Hero who wants to relive the glory days
BY his own admission, Ady Pennock owes a great deal to Tony Pulis. His playing career. His coaching career. Perhaps even his life.
In May 2010, the pair were climbing the fearsome Mount Kilimanjaro for charity when Pennock collapsed from a combination of hypothermia and altitude sickness.
Battling temperatures of minus 25, Pulis dragged, cajoled and carried his assistant manager the 9,000 feet down to base camp. As a metaphor for their life in football, it couldn’t have been better.
It was Pulis who, in 1992, rescued Pennock from rotting in Norwich reserves and gave him the chance to blossom at Bournemouth.
Pulis, who, three years later, ignored the doctors saying Pennock would never play again and signed him for Gillingham, the club he skippered to a legendary promotion.
And, in 2006, it was Pulis who turned his old mate from a part-time window cleaner into a renowned Premier League coach.
Yet Pennock is no privileged protege. As fans of Gillingham and Bournemouth will attest, his success was built not on patronage but on pain, determination and an inherent ability to lead.
“I always wanted Ady in my side,” said Andy Hessenthaler, who played with and managed Pennock at Priestfield.
“Not just for his ability but for what he gave the rest of the team. He was always talking and, when we were under pressure, he was a calming influence. Young players used to look at him and think ‘We’ll be all right’.”
Born in Ipswich and raised during the halcyon days of Bobby Robson’s European conquerors, Pennock grew up dreaming of turning out at Portman Road.
“I used to go and watch them home and away with my dad and my grandad,” said the new Gillingham boss. “They really were the glory days and I loved every minute of it.”
But, despite playing for Suffolk Under-15s, it was Norfolk rivals Norwich City whose eagle-eyed scouts spotted the young centre-back.
Alas, while contemporaries like Chris Sutton would flourish in the top flight, Pennock played just once – a fearful 4-1 hiding at the hands of a Matt Le Tissier-inspired Southampton – before being loaned to Norwegian side Molde.
Unwanted on his return, Pennock was staring at an uncertain future. But, in 1992, Pulis paid £30,000 to take the 21-year-old to Bournemouth and an enduring bond was formed.
An instant success at Dean Court, Pennock scored nine goals in 160 games for the Third Division strugglers. “You’d never have believed he was so young,” said Cherries legend Steve Fletcher. “The way he read the game, his leadership – he played like someone in their 30s.”
Soon, he would have a body to match. In 1995, ruptured knee ligaments required four operations to repair and the advice from doctors was to walk away from football while he still could.
Pulis, by then in charge at Gillingham, demurred, handing the Cherries £25,000.
Pennock required another four operations before kicking a ball and, by the time he left the Gills in 2003, the tally had reached 11.
But, despite a knee held together by nothing more than nuts and bolts, Pennock battled through 199 games to achieve cult status at Priestfield in a three-man back-line alongside Guy Butters and Barry Ashby.
“He could hardly walk at times,” said Hessenthaler, who remembers Pennock as the club’s chief practical joker. “But he just loved proving people wrong.”
The greatest came at Wembley in May 2000. A year earlier, the Gills shipped two late goals as Manchester City came back from 2-0 down to win the Division Two play-off final on penalties.
Pennock, who shanked wide from the spot, stepped up only because several of the designated takers bottled it and spent an inconsolable hour locked in the toilets afterwards.
Yet he would return a year later, this time as skipper, as Gillingham saw off Wigan to claim a place in the second tier.
“I didn’t want to come off the pitch,” said Pennock, whose son Daniel was mascot that day. “All the lads were popping champagne corks in the dressing room, but I was still out there, milking it.”
Even when the cartilage in that right knee was gone, Pennock still played on, spending two years in Non-League with Gravesend & Northfleet before calling it quits.
By 2005, he was managing part-timers Welling in Conference South, a job he supplemented by working as a window cleaner.
Both roles involved plenty of climbing, with the Wings achieving their highest finish for six years.
Once again, though, Pulis would come calling.
Hearing that Pennock was about to be offered the Aldershot job, the Stoke boss invited his old skipper to head up the Potters’ academy.
By 2011, he was first-team coach and well respected by the players. “He has a very good way with people, he can handle himself in public and he has a good understanding and knowledge of the game,” said Pulis at the time.
“He has a good manner about him and isn't afraid to say what he thinks. He has all the traits of a good manager and I’d love to see him take that step. He just needs an opportunity.”
So, when Forest Green chairman Dale Vince called Pulis for a recommendation in November 2013, the reference was glowing.
Since then, he has notched finishes of 12th, fifth and second, before being bizarrely sacked just before the 2016 play-offs. Gillingham have now shown the belief Vince did not.
“I’m really pleased to see him get a shot,” said Danny Higginbotham, who worked under Pennock at Stoke.
“He’s very like Tony – a great man manager who will always treat people well if they put a shift in for him.
“I always respected him. If I was still playing, I wouldn’t hesitate to play for him.”
CULT STATUS: Ady Pennock was voted into Gillingham’s all-time greatest XI
PAST TIMES: Pennock in action for Gillingham