As a Gillingham player, Andy Hessenthaler had both painful and pleasant memories in equal measure of the play-offs.
In 1999, he captained the unfancied Gills side that, against all odds, made it to the brink of the First Division in the play-off final, only to be denied by a dramatic comeback by Manchester City.
Hessenthaler told givemefootball: “I always dreamed of playing at Wembley once and fortunately I got there. We lost but to go back there again was a dream come true.
He painfully recalls: “I can still picture it now on the Wembley pitch at the penalties stage; it was very upsetting and a very emotional day for us.”
From 2-0 up with 87 minutes showing on the Wembley clock, Gillingham managed to throw promotion away as City triumphed on penalties.
Hessenthaler said: “Before the game I don’t think people gave us much of a chance, being Gillingham, and I think they under-estimated us a little bit.
“We were massive underdogs; no-one envisaged us going 2-0 up in that final. Unfortunately we lost in the end but put such a good performance in.”
With just 60 seconds plus what transpired to be five additional minutes remaining, City staged one of the most remarkable of comebacks in Wembley history to break Gillingham hearts.
Hessenthaler added: “It might as well have gone straight to penalties after full time because extra time was a non-event.
“We had worked so hard to get to where we were that for them to snatch it away from us at the death meant we were so tired.”
He conceded: “Once they had dragged it back and taken it to extra time I just felt perhaps it wasn’t going to be our day and that proved the case.”
After such a sickening loss, one would imagine it would be hard to pick themselves up and mount a challenge the following year but that was exactly what the Gills did.
As Hessenthaler said: “Traditionally, the teams that lose in the play-off final the year after seem to struggle but we kept going.
“Tony Pulis left the club, Peter Taylor came in and I became player-coach that year and we built our squad and kept that momentum going.
“Overall we have to take a lot of credit for being able to bounce back from the year before when it was devastating for us.”
After yet another exciting encounter, it was Gillingham who came from behind – this time in extra time – and defeated Wigan Athletic 3-2 to finally book their place in Division One.
“The way the game turned out was heart-wrenching for Wigan under the circumstances but it was another great final and we thoroughly deserved to win the game,” said Hessenthaler.
He concluded: “With the experience we had the year before, in the back of our minds we were thinking ‘lets hope it’s not going to be the same again’ and fortunately it wasn’t the case and we won the final.”
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