During the summer I began to write an article about Ronnie Jepson’s achievements and failings as Gills manager, an endeavour which was thwarted by my inability to decide whether he had done a good job or was yet another also-ran. At the time his honeymoon period was long since over although calls for his departure were apologetic murmurings rather than bellowed demands.
Three months later Jepson is gone, presumably to that peculiar kind of obscurity reserved for most recent ex-managers of Gillingham. Usually a few words of thanks are muttered as the boss disappears into the distance but in Jepson’s case these seem to have been very few indeed. How easy it is to forget that in the aftermath of the Neale Cooper debacle he steadied a sinking ship, kept it afloat and towards the end of the 05-06 season seemed to be steering a course towards a pleasant land.
Then the good ship Gillingham ran aground and last season the team actually finished lower in the league than the year before, a fact widely overlooked because we were all too busy complaining about Kelvin Jack, Ian Cox’s triangular boots and his new contract. This season would be the real test,with a new group of players expensively (or perhaps not) assembled by Jepson in the ongoing quest for promotion and let’s be honest, many of us thought a play-off challenge was attainable. Even I, the eternal pessimist, dared think we might finish in mid-table. If four straight defeats for the team that Jepson built wasn’t enough to force Scally’s hand, their manner killed the fans’ misplaced confidence and the swift addition of a further hapless capitulation at Southend made the manager’s position untenable.
I’m not generally in favour of hiring and firing managers. Most times it seems change results more from unrealistic expectations than any problemsthat a new manager could successfully address. Although there’s always a possibility you may hit upon a genius capable of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the statistics suggest that in most cases any improvement is temporary at best and often the situation gets worse. That said, there are times when to do nothing is to invite doom and this was one of them. In Ronnie’s case I think he’d come to the end of his shelf life. He seems to be a manager with limited ideas which were effective for a time, perhaps because they contrasted with what had gone before, and then became stale as last week’s uneaten pie. (Not that Jepson would know what uneaten pie is, by the looks of him recently.)
As to what Ronnie actually achieved, well he seems to have managed something that even by the standards of recent Gills bosses stands out. Last season we were glaringly disorganised in defence, lacked firepower up front and were short of bottle away from home. The midfield was mostly OK, at least by comparison with the other areas of the team. I’m writing this without the benefit (if that’s the word) of seeing any games so far, but reports suggest that after a drastic change of personnel the defence is as bad as ever, we still have no strikers, we’ve lost our first four away games without so much as a whimper of protest, and now the midfield is feeble as well. Surely no other recent Gills manager has managed to weaken one area of the team without strengthening any of the others!
I could forgive Jepson many things. In particular the loss of Jarvis was beyond his control; Jackman, Spiller and Flynn too. It wasn’t his fault
either that he’s had very little money to invest or that the club’s lack of ambition and leadership can be seen from the other end of the country. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on whether he’d lost the dressing room or his reputation deterred players from signing. I feel some sympathy that he was stitched up over Jack and had to go through last season without a goalkeeper. But what I cannot forgive is the defence. He’s tried different permutations, released four players in the summer, spent good money on King and brought in three experienced defenders and two supposedly adequate keepers. And yet clean sheets are as rare as Jepson passing a pie shop, the defence is still all over the place and we’ve averaged two goals conceded per game for the last two years. If we’d drawn the first five league games 0-0 without a shot on target I might have thought we were heading in the right direction in one area of the field at least. Right now I don’t think you would get good odds on us keeping five clean sheets all season.
It remains to be seen whether the new manager will do any better. I’ve long held the view that Gillingham’s next change of division (perhaps two) will be downwards, because history shows that clubs with crippling financial problems end up sooner or later, well, crippled. For this, Scally must shoulder the blame and hope he hits upon a manager capable of buying him some more time. Personally, I would settle for someone who could get the defence playing as a unit and give us some kind of hope that conceding the first goal away from home would not always lead to defeat. That probably means a motley assortment of loan signings, which if Bournemouth’s example last season is followed, might be enough to keep us up. Then next summer we can regroup again, talk about promotion and pretend we’re a club heading in the right direction.
The Long Lost Bod