Slip sliding away

I’m going to subtley tempt fate and suggest that for the third time in my thirty years of watching the club I’m witnessing a relegation season. It would only be the fourth in our 115 year history, which isn’t such a bad record though we’ve ridden our luck with re-election a few times, got booted out of the league before the war and would have been demoted in 1993 if the current rules applied. But it’s not as though we’re Oxford (relegated more often in the last 20 years) or bouncy yo-yo clubs like Southend or Palace, so we can’t simply shrug it off as one of the perils of hitching your life onboard one of the country’s less glamourous clubs.

For me though, things are very different now to previous calamities in 1989 and 2005.  The 1988/89 season was a disaster from start to finish (ok, a few similarities in that respect) but the team was a lop-sided mix of quality players (Hillyard, Peacock, Lovell) not quite able to carry the deluge of has-beens (Burley, Williams, Joseph), underperformers (Haylock, Cooper, Smith) and inexperience (Lillis, Docker, Beadle). Two farcical runs without a win (September – November, January – April) sealed our fate. Our support was resigned to the drop from October onwards despite tinkering with the management (more has-beens in Burkinshaw, underperformers in Taylor and inexperience in Richardson) and we accepted our poison with barely a wimper. There was a complacency running right through the club but relegation could be traced to a single act of madness – the sacking of Keith Peacock and his replacement with Paul Taylor the previous Christmas. Some argue that Peacock had taken the club as far as he could – a bit like Curbishley at Charlton and Allardyce at Bolton – but I think it’s fair to say that relegation was unthinkable under Sir Keef. There were a few protests against the hapless board led by Roy Wood, and Priestfield was understandably not a happy place to be, but I don’t recall any rabid dissent other than in the immediate aftermath of Peacock’s nonsensical dismissal.

2005 is much fresher in the mind, and in fact for me the pride in the fight we made of things during the run-in makes it one of the most memorable campaigns in recent years. The belief instilled by Stan Ternant (and, dare we suggest, Ronnie Jepson) galvanised a club on its knees (a sharp contrast to the previous season when we limped clear of the trapdoor on the final day at Stoke) to such an extent that we actually believed we could go anywhere and get a result. One defeat in the final eleven games bore that out, and the vibrant atmosphere at Priestfield for those final few games against Ipswich, Wigan, Stoke and Cardiff was simply fantastic. We were again undone by damage inflicted during the Autumn as Hess ran out of ideas. We could have basked in the glory of five years punching above our weight, and accepted that relegation was inevitable for a club like ours mingling with lofty brethren able to routinely pull 25,000 for every home match, but the gut-wrenching disappointment at The City Ground was simple to explain : we were bloody unlucky. Had we not fallen to that horribly loopy Eugene Bopp effort out of nowhere, then Stan would have stayed, he would have continued the revolution despite the forces working against him and things may just have worked out differently.

So – relegation was simple to explain in 1989 and understandable three years ago. And what we’re currently going through shouldn’t be so much of a shock – you only have to look at Grimsby, Stockport, Walsall and Rotherham to see what can happen to the little clubs when we paddle in the Championship pool. We can fluster West Ham, humiliate Leeds and beat Wolves with ten men, but they’re all one off cup ties – in the long run you need to either have a backer and go the way of Fulham, Wigan and Reading, or simply be shrewd and consolidate like Burnley and Preston.

To be honest, no club of our size has survived in the Championship for more than five years in the modern era – gone are the days when Shrewsbury, Carlisle and Cambridge could scramble on for decades on sub-3,000 crowds. Scunthorpe and Colchester are learning the lesson far more brutally than we did.

But we all know it could have been different. Our squad from 1998-2001 was the strongest in our history. It had to be to get out of Division 2 (as I believe it was then) when competing against Manchester City, Fulham, Reading, Preston, Wigan, Stoke and Millwall. Our supporter base surged to a regular 8,000+ and should have been nurtured for the longterm. But the club slowly but surely morphed from Hess and King and Asaba and Paul Smith and Jason Brown and Hope in the top half of the table, to Ipoua and Iwan Roberts and Sidibe and Henderson and Cox and John Hills and Pouton and Leon Johnson scrabbling for their lives. The decline was imperceptable to start with, but then we were riddled with increasingly panicked acquisitions (Gary Wales, anyone? Trevor Benjamin?) and before you knew it we were in a downward spiral. And if the 88/89 side was held together by the genius of Gavin Peacock, you have to wonder if we would have found ourselves in the basement before now had Matty Jarvis not emerged at exactly the right point.

But Christ we’re in a mess. This division is awful. Pitiful in its quality. Northampton, Leyton Orient and Walsall are flirting with the play-offs, sides that would have been blown to smithereens in 1999. So when exactly was the turning point and who’s to blame? You know what’s coming. And I think I can pinpoint the moment I knew the game was up.

Prior to the lunchtime kick-off against Manchester City in our second season in the Championship, a televised 3-1 defeat, the 2002/03 season ticket prices were announced to – at best – disgruntled dark mutterings. An understandable reaction to a horrific price hike. That particular pricing cock-up cost us a significant chunk of our core supporter base, and it co-incided with the ITV Digital collapse. It co-incided with the point when everyone knew (for it was always obvious) that the League did not hold a watertight contract with ITV. It co-incided with the need to redevelop the Town End. And crucially it co-incided with it dawning on Scally that he’d fucked up the finances in completing the Medway Stand. The decisions made over the next 18 months stalled the upward momentum and shaped our destiny, but it was way too late – everything was already pointing downwards as soon as Scally oversaw the spending that took the club crashing into a £12m debt. We didn’t receive the ITV Digital money, true, but even if we had it would have offset only a fraction of the overspend. It’s a smokescreen that Scally’s peddled so often that it receives it’s own chant when we’re getting hammered.

The quality of the players accumulated through the late 90s carried the Gills forward the following season to our highest ever position, but the writing was on the wall. Pennock, Ashby, Hess and Smith could no longer perform miracles. The knock-on effect on the squad was noticeable, as our lack of depth was highlighted by our reliance on Jones Awoah, Edusi and even Nyron up front for the closing months of the campaign. Gates were down. Prices went up. We were left with a temporary stand at one end of the ground. Within 18 months we sold the two players that were essential for survival – Paul Shaw, our last remaining creative talent, was despatched for peanuts before the Bosman rule got him. Marlon King, our last remaining player who could snaffle a half-chance  even when we were playing poorly, was out of the nick and off to Nottingham Forest. Patrick Agymang came in and helped shore up one more season, but it was futile. Less than a year on he was sold on for profit as well as the debt got out of control.

Hess was out of ideas and time. Stan almost performed a miracle through sheer bloody mindedness, sound organisation and a few contacts in the game. Then…Tom Williams…Neil Harris…Scott Flinders…Cox and Sancho…Paul Shields….Duncan Jupp…Bas Savage…Clint Easton….before we even get on to the genius of Steve Lomas and Dennis Oli. 6-0 at Bristol City, 5-0 at Colchester, 5-0 at Carlisle, 4-0 at Forest, 4-0 at Hartlepool, 4-0 at Northampton, 3-2 at Burscough…months between away wins, months between home goals….

The pre-Scally era ended with a goalless draw at Priestfield against Hereford in front of 4200. Last weekend we got duffed in a nob-gnawingly crucial relegation six pointer at Priestfield against Crewe in front of 4900. The performance was pitiful, the crowd was spiteful towards the players, towards the manager, towards each other. This mess isn’t the result of a rash decision by a bumbling chairman following a freak result at Aldershot. It isn’t a result of running out of steam in a division full of big city clubs with big city resources. It’s a result of gross mismanagement and the frittering away of a once-in-our-history position.

That once-in-our-history position was largely achieved by Paul Scally’s drive, commitment, bottle, inspiration – call it what you like. Many others played massive roles but Scally was at the helm and he took the plaudits. We are once again in a once-in-our-history position with respect to the debt and no longer owning our own ground. Scally’s programme notes on Saturday said that he was “generally encouraged and pleased with the way things are going on the pitch”, with talk of “outstanding performances” on our travels. In a typical defensive backlash against those not holding his view of events, he expressed disbelief at the numbers jumping ship and the negative vibes coming from supporters.

After Saturday’s wretched display, he still spoke of being “disappointed, disenchanted, disillusioned and disgusted” with the reaction of the crowd to an afternoon that provided less entertainment than a steaming pile of donkey shit. I think he got off lightly. He is accountable. He has overseen this mess. He has not once admitted the error of his ways. There is no way he should be suffering any physical abuse, as happened after the Crewe game, but if he’s in any way surprised that the dwindling few are turning against him in increasing numbers, then he really hasn’t got a clue. I can’t believe he’s avoided the flak for so long. Gillingham fans are angry. Angry at what they are seeing week in week out. And angry that Scally doesn’t seem to think there is even a problem to own up to.

The Morty Vicker 

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17 Responses to Slip sliding away

  1. Chris says:

    I think this is a brilliant precis of where we are at the moment and maybe Stimson should read this so he realises why we criticise Scally because we gave him credit when he helped get us to the promised land, so he has got to accept the criticism that comes with dragging us back down at super sonic speed.

    Personally, I think next year could be a good one for the club because I think Stimson is the best man to take us forward on the pitch. Unfortunately, it seems as though he may have to start the rebuilding job in L2.

  2. Brian says:

    Thank you for a delightful summation. I was at that dreadful Aldershot game… Though it was made fractionally less painful by a great Radio 1 programme on U2 on the way home. I have this horrible nagging sense that it’s going to come down to another big away day on the last game of the season – this time at Leeds, but with them needing three points to make the play-offs, and us needing three points to stay up. It would almost be kinder if we were down by then 🙂

  3. billthebikie says:

    Great article by The Morty Vicker. Scary faith in Stimson from Chris in my opinion. The man has hastened our inevitable decline to Rochdale etc. A good manager would have turned things around in terms of improved playing staff, and, more crucially, our tactical style of play. He has manifestly done neither. To think that he will succeed next season is to ignore the mediocrity and downright incompetence he has directed and presided over this term. I can’t ignore that, it’s a taste of what he will bring in the future. This club was far from being down and out last November. It’s right in it now. Good managers improve things. Don’t they?!

  4. Kiwi Gills says:

    Being stranded on the other side of the world I miss the weekly pain being experienced by many others, but what does make the current situation so painful is looking on the news and web to see so many ex-Gills doing so well where the club could still be or above.
    Marlon and Nayron in the Prem, both often in the highlights for different reasons. Henderson and Byfield in the Championship race Aggymang in the Championship scoring goals. Numerous others, Savage to name one, who are scoring in League One.
    And last but by no means least Big Mama and Tony P. on top of the Championship.
    We had the resources on the playing side, but for a whole host of reasons most if not all under the Chairman’s control, have let them go. And that my distant friends is the part that really, really, really hurts me.

  5. Bring Back Les Berry says:

    Totally agree with Bill. I’m not for one minute suggesting Stimson should go or should not be given time, but we are clearly a poorer football team at the moment than before he took over.

    Jepson was shit, I acknowledge that, but even the ginger northern one got his team playing some football at home. Yes, we let in a shed load of goals, but we also scored quite a few. Our home record was in the top 8 last year, and 5 of our seven home wins this season were under him (I think!).

    Stimson was purported to play attractive football at Grays and Stevenage, but now we watch as we regularly only have one or two attempts on goal throughout an entire game, and pass like an under 5 girls team. I do feel as though we’ve been misguided somewhat regarding his appointment.

    That said, if he can do it in the Conference, perhaps he can do it in League 2. Judging by the highlights every weekend, even we should score some goals in that division!

    One thing to bear in mind though is how thoroughly spoilt we have been as Gills fans. My Grandad watched these clowns in the 20s, my dad started going in the 50s. They saw two promotions in 50 years, we saw two in 5. Next year it will be 3 in 14 – not too shabby.

    Up the Gills!

  6. Chris says:

    My faith is based on the basis I don’t see anyone else around who could do a better job – especially now he has turned it in to his team.

    Could you imagine anyone trying to clear both his and RJ’s squad – it would be a nightmare.

    So my faith is based on the fact in the 1st couple of months he brought some optimism in to the club with the results he had at the start like Crewe (a), Forest, Orient and Huddersfield (a). Granted it has turned out to be false optimism in terms of this season, but I feel with a pre-season behind him, he can bring the success we all want.

    However, as I say it may have to be from L2 rather than L1. However, going down a division did Walsall no harm.

    Well lets hope on Sat Jackson can finally find the net and get on a run because for me that is our best hope for staying up this season.

  7. Chris says:

    Also, I have faith in a manager until I feel he has given up because I lost faith in Hess only in last cpl of weeks when he fell out with the fans at Priestfield before following it up with an Ashton inspired thrashing by Crewe. I also lost faith in Jepson after the Southend game this year, where his team selection n subs smacked of someone who couldn’t care less.

    Because lets face it – our success was built on hard work on the pitch – especially the Pulis built foundations. So for me if I see effort and desire from a manager, I can cope with minor reservations and for me the minor reservation I have with Stimson is he can’t make his mind up with the team i.e. he changes more than Benitez – I honestly feel if we put out our best XI, which for me is Royce, Richards, Cullip, King, Clohessy/Fuller, Nutter, Bentley, Crofts, Miller, Facey, Jackson. In fact any XI would do. Just say – you got an extended run in the team if you stay fit. Watch how the players will relax and play better. This idea of a settled team is why Australia have dominated cricket for the last 12-15 years.

  8. Bring Back Les Berry says:

    Very good points Chris, but one question: why have faith in someone who spends £150k on a striker and leaves him on the bench until we’re 3-0 down and have a couple of donkeys up front on the pitch?

  9. Chris says:

    BBLB, not playing Jackson is symtematic of his selection indecisiveness. He says strikers are confidence players, yet no striker apart from Dickson when he was here has had more than 2 or 3 games in a row. This can’t do their confidence any good knowing they’ve got to score to stay in the team.

    Obviously you don’t show blind loyalty to 11 players but you give them a chance because I reckon injuries and suspensions aside had we kept a pretty settled side since Xmas we’d be above the relegation zone.

  10. Montague Withnail says:

    An excellent article, found it very interesting. One slight error though, my team (Crewe) survived as long as Gills (possibly even longer) in the Champ in the modern era, and we’re of a similar size – arguably smaller. Crewe are going through similar problems as Gills, all the time in the Champ has built expectations up hugely, although we’re fortunate enough to not have an egomaniac as chairman or financial problems like those Gills are struggling with.

  11. James1893 says:

    Crewe put their faith in a good coach , who liked his teams to play football. Lots of promotions and relegations resulted from finding and then selling on good players who ensured financial stability. It all sounds so simple. The trouble is, how do you know when you have that good coach? It doesn’t look as if we’ve found him yet but then again they were chanting “Fergie out” three years in to his Old Trafford reign so these things can take time even if resources are somewhat more extensive.

  12. Derek says:

    As usual a superb rendition from the Morty Vicker
    Are current attitudes on the pitch stemming from some real problems of man management off of it. Take for example a quote from Stimpson’s latest notes on the official Gills site….’It has been an interesting week and we have found out a lot about players who are up for a challenge: those who actually came into work and train’
    What is going on?!
    Today on Radio Kent I got totally depressed when he actually mentioned that there four players who had not turned up and it was unlikely that they would ever get into the side again – how crucial are these players within the squad? It will be interesting to see what the effect is on tomorrow’s selection. It was a total negative report all 30 seconds of it – except that he said ‘roll on the summer’!! I think he was thinking of a fresh start (but not in League One) All bodes well?

  13. billthebikie says:

    As I said, it’s just my opinion. But Stimson was brought in to take the club forward and upward. There is no way a good manager would be taking us down, given the time and backing recruitment-wise that he’s had. Last week’s defeat was one of the most inept, gutless and pathetic displays I’ve ever seen. It was the proverbial ‘must win’ and we were stuffed by a poor side. If Stimson cannot get his tactics and ideas across to win a game like that we’re down already. He has failed completely to arrest the decline in playing standards, and talks cliche-ridden nonsense to the media. He’s yet another mediocre ex-pro chancer having a go at management, the game is heaving with them. I don’t care about his supposed effort and desire, we can all shout and point. He turned up here, couldn’t handle (or,worse stil, motivate) a bunch of largely experienced (if utterly under-achieving) pros so got his Conference lackeys in to reinforce his (presumaby) fragile ego. No-one can convince me they’re any good collectively, even if one or two aren’t bad individually. The results, sadly, tell us everything we need to know about Stimson. On the radio he often talks of being a ‘winner’…. He’s terribly wrong about that. Winners win football matches. Nuff said….

  14. Chris says:

    Billthebikie, given the success Stimson had at both Grays and Stevenage I think he has earnt the right to suggest he is a winner – his record at those teams (winning the FA Trophy 3 years in a row) is hardly a bad record.

    Derek, I’m sorry but if players don’t want to turn up to training I don’t care if they are your best players – you don’t play them. What sort of message would Stimson, or any manager, send out if he allowed players to skip training and then still picked them. Had your question been why are these players not turning up then that would have been a valid question because a player doesn’t skip training if all is well, both within and outside the football club.

    In terms of effect on selection, I think you’ll have to wait a few games to find out for def who the culprits are because Stimson has hardly been known for his consistency in selection.

  15. Chris says:

    Well my hope Jackson would get a goal today was shown to be real 🙂

    However, to suggest today was a perfect performance would be a lie but given our recent form a victory is a victory. A similar result on Monday and we can start to think about actually surviving. A Crewe defeat today would have improved my mood even more.

  16. Fat Bob's love child says:

    Family commitments have prevented me from attending many games over the last few years- you lucky bugger I hear you cry so I may be shot down in flames but hear goes…………………… I find it ludicrous that people are calling for Stimson’s head after such a short period of time. Given the wholesale changes to the team and the shambolic list of has been’s and never will be’s that he inherited and budget constraints it’s gonna take time. Over the last couple of years the clubs position has not been helped by the high turnover of managers. What we need is a bit of continuity and a long term view. Stimson’s record at previous clubs ought to suggest he has a little bit about him. Give him until the end of next season to put his stamp on the team and then judge him. My money says we will turn things round.

  17. Chris says:

    I agree with FBLC, if at end of next season Stimson hasn’t either got us in to top half of L1 or promoted from L2 (depending on what happens this year) by end of next season then that is time to question whether he is manager to take us to where we all want to be.

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