I think we are all agreed that this hasn’t been a terribly promising start to the season. In fact, it’s been claimed that it’s our worst opening spell for 34 years’ following defeat in the first six games of the 69/70 season. My memory’s pretty good (the punctured pre-season optimism engendered by calamitous opening games is firmly ingrained on my brain, it’s happened often enough and can be devastating on a young mind which naturally assumes promotion is overdue despite significant evidence to the contrary, as mine tended to in the late 70s), but it only stretches as far as 77/78. So I consulted the definitive and weighty tome “Home of the Shouting Men”, and I would contest that this year has witnessed the worst start to a season in our entire history.
I cannot find a single example where we have lost our first four games – even in the 69/70 season we won 1-0 at Aldershot in the League Cup. Of course there have been many poorer runs, longer spells without scoring and losing streaks, but psychologically the longer it takes you to clock up your first win of a campaign, the more you want to top yourself / find yourself no longer caring (delete depending on how much perspective you have). We lost four of the first five games last season, but the opening day win over Huddersfield was enough to buy everyone a bit of time.
Statistics can tell you whatever you like, but in 2007 it’s not just the results that have been terrible from the off – the performances have matched the results and offer absolutely no hope that the side is going to gel into anything other than a plodding blight on the footballing landscape. We can blame red cards and penalty misses but Ronnie’s post-match comments have already started to smack of desperation. None of us really believed Scally’s bluster about promotion, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad and I don’t care if we’re only four games in, we’re in serious trouble. It was obvious even from the Charlton friendly – vastly superior opposition and a lot of new team-mates introducing themselves to each other, but friendly or not, it was the worst I have ever seen any Gillingham team play and made me very worried.
Let’s compare this year to previous years and see if we can cheer ourselves up :
2000/01 First four league games L L D D (League Cup W) – we didn’t exactly expect to burst out of the blocks in the first year in Division One, but despite the goals leaked against Stockport and Tranmere there was enough belief and strength in depth to prevent panic. We beat Wolves 1-0 in league game five, final position 13th
1999/00 L L D D (League Cup W) – scepticism over the new manager, an injured Asaba, off-the-field turmoil and a half built stadium provided a tetchy backdrop, but expectations weren’t unduly dented as with the class of Taylor, Hess, Smith, Ashby, Pennock and countless others we were hardly in the position we’re in now. First league win was scrambled against Oldham in the 6th game, but we never looked back.
1998/99 L D D D (LC L). A terrible start to the campaign, particularly lame in the light of narrowly missing out on the play-offs the previous May. But we had Pulis in charge, and we knew he would gather the ranks to sort out any problem. Scally gave him £600k to spend on Asaba, Bob Taylor got match fit and after a second defeat in early September we didn’t lose again until the New Year. Final position 4th
1993/94 L L D D (LC W). A dispiriting opening two games (0-2 v Chesterfield at home and a dreadful 0-3 at Rochdale), and it was seven games before our first victory, but even then we beat Brighton (a division above us) in the League Cup and remained unbeaten in seven games after the Rochdale pasting. Final position – a dull but safe 19th
1992/93 L L D W (LC W). Officially the worst post-war Gillingham side in terms of league position, but we could count ourselves genuinely unlucky in our opening games, losing to a last minute defensive cock-up on the opening day and a week later having goal-keeper Scott Barratt sent off at Bury before falling to a late winner. And Northampton were comprehensively despatched in the League Cup. It seemed worse at the time as, due to postponements following Maidstone’s unfortunate demise, the first win didn’t arrive until well into September. Final position – 21st (out of 22)
1989/90 D D L W (LC L). Some similarities to this year in that we couldn’t score (we were the last in the world to notch a goal, with two late strikes clinching victory at Hartlepool in the fourth fixture), and we were demolished over two legs by Orient in the cup. But the blinding difference was an over-reliance on youth in 1989. As opposed to 2007, where we have an over-reliance on ponderous old pros. That’s the beauty of young players – they can still run. Finished 14th
1985/86 L D W W (LC D). Only included as we suffered a similar disciplinary meltdown, having both Terry Cochrane and Peter Shaw dismissed in our first two fixtures. But again, it was frustrating rather than the end of the world and we stuck about in the top three nearly all season. Final position : 5th
1983/84 L L W D (LC L). Defeat in our first three games, but excused by an alarming injury crisis which accounted for a 4-0 clobbering on the opening Saturday at Sheffield United, and a narrow defeat at Priestfield in the League Cup by newly re-invigorated Chelsea. Again, the key was the faith in both the playing squad and the manager. Never any need to get the worry beads out, final position 8th
1978/79 D D D L (LC L). A depressing opening, including defeat in both legs against Reading in the cup. The lack of flamboyance meant no-one saw the season panning out as it did – if one of those draws had been converted to a win we would have been promoted. The first win didn’t arrive until the seventh game, final position 4th.
1974/75 D L L L (LC D). We actually only won one of our opening 15 league and cup fixtures, but the arrival of Peter Feeley revolutionised the campaign. More turmoil with the arrival of a new manager, but Gills were adapting to life at a higher level, we just took our time doing it. Final position : 10th
1969/70 L L L L (LC W). Six defeats on the bounce isn’t an ideal start, and by Christmas we had just 10 points from 22 games. But we stayed up and reached the 5th round of the FA Cup. And in terms of the first four fixtures, we won 1-0 at Aldershot in the League Cup which statistically means it was better than this year
Even when I checked back to the depths of the 30s and 50s when we were forever being threatened with expulsion from the league for being bewilderingly and consistently rubbish, I couldn’t find a campaign where we lost our opening four competitive games. The worst start was probably the Fourth Division 1961/62 season, when after a worthy 2-2 draw with Doncaster on the opening day we went on to lose our next nine games, including a 4-1 dumping at The City Ground in the League Cup.
So – which side are we resembling most at the moment? If anything, none of the above. The last time I saw Gillingham so lacking in ideas, so ponderous without even a stable defence to rely on was 1988/89. Even then we were blessed with the skill and influence of Gavin Peacock and the instinct of Steve Lovell, who could snaffle a hatful from scrappy half-chances regardless of the paucity of his service. Yet that side looked doomed from the Autumn onwards.
So any omens? Any cause for optimism? There’s always Sunderland from last season, who got trashed in their first four games and were ousted from the League Cup by Bury. Of course Niall Quinn realised his limitations before it was too late, sacked himself and brought in Roy Keane…..
The Morty Vicker