 and an injury hit season in League One during 2005/2006, Chris was released by the then Gillingham manager, Ronnie Jepson, in the summer of 2006, after making 250 appearances for the club. However, he doesn't hold any grudges against Jepson and looks back at his time at the Gillingham and Scunthorpe with great fondness; "The supporters at Gillingham were great with me much like the supporters at Scunthorpe were. When me and the other players went along to the supporters bars at Scunthorpe and Gillingham and chatted with the fans, it gave us a rapport with the support that just isn't there anymore. They (the fans) got to know us and we got to know some of them. If we won we would celebrate with them and equally if we lost we would take the criticism.That sort of rapport just isn't there anymore. When I was a fan at Middlesbrough I appreciated the players coming and giving me trophies at functions when I was a kid and taking an active part in the community".
After leaving the Gills, Chris went on to play for Rushden and Diamonds, St Neots and is now currently playing at AFC Rushden and Diamonds the club that came about after the previous Rushden and Diamonds went to the wall. Chris still loves playing the game and has no plans to retire just yet; "I get asked this a lot. I want to carry on as long as possible, or at least until my body gives up on me. I was gutted about what happened at Rushden and Diamonds but it's great to see the new club is supporter run and it's nice to have a rapport with the support like I have had at previous clubs. I have no plans to get into management just yet but I wouldn't count it out in the future".
Six years after leaving Priestfield, Chris still looks out for Gillingham's results and he is pleased to see the club on the up again; "The club have had a great first half of the season and a defensive record to be proud of. They are not dropping many points and are playing exciting football. Martin Allen has the experience to get the club where they want to be and will the players on to their toes. I fancy them for promotion. It is also great to see Andy (Hessenthaler) still involved with the club as his love for the club can't be denied and I'm sure it was a tough call to step down again at the end of last season. The club definitely has the potential to get back to the Championship and need to be back in League One as quickly as possible. Under Martin Allen they can and there are plenty of positives this season after a few years of doom and gloom.'
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