Battler who keeps on running to reach goals
PAUL Fairclough called him a freak of nature. Peter Taylor declared him the fittest man in England. And Ian Holloway?
“I can’t wait to find out how old Andy Hessenthaler really is,” joked the Millwall manager in 2007.“I reckon if you cut him up the middle you’d find a little alien holding up a stick like on Men in Black. Either that or he’s wearing a mask. The way he runs around at 37 was superhuman.”
That’s Hessenthaler. Even at 42 he was still running, still tackling, still covering more miles than the sprightly young pups alongside him at Barnet in League Two.
Forget aliens. The man nicknamed the Little German was more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator – he absolutely would not stop.
“Hess was so dedicated,” said Taylor. “I remember when he became player-manager of Gillingham in 2000. The players must have hated training because Hess was still fitter than them!”
Yet Hessenthaler’s desire to prolong his professional career makes complete sense when you remember he didn’t actually get a crack at the big time until he was almost 26.
Though briefly on the books at Charlton, Hessenthaler’s early years were spent decorating halls, not kicking balls. A selfemployed plasterer courtesy of an apprenticeship at the age of 16, he played for nothing whilst working on building sites in his native Kent.
First came Corinthian, then Dartford under Taylor and a first-ever wage of £40-a-week. In 1990, Hessenthaler moved to Redbridge Forest (who would later become Dagenham & Redbridge) and won promotion to the Conference.
“When we won the Isthmian League, the club had a break in Benidorm,” said secretary Derek Almond. “But while we were in the bar, Andy was out running.”
Taylor, of course, knew all about Hessenthaler’s dedication and, by then managing Watford, invited his old midfielder to join him at Vicarage Road.
“I actually had to take a pay cut,” said Hessenthaler. “But it was a case of do I want to spend the rest of my life being picked up by a van at 6.30 in the morning or do I want to give it one last crack?”
It would prove the best decision of his life. Over the next 20 years, Hessenthaler would play 217 times for the Hornets, 360 for Gillingham (winning promotion to the First Division in 2000 before keeping them there for four years as player-manager) and another 40 for Barnet.
More importantly, his relentless drive and ferocity would win the affection of almost every team-mate, manager and supporter.
“I played with him in the masters recently,” said former Hornets team-mate Nigel Gibbs. “And watching him run around kicking people and making tackles brought back memories of what he used to be like every game. Training, 11-a-side, kickabouts – he played with that same passion and heart no matter the situation.” And as a manager, first with Gillingham and then with Dover, where he won consecutive promotions to reach the Conference South before resigning in 2010, that attitude is something Hessenthaler has always tried to instil.
“I’ve spoken to a few people, like Ian Wright, who came to the game late,” said Hessenthaler, who was named Gillingham’s greatest ever player in 2005. “And I think you appreciate it so much more doing it like that.
“Some of the youngsters you see now, they come in every day and they just don’t know what they have got. It saddens me to see some of the youngsters fall away all because of the attitudes. It’s why I always advise them to appreciate what they have got and work hard at it because it is a fantastic career.”
Hessenthaler finally hung up his boots in 2010 upon his return to Gills, a two-year stay that resulted in the sack when he failed to make the League Two play-offs in 2012. Now, having returned as No.2 to Taylor last year, he is enjoying an unexpected third spell in the dugout as caretaker-manager.
“He’s a big influence on players,” said former Gills and Dartford striker Adam Birchall. “He’s a big personality and a legend at the club. As a player, you listen to him and everything he says makes sense. When someone’s been in the game so long, he gets instant respect.”
GRAFTER: Gillingham caretakerboss Andy Hessenthaler has a strong work ethic
HUMAN DYNAMO: Hessenthaler playing for Gillingham