Just four games of a typically unproductive season remain. Just 8 goals separate us from the ultimate triumph of another glorious season in League One, and a season filled with washed-out away trips to the havens of the country’s greatest footballing towns, such as Shrewsbury’s New Meadow, and even more spectacularly, that renowned theatre of dreams, Aldershot’s Recreation Ground. There most certainly is a fine line between winning and losing in football.
With so little time remaining until the hammer comes down upon our fate, the Gills will have to pull off something previously unknown to the suffering fans- continue the recent promise through good form the team have shown, if they are to stay up. The Gills have gone 3 matches unbeaten, picking up 5 very useful points along the way, including a determined performance resulting in a thoroughly deserved come-back against relegation certainties Luton Town. Come 20:30 upon April Fools Day, roughly 6,000 home fans, who had witnessed a club deep in turmoil both on and off the pitch comfortably play Gillingham off the park for 45 minutes, had it planted firmly in their minds that their side had blown it, and were consigned to relegation. Just when a win was required, exactly the opposite was about to happen. Again. This disaster would have been hugely reminiscent of the diabolical showing against Crewe, which included a defensive master-class Ian Cox, Craig Armstrong and Duncan Jupp would have been proud of, leading to a mass walk-out from the scumbags in the Rainham End upon the scoring of Crewe’s third goal. However, an hour later, and the stadium was buzzing, having seen a crucial brace from striker Simeon Jackson provide Gillingham with the 3 points that they so desperately needed. 3 days beforehand, the Gills had collected an unexpected point against promotion contenders Carlisle, thanks to a highly commendable performance.
Last weekend, we picked up only our 8th away point of the season, away against rivals Millwall. After Nicky Southall pulled the Trigger on a splendid free-kick, (excuse the pun), Gillingham came within 15 minutes of securing a brilliant away win and sending ‘Wall into the relegation zone in their place. However, it wasn’t to be. Yet, no-one can complain about the result, which has assisted towards the resurrection of our survival hopes.
A few weeks ago, having lost against relegation fodder Port Vale, incredibly for the second time this season, we stood 5 points adrift of Crewe, and looked to be playing almost definitely in the dizzy heights of League Two next season. However, now, just goal difference keeps us adrift of Crewe, and just 2 points separates us from arch rivals Millwall, at the foot of the table. A remarkable recent turnaround, which has seen Crewe gain only 1 point from their last 3 games as opposed to our 5, has brought us right back into the mix.
So what chance do we have of achieving that coveted prize of League One survival? With so few games left, and such a small margin separating the teams in the dog-fight, it is sure to go down to the wire- unless something more miraculous than Brent Sancho finding a new club takes place- i.e. us winning our next 2 games by several goals to nil, and Crewe losing theirs to similar score-lines. But, it is sure as Scally’s ability to mess up everything he touches, that this outcome will not occur, despite the fact that Sancho has signed for Ross County. Therefore, we must continue to play with guts, and at least some ability, while hoping that Crewe or Millwall, preferably both, lose their games at the same time as we manage to take points off our opponents.
However, taking points off our opponents will most certainly not turn out to be as simple as it sounds. With a tough run in, starting immediately with a game against table-toppers Swansea, who could well seal their promotion against us, collecting points will be a tricky task. Stimson continually makes the point that we have to regularly get results at home, while picking up whatever we can away. The two home games we have remaining, against Swansea, and rivals Swindon, are not as winnable as many, including the gaffer, would like.
Saturday’s match against the Welsh outfit is possibly going to be the keystone in our bid to avoid relegation. If we can somehow get a result, we would be very likely to make up ground on the teams above, as Crewe, without an away win since their drubbing of the Gills, are playing at Yeovil’s Huish Park, and Millwall without a win in 5, are away at Hartlepool. The game will prove to be a tough test for Stimson’s men. Not only because the opponents are, as the table demonstrates, the best side in the Division, but also because the 1,500 away allocation has completely sold out. Demand was so high that Swansea applied for 500 further tickets, but when they were rejected, made an agreement with the generous Paul Scally (he must have been paid a fee of several sheep) that the game would be beamed back live to Swansea’s Liberty Stadium via Satellite, to be shown on screens around the ground. The club estimate 2,000 will be present watching back home. This will put a lot more pressure on the team to get a result, potentially making things a lot more tricky for us. However, one would only need to look at our results throughout the season to see that we do tend to perform much better against the sides towards the top of the division, particularly at home. We have not lost at home to any of the current top 6, a series of results that included a resounding 3-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, which was arguably the most satisfying result of our season. This could well be the basis for our pushing for a result on Saturday.
The only other home game remaining looks set to be a heated affair against our old friends Swindon. The game has been moved to a 12:30 kick-off on Police advice. Games against the Robins are rarely calm affairs, and one which will see the Gills play at Priestfield for the final time of the season, and one which could determine which division they will play in next season is unlikely to pass with any less passion than an encounter with our old mates up the M4 usually incurs.
Our other remaining fixtures are away games at Bristol Rovers who, despite being low down in the table and in poor form, have games in hand so should be safe from the drop, and Leeds United. League positions and form suggest that we could pick up some kind of a result at the Memorial Stadium, although with our dismal away record, one can only hope. As for Leeds, well a result would come as a shock to all. Despite the rather impressive fact (almost as impressive as our Match-Day Program winning ‘Best Design in League 1’ award) that we were the first team to take points off them this season, (excluding the FA).
Looking at our remaining fixtures, Swansea, Bristol Rovers, Swindon and Leeds, we do not have an easy run-in. However, there will be anxious Crewe and Millwall fans in their relative towns looking at their fixture lists and thinking exactly the same thing. Crewe’s fixtures, on paper, look reasonably kind. Yet, there are ample banana skins in there. The Railwaymen begin away at Yeovil, which could prove to be difficult, with the home side looking to overcome a blip in their recent form. Next, Crewe face Cheltenham in a winnable tie. However, the final two games of the season will be difficult for Crewe. They face a trip to rejuvenated Bournemouth, who have won 3 games in a row, notably an incredible late win away against Swansea. Finally, Crewe come up against Oldham, who will be doing their utmost to enter the play-off places. Potentially, the Railwaymen could end in the situation where they fail to pick up any points from their final two games. They would have to rely on Swindon doing them a great favour by stifling our bid to stay up. In short, all that is required from us is to pick up one more point than Crewe. This is a very achievable target, looking at the fixtures.
We have another big chance of survival, through an unlikely source: Millwall. The old foe haven’t won for a month, when they defeated Yeovil through a strike from former Gills’ goal-machine Bas Savage. ‘Wall will be at Hartlepool on Saturday, for a tough away game. Then they face two very tricky matches, against Leeds and Carlisle, albeit both of them at the New Den. High-flying Carlisle have not lost away from home since the 29th January and have not looked like doing so of late, while Leeds will still be battling to secure a play-off place. The final day of the season will see a battle between two sides very familiar to us, as Millwall travel to Swindon. This will certainly prove a difficult game for them to win. Perhaps if we asked nicely Swindon would help us out. I can’t see it happening myself. Even if the Robins managed a win, we would surely have to hope that we had already overtaken Millwall by the last day of the season, as not many would be willing to rely on us being able to bring anything back from Elland Road, except an earful from Yorkshiremen moaning about the FA and their points deduction.
To sum it all up, we will simply have to wait and see what happens. No-one can accurately predict what is going to happen in this race for survival. It looks certain to run right until the end, as it did a few seasons ago, one painful afternoon at Nottingham Forest. Gills fans everywhere will be hoping that this fate will not be repeated, this time at Elland Road. However, with a team full of confidence on the back of a very useful run of form, we have, from a situation of great peril, given ourselves a great chance of staying up.
Robert ‘Robbo’ Richardson